It has become a familiar pattern, one that is paradoxically disappointing and uplifting for hockey fans in Toronto.
The Toronto Marlies season is still burning strong long after the Maple Leafs have packed their gear and split town to chase world championships, undergo surgeries, or sharpen their short games.
The Leafs’ farm club has kicked off its Calder Cup championship defence in spectacular fashion, sweeping favoured Rochester in the opening round and getting the early jump on Cleveland in Round 2 to run their playoff record to a pristine 4-0. (Game 2 of the Cleveland series goes Friday at Coca-Cola Coliseum.)
Even with studs like Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott making a permanent leap to the NHL this season, the Marlies are proving they have more young, affordable talent coming — an essential ingredient as GM Kyle Dubas stares at a salary budget that won’t bend.
They won’t all make the cut next fall, of course, but here are seven Marlies who have a legitimate shot, ranked in order of how likely it is they’ll crack the Maple Leafs’ next roster.
OH, FOR SURE
After Moore scored a clutch goal, his first ever in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in Game 3 of the Bruins series, Morgan Rielly chatted with his dad post-game about how the mid-season call-up had turned the Leafs’ fourth line into a force.
“He’s just a really good player. People talk about how he’s doing such a good job, but the reality is, he’s worked very hard to get to where he is,” Rielly said.
“At this point, he’s just a really valuable player to our team. We’re lucky to have him. He plays the right way, doesn’t turn it over, goes in and gets it, and grinds our team. He’s valuable to us. Honestly, that’s what you expect of him now because of the type of player he’s become.”
The undrafted Moore believes the competitiveness and confidence he gained from his 32-game stint as a role player in the big leagues gives him an edge as he rejoins the Marlies’ top line to defend the Calder Cup.
During Wednesday’s first game back with the farm club, he only scored twice and threw in an assist.
It’s no longer a matter of if Moore, a Mike Babcock favourite, can be an NHLer. Instead it’ll be a matter of if the left wing can earn a spot in the top nine out of training camp.
When Kyle Dubas awarded left-shot defence prospect Calle Rosen a two-year, $1.5-million extension in December, the Jake Gardiner contingency plan began to take shape.
So ready is Rosen that the 25-year-old Swede was trending toward claiming the AHL’s top defenceman honours (seven goals, 46 points, plus-8 rating in 54 games) until a foot injury slowed him down.
During his brief four-game NHL stint this spring with Gardiner injured, Rosen notched his first NHL goal and looked comfortable among the best — to the point where some critics have questioned Toronto’s decision to use an aching Gardiner in the playoffs over a healthy Rosen.
“I know he’s having a career year, but he was this good last year,” says Leafs defender Justin Holl, who sipped from the 2018 Calder Cup with Rosen.
“He’s a great skater, really good with the puck. Really good in transition and closes out fast. Doesn’t give guys much time and uses his skating ability to his advantage.”
Like Moore, Rosen rejoined the Marlies this week, but he suffered a frightening head-first crash into the end boards during Wednesday’s victory over Cleveland.
Rosen didn’t return to the game, but — good news — X-rays were negative.
How good is Sandin at age 19?
In Wednesday’s playoff victory, coach Sheldon Keefe trusted the kid enough to skate him 28-plus minutes, and his two primary assists bumped him to six points through his first four professional post-season games.
He leads all AHL defencemen and all AHL rookies in playoff scoring. He’s a power-play threat. He has leap-frogged friend, countryman and fellow first-rounder Timothy Liljegren on the organization’s depth chart.
All this after Sandin had his season interrupted and his world junior tournament spoiled by two significant injuries.
“He’s not the biggest or strongest guy, but positionally he puts himself in really good spots, his angles are really good, and he’s competitive,” Keefe told me for a feature on Sandin.
“He gets involved physically. He uses what he has extremely well. That same sense helps him with the puck as well. He preserves space very well so he can skate out of tricky situations very well. He plays calm. There’s a poise and confidence well beyond his years.”
The Leafs like to overripen their prospects, but with spots for cheap labour on the blue line opening up, Sandin is making a remarkable case for himself.
“My confidence is higher, and I think that’s how you build your game on the ice,” Sandin told reporters this week. “I think I do everything a little bit quicker, a little bit harder, a little bit faster.”
The greatest hurdle Bracco faces next fall is that he plays right wing.
It’s the Maple Leafs’ position of greatest depth by a hundred miles. On the flip side, Bracco’s breakout season is all the more reason to suspect a trade of a top-nine winger might be in order.
During Wednesday’s Game 1 win over Cleveland, the 21-year-old playmaker tied a Marlies franchise record by registering four assists in a playoff contest.
The dude is on fire. He has eight points in four playoff games, continuing his franchise-record-breaking 79-point regular season, which was second only to Syracuse’s Carter Verhaeghe league-wide.
Bracco’s own-zone play and skating are still in need improvement, but his vision, creativity and power-play prowess are impossible to ignore.
“It’s been fun to watch him establish himself as a premier player in the league offensively,” Keefe said. “He’s a guy who his entire life has made other people look good, so for him to just be able continue to do that at this level is very good to see.”
Jeremy Bracco, putting on a show for the @TorontoMarlies in overtime. pic.twitter.com/GRldpGps26
— AHL (@TheAHL) April 22, 2019
WORTH A HARD LOOK
When Babcock was asked, in the wake of another Game 7 debacle, how the Maple Leafs can improve for 2019-20, his first sentence was this: “I think we’ve got a couple of guys coming that will help us up front, for sure, and make us bigger up front.”
The coach didn’t name names, but our first thought was Engvall, a seventh-round gamble we wrote about this time last year.
At six-foot-five and 214 pounds, the edgy, skilled Swede with the French name has adapted well to the small ice, putting up 23 goals and 40 points in 79 AHL games, using his body and improving on the defensive side of the puck. It helps that he’s versatile — a left wing that has shown well in middle ice.
Borgman moved from Sweden to Toronto two years ago because he believed he could become a Maple Leaf, not a Marlie. So once a 48-game stint with the big club in 2017-18 failed to lead to a call-up in 2018-19, there were understandable murmurs that the 23-year-old had been considering a return to Europe to pursue his pro dream closer to home.
In March, Dubas stepped up and re-signed the bruising left shot to a one-year, $700,000 extension for 2019-20, keeping Borgman’s NHL hopes alive.
Although set back by a late-season concussion, Borgman brings a physical, stay-at-home element lacking in the organization’s D corps and has played some inspired shifts since recovering.
“It feels really good,” the big man told reporters this week. “It’s much more fun to be here playing than sitting on the side injured.”
Liljegren, 20, tells us he wants to be up with the Maple Leafs “as soon as possible,” and as a smooth-skating right shot, he fits the big club’s needs.
But one more year of development to build his offensive confidence and defensive positioning couldn’t hurt.
An injury made for a rocky ride this winter, but Liljegren has impressed the staff with his eagerness to learn, leading to increased responsibility.
“His consistency, defensively especially, he’s taken great strides there,” notes Keefe, who would like Liljegren to mature into an O-zone threat as well.
“I don’t think there’s any ceiling on him yet,” says Travis Dermott. “He’s got the best mentality, really, for a kid his age and the position he’s in. He was always asking me questions last year, which is great to see — especially as a guy who’s hopeful to be my D partner or at least to be in the D corps here soon.”
ON THE RADAR
• Dmytro Timashov, 22, is point-per-game playoff performer whose third year as a Marlie has easily been his best. It helps that he plays left wing.
• The undrafted Mason Marchment, 23, keeps improving with each passing season. A classic late-bloomer, Marchment’s size (six-foot-four, 200 pounds) and left shot put him in the conversation.
• With Nazem Kadri’s future as a Maple Leaf less than guaranteed and Frederik Gauthier’s scoring ability limited, note that Adam Brooks, 22, is the most offensively dangerous pure centre (40 points in 61 games) in the system.
• Egor Korshkov, 22, just joined the club this week, but the six-foot-four Russian power forward brings over five seasons of KHL experience battling grown men.
• Like Sandin, defenceman Mac Hollowell, 20, is another smallish, puck-moving Soo Greyhounds grad — but he curves his stick the right way.