With the final month of their regular season being devoted to resting players and cycling in prospects for trial-runs, the Toronto Marlies are more than ready to shift their focus to the postseason.
“Its been a challenging month,” said Keefe after Sunday’s 4-3 defeat over Belleville. “There’s been very few nights where haven’t dressed what I call our top lineup, or our best lineup. We’ve been resting people. We’ve been playing three-and-threes. All those types of things. We just feel our team’s in a good place. Most importantly, I think we’re just ready to play the playoff games.”
With the playoffs on the horizon, Keefe can switch off auto-pilot and put the pedal to the metal.
With the focus solely on winning, Keefe can have some fun with the lineups he puts forth as he has the ingredients to cook up a stellar playoff lineup.
Projected Marlies playoff roster.
Moore – Aaltonen – Grundstrom
Timashov – Mueller – Smith
Engvall – Gauthier – Greening
Marchment – Brooks – Bracco
Clune – Baun
Rosen – Holl
Marincin – Liljegren
Borgman – Loverde
Seriously, can it get much better than that?
In the AHL, a league where star-players are oftentimes summoned for the NHL playoffs, it probably ain’t getting much better than what the Marlies have. Also, it should be noted that the Marlies have had to bid adieu to star-players themselves, with Kasperi Kapanen and for the time being, Andreas Johnsson, playing with the Leafs.
But despite losing two key-cogs in Johnsson and Kapanen, the Marlies maintained their first-place spot in the standings throughout the year, and they’ve got the MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy to prove it. Yet, winning the AHL’s equivalent to the President’s Trophy isn’t the type of hardware that these Marlies look to be bragging about at the end of the season.
“I certainly think that if you talk to anyone around our team, our goal is to win the Calder Cup,” said veteran forward Rich Clune. “The longer you play in the season, the better you get. Those games in the playoffs are extremely important for the younger guys to experience.”
But what makes this years Marlies’ team different than the juggernaut squads they’ve boasted in years past?
The exception with this season, compared to the last few, is that the Marlies boast a scary triple threat like none other.
There’s really no debate about it–the Marlies have the league’s best goaltending. Garret Sparks had a fantastic 2017-2018 campaign (31-9-1 record, 1.79 GAA, .936 SV%, 6 SO) and was named the AHL’s best goaltender. Sparks rotates games with Calvin Pickard, who’s been a solid compliment to Sparks’ (21-9-1 record, 2.31 GAA, .918 SV%). The duo was awarded the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, given out to the goaltending tandem with the best GAA in the league.
Their backend can not only defend well, but they’re a mobile unit who can get involved in the offensive zone, too. They’re three pairings deep and you could even argue that players like Justin Holl and Andreas Borgman could even give the Leafs bottom pairing a little boost.
The Marlies forwards can attack in many different ways. They can score, create and out-work you in the offensive zone. Veteran forwards Ben Smith and Chris Mueller have consistently been elite AHL players, all year long.
Plus, the Marlies also have a surplus of depth.
Scott Pillern, the Leafs Director of Player Development, is running his annual “mini-camp,” of sorts, with the nine players brought along for the Calder Cup.
Marlies rookie roster
These young black aces aren’t just here to be healthy scratches and sit in the press box. They’re hear to hone in their skills and to show the Marlies, and the Leafs development staff, what they’re made of. It’s sort of like a team, within a team.
“Those guys are in and out of the building before our players arrive,” explained Keefe. “They’re doing their thing. [Pellerin’s] obviously doing a tremendous job with those guys because they’re able to step in and play in a game like [April 14th against Laval] and allow us to still be competitive. I think it’s a great program that we have in place there. Obviously, those guys will stay ready if and when we may need them. We’re focused on our group here. We know who our group is.”
But still, there’s a value to having so many players waiting in the wings, aside from their own skill development. Injuries happen, and having so many skaters at your disposal, is always a bonus.
They’ve got the top-end talent and depth to make a Calder Cup run, and this year just may be able to get over the hump.
Carl Grundstrom could be playoff x-factor
Newcomer Carl Grundstrom could add some much-needed star power to the Marlies top-six.
With Nikita Soshnikov, Kapanen and Johnsson out of the fold, the Marlies hope the playmaking ability of their 2016 2nd round pick can fill the void left by those mid-season departures.
“Being a year older, we think he could make more of an impact here now,” said Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe after Saturday’s 6-4 defeat over Laval. “His arrival is nice for us this time of the year and he’s an important player in the organization and we’re happy to have him.
“He’s a guy that just needs some time and some experience. His skillset is there. He’s a competitor. He’s really strong on the puck.”
Grundstrom played overseas in the SHL last year, recording 24 points in 35 games of action. And while Keefe says he’d seen brief clips of him throughout the year, he hadn’t seen a boatload of film on him, as he is, understandably, more focused on the players on his roster.
However, Marlies defenceman Jesper Lindgren, a childhood friend of Grundstrom’s, can give you the lowdown.
“He always plays good—night-in and night-out.” said Marlies defenceman Jesper Lindgren, his childhood pal from Sweden. “He’s tough to play against. He can score. He’s an all-around player and very good.”
Grundstrom, who has recorded three points in two games with the Marlies, is a nifty creator who hasn’t look out of place on the Marlies top-line alongside Trevor Moore and Miro Aaltonen.
Aaltonen elevating his game
Since Aaltonen started centring Moore and Grundstrom this past weekend, he’s started to look like his old self again.
“With the play of Grundstrom and [Moore], I thought it really brought [Aaltonen] to life today,” Keefe said Saturday. “Frankly, I think that’s a Miro we haven’t seen since [Johnsson] left here.”
Johnsson and Aaltonen played the vast-majority of the season alongside each other. But since Aaltonen’s running-mate was recalled by the Leafs on March 13th, the Finish centre has seen a slight dip in his offensive production (0.70 p/pg with Johnsson, 0.53 p/pg without).
Seeing Aaltonen develop chemistry with Moore and Grundstrom is promising, and the trio made a strong case to stay in-tact for the playoffs. Playing with those two will likely result in his points per game spiking, but Aaltonen doesn’t just bring an offensive touch to the table.
He’s a 200-foot player, in the purest sense, and if it weren’t for a concussion during training camp, he very well could have been the Leafs fourth line centre this year.
“Of course you want to play against top guys, if my job is to shutdown that’s fine,” said Aaltonen. “I want to score, everybody wants to score.”