Marlies have made playing spring hockey a habit
Travis Dermott of the Toronto Marlies slides through Nick Paul and Jason Akeson of the Binghamton Senators during an AHL game at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on March 24, 2017. (Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia)
TORONTO — To many Maple Leafs, the joys of playoff hockey are a new experience. But for the former Marlies in their group, it would be a shock to their body clocks if they weren’t playing now.
Toronto’s farm team enters post-season play for the sixth straight spring, beginning Thursday in Albany. All but one of those trips began in the driver’s seat with the choice of starting or finishing with three home dates in a best of five opening round. As higher seed, nearly coming first in their division after a strong finishing kick, they’ve chosen to play Thursday and Saturday in the Devils’ den and ideally be in position to win at the friendly confines of Ricoh Coliseum.
“Hockey doesn’t end in April, it ends in June,” said Marlies’ coach Sheldon Keefe as he prepares for his second playoff. “That’s what we want for all players in the organization — get in the habit of extending your season beyond April. The more you have that attitude, the healthier it is, the higher the level of competitiveness.”
Four different coaches — Dallas Eakins, Gord Dineen, Steve Spott and now Keefe — have been in charge during the streak, with Keefe’s setting a franchise record with 54 wins and going three rounds in 2016.
Thirteen Leafs utilized this season were on last year’s Marlies, led by William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Frederick Gauthier and goalies Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks.
Keefe had to go to bed early after the last regular-season game in St. John’s on Saturday and thus missed the latest Marlies callup hero, Kasperi Kapanen, with two goals including the overtime winner over Washington in Game 2.
“I’m happy for Kapanen and the others, but it’s the whole organization that has contributed,” Keefe said. “We’ve all watched their success, but what goes for anyone who has worn the Marlie uniform is that they’ve taken the opportunity and run with it.”
Now a new group of Marlies gets its chance to impress the brass. When the Albany series opens, much attention will be on the defence, as it’s an area of concern for the Leafs next year with free agent Roman Polak possibly not returning and questions whether Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko constitute the right depth.
Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, second and third-round picks, respectively, in 2015, saw a little playoff time with the Marlies last year as graduating juniors and have been in the top two pairings much of this year.
“Dermott has been terrific all season,” Keefe said of Connor McDavid’s childhood friend and one-time Erie Otters teammate. “We gave him a lot of responsibility and he’ll move into different situations throughout this coming series. Andrew took positive steps in even-strength situations.”
Nielsen, a one-time water boy for Dion Phaneuf’s junior team, played 74 games and had 39 points, both highs for the Marlies defence.
Kapanen was a former 2014 first-round pick of the Penguins who arrived in the Phil Kessel deal, but the Marlies have another high pick from 2013 they hope will be a late-blooming NHLer. Kerby Rychel, taken by Columbus just before Detroit chose Anthony Mantha and the Leafs grabbed Gauthier, was looking to set a new course on a new team and came through to score 52 points.
“Rychel really found a way,” said a pleased Keefe of the 6-foot-1 winger. “He’s been very strong the past few months. He’s a guy who has shown he can play in big moments. I remembered how he came through for Guelph (32 points in the 2014 OHL playoffs) and was part of a Calder Cup team for Lake Erie last season.
“That said, he can take his game to another level. He has more to give and he has increased confidence.”
The Marlies should be able to count on strong goaltending again, led by Garret Sparks, who has more NHL games than Antoine Bibeau under his belt, but has made fewer AHL playoff starts.
“Sparks is in a good place, ready to be the No. 1 guy at this time of year,” Keefe said.
The Marlies are also scattered with veterans, some picked up in Leafs deals as salary dumps so Toronto could land draft picks and other high-profile players. They include forwards Colin Greening, Seth Griffith and Sergey Kalinin and defenceman Steve Oleksy. Brooks Laich is out following elbow surgery and Milan Michalek was not placed on the playoff roster.
The Leafs also have late-blooming draft pick Andreas Johnsson, their only 20-goal scorer after Byron Froese was traded. Johnsson was kayoed by Dan Kelly in last year’s Albany series in just his second North American start, for which Kelly was suspended 10 games. Kelly is now with San Jose’s farm team.
“Albany has a different group from last year and four or five new faces that showed up when New Jersey’s season ended,” Keefe noted. “They’re much better on paper now. But I feel good about our playoffs. We have a good mix who’ve had more than enough time to get comfortable. I think we’ve played our best hockey in the last month or so. In terms of the excitement of the challenge, it’s the same for us again.”
MARLIES PLAYOFF ROSTER
- Andreas Johnsson
- Cal O’Reilly
- Seth Griffith
- Mark Sislo
- Sergei Kalinin
- Dmytro Timashov
- Brendan Leipsic
- Frederick Gauthier
- Trevor Moore
- Kerby Rychel
- Brett Findlay
- Colin Greening
- Rich Clune
- Pierre Engvall
- Tony Cameranesi
- Travis Dermott
- Steve Oleksy
- Rinat Valiev
- Andrew Campbell
- Andrew Nielsen
- Justin Holl
- Jesper Lindgren
- William Wrenn
- Garret Sparks
- Antoine Bibeau
- Kasimir Kaskisuo
FIRST-ROUND SCHEDULE VS. ALBANY
Best-of-five Eastern Conference quarterfinal
Game 1 — Thursday, 7 p.m., Toronto at Albany
Game 2 — Saturday, 5 p.m., Toronto at Albany
Game 3 — Wednesday, 7 p.m., Albany at Toronto
Game 4* — Fri. April 28, 7 p.m., Albany at Toronto
Game 5* — Sat. April 29, 7 p.m., Albany at Toronto
*If necessary. All games on LeafsTV