Hoefenmayer coming along down Leafs’ development path

Photo: Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Toronto Marlies have had more than their fair share of success in taking raw talent, honing it, and then sending it off to the National Hockey League.

Maybe defenseman Noel Hoefenmayer can join that list.

Be it up Lake Shore Boulevard with the Toronto Maple Leafs or elsewhere, the Marlies have been a centerpiece in the organization’s three-tier plan for developing NHL players. Kyle Dubas now guides the Leafs as their general manager, but when he came to Toronto in 2014 as a then-28-year-old assistant GM, he went to work on overhauling the organization’s development philosophy. A key part of the Dubas portfolio then centered around his work as general manager of the Marlies.

The Leafs invest heavily in development staff and provide prospects with abundant resources on and off the ice, whether it is a Leafs star, a Marlies prospect, or an undrafted free agent playing with their ECHL affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland. And perhaps most importantly, they make it an organizational priority to integrate all three levels — NHL, AHL, and ECHL — and give players ample individualized attention, no matter their place on the depth chart. Even beyond the Marlies coaching staff, the Leafs feature 11 people on their player development staff alone; another seven people make up the Toronto player development and hockey research department.

It is the rising-tide-raises-all-ships theory applied to hockey. While every player may not have an NHL future, they can contribute to the organization in some way. Better top-to-bottom depth means better development for all prospects, whether it is a can’t-miss first-round pick or an organizational depth forward.

Some of that talent has eventually made its way to a role with the Leafs. Other players have become trade currency or at least provided the Leafs enough roster and/or salary-cap flexibility to make a different move.

Trevor Moore came to the club as an undrafted forward for the 2016-17 campaign. Three AHL seasons and a Calder Cup later, he is a regular with the Los Angeles Kings who signed a five-year, $21-million contract last month. When Mason Marchment showed up with the Marlies late in the 2015-16 season, the promise was there, yes, but it was going to take time. It took four full seasons in the system, but he is now an NHL regular with Dallas. Connor Brown, a 2012 sixth-round pick, has 448 NHL games to his name following his AHL development period in Toronto. Calle Rosen, Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl — on and on that list goes.

The Toronto organization’s success through the years attracts attention from unsigned talent from the Canadian Hockey League, NCAA and European ranks. It comes with a clear sales pitch: come to a well-resourced organization and maximize your NHL potential.

“It’s a bunch of little things and big things that combine to make everything successful,” Hoefenmayer said following practice Tuesday. “Anything that we need to be supplied with or help doing, we’re given.

“Every day when you come in as a player, if you have a growth mindset, it’s easy to grow and develop in this organization.”

Hoefenmayer saw that sales pitch’s logic when he signed a two-year AHL deal with the Marlies in April 2020. He had something to offer from his side as well: Hoefenmayer had spent five seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, one of junior hockey’s top programs. He was named the entire Canadian Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Year in 2019-20 after putting up 82 points and a plus-52 rating in 58 games.

The Toronto native was taken in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes, but he never signed with the club. A chance to join his hometown organization and begin his career with the Leafs? It was a clear-cut choice.

But that was only step one. Hoefenmayer still had to buy into the Toronto development model. He split the 2020-21 season between the Marlies and ECHL Wichita, then spent most of last season in Newfoundland, helping the Growlers reach the ECHL conference finals. But he signed another one-year AHL deal last summer, and the faith put in by both sides is beginning to pay off. Armed with an excellent shot, Hoefenmayer is tied for the AHL lead among defensemen with 10 goals and is fourth with 27 points through 33 games, and will join Marlies captain Logan Shaw, goaltender Joseph Woll and head coach Greg Moore at the 2023 All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank next month in Laval.

The All-Star invitation is another rung on Hoefenmayer’s climb up the organization.

“With the system that the Leafs have,” Hoefenmayer said, “the culture that was with the Growlers [had carried over] a lot this year. Everyone’s treated equally, and that gives you a lot of room to grow as a person and a player.”

The slow-and-steady path, plus another key summer of training, have put Hoefenmayer in a good place. As the Marlies reach the halfway point of their season — Game 36 — tonight in Belleville, they hold a six-point lead atop the North Division and look very much like a Calder Cup contender. The second half will bring the long stretch drive, followed by what could be a two-month churn through the postseason. It all adds up to more chances to grow for someone like Hoefenmayer and his fellow Marlies prospects.

He says his third pro season has been about belief in himself.

“Building that confidence throughout the season will be big for me,” he said. “As a team together, we’re all really confident and really happy with what we’ve done so far, but we know that we still have some work to do.

“Everyone pushes each other every day for that ultimate goal of the Calder Cup.”