Though it’s not quite the same as playing for the Stanley Cup, there’s a case to be made for the value of having your prospects play in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs. They (obviously) get to play more games, feel the pressure of must-win situations, and develop a further bond with teammates who could eventually join them in the league above.
However, some are skeptical of the process. The additional minutes, after all, are only beneficial if these players didn’t lose that playing time in the regular season to make way for mercenary veterans. To get the most out of a playoff run, the players that you’re looking to develop need to be the ones who got you there. In the case of the Toronto Marlies, who will head to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, the kids have done just that.
Take Connor Brown, for instance. The 2012 sixth round pick put himself on the map last season with the Erie Otters, as he lead the Ontario Hockey League in scoring with 45 goals and 83 assists in just 68 games. Many had questions as to how that would transition to the professional game, and whether playing with Connor McDavid, Dane Fox, Andre Burakovsky, Brendan Gaunce, and Dylan Strome (man, the Otters were good) as a Draft+2 inflated his stock a bit.
Now, Brown doesn’t lead the AHL in scoring. But he is currently tied for twelfth, and leads the rookie scoring lead with sixty points, and is sixth in rookie goals with 20. He’s the first rookie in the Marlies ten-year history to hit the fifty point plateau, and has managed to add an extra ten as a bonus milestone. Brown has shown exceptional discipline, picking up just eight penalty minutes, and plays in all situations.
With that said, the playmaking winger needed support if he was going to convert these points into wins. After all, he had been with the team since Game 1, and after Game 19, the team was in 30th place. Enter William Nylander and Brendan Leipsic.
Nylander’s start to his North American pro career was a sluggish one, as he adjusted to the nuances of the North American game. In his first six games, he was able to pick up just a single goal and assist, and while the Marlies won the game where he scored his first, they lost the other five. Since then, however, both he and the team have been electrifying; the 2014 first round pick has picked up 11 goals and added 16 assists.
Despite being just eighteen years old (North American prospects can’t enter the AHL until their Age 20 season) and the league’s second youngest participant in at least thirty games, Nylander’s production has been exceptional. Using the same games played requirement, Nylander leads all rookies in points per game with 0.83, barely edging out… Connor Brown.
Also in the top five is Brendan Leipsic. Acquired from the Nashville Predators in the trade that sent away Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, the twenty year old has been compared to the likes of Brendan Gallagher and Brad Marchand. In 71 games with the Marlies and the Milwaukee Admirals, Leipsic’s 14 goals and 38 assists give him a higher point per game (0.73) than Gallagher (0.56) and a strong end to the weekend could leapfrog him over Marchand (0.75).
Leipsic has had his scoring come and go since joining the team. He scored six points in his first six games, fizzled out for a bit, and has now roared back onto the scene to finish the year. In his last six games, of which the Marlies have won five consecutive, he’s scored five goals and added just as many assists, including a Hat Trick against the Adirondack Flames on April 7th.
Of course, we’re just barely scratching the surface. Brown, Nylander, and Leipsic are no doubt the standout rookies on this team, but they aren’t the only ones kicking around. Antoine Bibeau has put up a respectable 0.913 save percentage and four shutouts over 30 games. Ryan Rupert, who was picked a spot after Brown in the 2012 draft, has put up a solid 27 points in 55 games playing the role of two-way forward. Viktor Loov, initially expected to be an imposing physical presence on the point, has shown unexpected skating ability and an eagerness to drop into the rush, leading to a pleasantly surprising 21 point year.
Add a strong sophomore cast and a couple of veterans to round out the room, and it’s not hard to see why this team has pushed from last to clinched over the past few months. The youngest team in the league has learned and developed in real time, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see many, many NHL games come out of this core group in the next couple of years.
All photos courtesy of camera-toting wizard Christian Bonin of TSGPhoto.com