Leafs continue to look to Marlies for development

by John Bartlett || AHL On The Beat Archive

In what is commonly referred to as the “new world” in the NHL, a large focus must be put on developing future talent from within the organization. Your AHL affiliate must be the support system for the big club.

Despite the fact the economic landscape of the game changed, the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken advantage of the Marlies to help build their roster. Over the last season and a half, 15 players have worn both the Maple Leafs and Marlies logo, and eight of them made their NHL debuts.

While they might not be top-line players, they have become solid parts of the puzzle that form the core of the Leafs roster. The development goes beyond the players with the promotion of two coaches and support staff. Here’s a look at the continuing graduation of the Marlies:

Jean-Sebastien Aubin suffered an injury in Leafs training camp in 2005-06 and started the year with the Marlies. Throughout the season, Aubin continued to improve his game. Familiar with the AHL after his time with Wilkes-Barre, in 46 games for the Marlies, he compiled a record of 19-18-2 with a 3.04 GAA and two shutouts. Aubin, though, saved his best for last, when he got the call-up and made his Leafs debut on Mar. 26, 2006. He kicked off an 11-game win streak as he went unbeaten in regulation for nearly a month, a streak that carried into the start of this season, where he locked up the number two job behind Andrew Raycroft.

battaglia_200.jpgThe Marlies provided the rebirth of Bates Battaglia in many ways. He played in all but one game for the Marlies last season, and collected 67 points while working on the top line. While not getting a call-up last year, Battaglia arrived in Leafs camp ready for the challenge and hasn’t looked back while providing some timely offence for the Leafs this year, while also being paired with former Marlies linemate John Pohl on occasion.

The Leafs’ third pick in the 2001 draft took a big leap in his development last season with the Marlies. Brendan Bell played in 70 games for the Marlies earning 43 points and was second in scoring among defensemen on the team. He earned his NHL debut on Mar. 21, 2006, against Montreal. The Ottawa native spent the off-season training in Toronto and came to camp prepared. He overcame an ankle injury in the pre-season to make the Leafs and continues to make the best out of opportunities.

In 14 games with the Marlies last season, Carlo Colaiacovo recorded 11 points and continued to show the strengths of his game. He is a scoring threat from the point and isn’t afraid to play the physical game. After missing the final 34 games last season, he suffered another setback in training camp this year. Once he returned for the Marlies, in his second game he blocked a shot and suffered a broken finger that kept him out again. Despite not playing the third period of that game, he was still named the first star.

Boyd Devereaux is a Stanley Cup champion and has been out to prove he deserves to be back in the NHL. After a snake-bitten start to his 2006-07 season with the Marlies, he snapped out of his scoring slump by scoring a hat trick for his first three goals of the year. His outstanding defensive play and penalty kill work makes it tough to send him back down.

Jay Harrison took a giant leap in his career last season with the Marlies that earned him his NHL debut on Jan. 28, 2006, against Montreal. He spent eight games with the Leafs and while collecting one assist, was a plus-5 and showed great composure. He collected 29 points in 57 games with the Marlies, and showed that he is close to a full-time NHL job.

Staffan Kronwall – The big blue liner has bounced back and forth from the Leafs and Marlies and continues to fight off the injury bug. His size and poise with the puck shows great promise. Kronwall had 11 points in 16 games with the Marlies last season and saw 34 games with the Leafs. While he is still in search of his first NHL goal, it’s the work he puts in that is telling of what he brings to the table.

newbury_200.jpgKris Newbury has developed his game at the pro level to improve on his rough and tough style. He’s the kind of player that will grind down the opposition, get under their skin, and then bury a goal. He showed up to camp faster and in better shape then ever. His call-up was well deserved after a 60-point season last year.

A true western boy, Ben Ondrus brings grit to the lineup and when called upon isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. His quiet demeanor off the ice is not telling of the hard nosed style he brings on the ice. Ondrus is not afraid of the corners or sticking up for his teammates. He makes it a tough night for his opponents every game.

While last year’s leading scorer for the Marlies might never be a superstar in the NHL, he’s developing into one of those players that you just can’t live without. John Pohl is one of the hardest workers in the game of hockey, and a true gentleman off the ice, making him a super ambassador for the Toronto organization. The AHL All-Star in 2006 has scored clutch goals many times and is continuing his success at the NHL level. He is consistent with his effort and never takes a shift off.

Acquired in a deal with the Devils last year, Alex Suglobov took some time with the Marlies to catch on to a new system. He is full of scoring talent and once he masters his play at both ends of the ice, could be a big contributor to the Leafs.

Maybe the biggest surprise out of the Marlies last year was the emergence of Ian White. The blueliner is very quick at moving the puck. After sitting out some games early last year with the Marlies, White bared down and played his way onto Team Canada at the Spengler Cup and then into the Leafs lineup. From the onset of training camp this year, White found himself beside Hal Gill and continued to thrive, showing that he had turned a big corner in his career with the Marlies and was ready for the next level.

Being the second leading scorer in the AHL last year doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the NHL, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Erik Westrum’s 98-point season made him an instant offensive threat for the Marlies, replacing Pohl as the top center. Westrum stepped into the Leafs lineup when injuries hit and will no doubt see more chances to strut his stuff in the NHL

williams_200.jpgNot every player can say they scored a goal in their first NHL game. Jeremy Williams can. He was called up in the final game of the season last year and beat Sebastien Caron on a rocket of a shot from the left wing. Williams continues to develop his goal-scoring prowess, but was be felled by injury early this season with the Marlies and has missed over two months. Williams has great potential and will be a big boost to the Marlies offense when he returns.

There is no shortage of big, young blueliners in the Leafs organization. Andy Wozniewski is another great example. He can play a physical game and can clear out the front of the goal or work the boards in his own zone. The shoulder injury that took him out of the Leafs lineup this year has only put his NHL time on hold. He played in 31 games for the Marlies last year after missing some games after taking a puck in the face.

As for the staff side of things, one of the great signings for the Marlies last year was Paul Maurice. He brought instant credibility to a new team in Toronto, and worked the players hard from the get-go. He also was given credit by many of his players for turning their game around. It’s no surprise that the Marlies were one of the top 10 teams in the AHL in the second half of last season. More importantly, all of the Marlies call-ups performed well at the NHL level, showing they were properly prepared.

Credit is also due to his assistants Joe Paterson and Dallas Eakins. Eakins moved up as the eye in the sky and is a regular on video work, a trick he picked up from Roger Neilson. And Paterson continues to help mold the younger players with the Marlies working alongside another veteran pro head coach in Greg Gilbert and assistant Jim Hughes.

Even support staff made the jump as equipment manager Tom Blatchford moved up with the Leafs and athletic therapist Nick Addey-Jibb made the NHL jump to Montreal.

With a couple of rising stars still to come, the Marlies continue to be the breeding ground for future Leafs. While players like Justin Pogge and Jiri Tlusty get all the attention, there are other pieces of the puzzle that could still make a name for themselves down the road. Players like Brett Engelhardt, John Mitchell, Jaime Sifers, Robbie Earl and Colin Murphy just to name a few, have the chance to develop in Toronto with the Marlies and hope for a graduation to the Leafs.