Marlies leaning on strength in numbers to win Calder Cup

The Toronto Marlies celebrate. (Christian Bonin/Toronto Marlies)

Canada’s last professional winter sports team standing is accustomed to operating in the shadows of the centre of the hockey universe.

Yet, with the Maple Leafs and Raptors bowing out of once-hopeful postseasons in agonizing fashion and the Blue Jays floundering below .500, the Toronto Marlies deserve their moment in the sun as they seek that elusive first Calder Cup.

In swiping the first two games of the AHL’s Eastern Conference final from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms over the weekend, the Baby Leafs (and the baby of new Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who can still be seen patrolling Ricoh Coliseum with a coffee in one hand and a smartphone in the other) have now won seven straight playoff games and are a perfect 7-0 at home this postseason.

Hey, Vancouver, hop aboard the bandwagon for Canada’s team!

To dub any farm club (or its fans) as “long-suffering” is a tad rich. Building a culture of winning is important, sure, but it’s secondary to developing NHL graduates like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.

Despite claiming two regular-season titles in the past three years and five divisional crowns in the past seven, the junior Leafs have never gone all the way — a drought that dates back four relocations ago, to the New Brunswick Hawks of the 1970s.

The nearest miss came in 2012, when coach Jon Cooper’s Norfolk Admirals swept Dallas Eakins’ Marlies in the Calder final, ousting them quicker than you can say “Mike Zigomanis.”

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The longest-serving Marlie and the AHL’s most outstanding goaltender, Garret Sparks, is in his fifth tour with one of the most respected hockey teams that still does the bulk of its travelling by bus.

“There’s a team that had a lot of success and got to the conference finals my first full year with the Marlies. To even say that team was reminiscent of this team isn’t fair because I’m the only remaining member,” says Sparks, who set six franchise goaltending records this season.

“We’ve had a huge transition period, we’ve put up great numbers in this league the last three years, we’ve gone far in the playoffs, and we’ve run into good teams and we’ve learned a lot of lessons from that, and we’re trying to continue the ride we’ve created this season. Play some hard hockey down the stretch and just enjoy it.”

Sparks stood tall in the weekend set, which saw game-winners from fourth-line rookie Adam Brooks and top-line centre Miro Aaltonen.

The depth of contributions is as remarkable as the offensive explosion. Toronto tops all with 40 playoff goals. Nine different Marlies have registered at least seven points through 11 playoff contests. That group doesn’t include defencemen Andreas Borgman, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, and Justin Holl, all of whom made appearances with the Maple Leafs at various points in the past eight months.

“These guys make it easy,” says Dermott. He and Leafs winger Andreas Johnsson have been able to flush the disappointment of Game 7 in Boston with a winning streak. “It’s good playing with this team we have, the players we have. We feel like we’re bringing it every day.”

Highly touted 21-year-old prospect Jeremy Bracco, a 2017 Memorial Cup winner who put up 32 points in 50 games as a first-year pro, is a healthy scratch. That’s how deep.

We don’t speak enough about Marlies GM Dubas’s work in building a perennial AHL contender leading to his Maple Leafs GM promotion, and now Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe is gaining buzz as a potential NHL bench boss. (“It’s inevitable,” Sparks tells us.)

So flush is the blue line, Toronto let T.J. Brennan walk to Lehigh Valley in 2016, despite his setting the AHL record for points by a D-man.

“We know he’s one of the most elite defencemen in this league in history,” Sparks says. “You respect him; you don’t fear him.”

The talent level and consistency of these Marlies thrusts them on a championship collision course with Texas (up 3-0 in the Western final). With home ice on lock, there’s a swelling sense these Marlies not only can but should go all the way.

“This team is different,” Sparks explains. “We may not have the big names up front that we had in the past, but we’ve got a core of guys who are dedicated to doing the right things, doing it every day. We’ve had a lot of success this year with our system and playing the way we know we should play. If we just stick to our game plan, we should be OK.”

The Eastern final shifts to Pennsylvania for games 3, 4 and 5, starting Wednesday, meaning the sides will clash five times in eight days.

“You really have to be locked in, motivated and excited,” captain Ben Smith says of the compact schedule. “When it comes to this time of year, it’s who shows up, who’s competitive, who plays to their game plan and finds a way to win.”

To that end, Keefe points to Round 2, Game 3 in Syracuse, a 7-1 romp, as the defining 60 minutes of this Marlies run.

“Just the way that we came out on the road and took a stranglehold in the series and won a game on the road when we hadn’t done that in the first round in a very difficult place to play against a very good team,” Keefe says.

“We just like the process that we went through in that game so if we could replicate that, that will certainly help our cause.”

No one is more familiar with the farm prospects than Dubas, and with the 32-year-old now running the show, the belief is that Marlies at all positions will vie for starting jobs on Bay Street this fall, perhaps as Calder champions.

In net, both Sparks and Calvin Pickard (“Sparky and Picks—we’ve been lucky to have two of the best goalies in the league all year long,” Smith boasts) are good enough for a major-league look somewhere.

More grooming won’t hurt AHL rookie Timothy Liljegren, but Dermott, Holl, Borgman and Rosen could all battle for spots that may be vacated by free agents Roman Polak and Connor Carrick.

Up front, Johnsson looks like a shoe-in, while Aaltonen, Carl Grundstrom, and perhaps Pierre Engvall will all make their case to fill the roles left by UFAs James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Tomas Plekanec and Dominic Moore with cap-friendly youth and ambition.

For now, however, the Marlies are simply drinking in the opportunity to play a cold sport this late into springtime.

“Good weather, the excitement of the crowd, and the high stakes—that’s why we’re all here. That’s what we train for in the summer, to have a chance to play this late in the season and a chance to lift a trophy,” says Smith, 29 and striving for his own NHL return.

“To put that on the resume collectively and as individuals, that’s a huge opportunity for us to advance our careers and build some excitement around this organization.”

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