The Toronto Marlies lost a close 3-2 contest against the Texas Stars on Sunday. After falling behind 3-1, Toronto cut the lead in half and made a fierce push late in the game for the tie. However, it just wasn’t enough, and that has been an all too familiar theme for the Marlies in recent weeks.
With the NHL lockout now deep in everyone’s rear-view mirror, things in the hockey world are slowly returning to normal. Unfortunately for American Hockey League teams like the Marlies, normal means losing plenty of players to their NHL affiliate clubs. Of course they should all be used to this by now as after all, it’s their primary job to develop and supply players in the first place. However, making major roster adjustments on the fly is never easy.
Before the Toronto Maple Leafs resumed play on January 19th the Marlies were one of the top AHL teams and in a battle for first place in the league. Since then they have gone 2-5 and are now fighting for their playoff lives sitting in seventh spot in the Western Conference. It’s no surprise that the team went into such a freefall considering how their roster has been ravaged. The Marlies have lost Ben Scrivens, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Nazem Kadri, and Matt Frattin to the Leafs since the NHL kicked off the campaign. Luckily for the Marlies they were given back Ryan Hamilton and Jake Gardiner recently, and picked up Tim Connolly when he failed to crack the big club.
For every player that leaves the team, it opens up a roster spot for another to take advantage of an opportunity to prove himself. Guys like Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton, who were once just looked at for supplementary scoring, now need to step up their game and become more of a focal point for the squad.
Where Scrivens was once the clear number one between the pipes, he now gives way to a relatively unproven Jussi Rynnas to carry the load on his shoulders. Although Rynnas has been good with three shutouts so far this year, it will be interesting to see how he handles the added pressure of being relied upon heavily down the stretch. Rynnas has never played more than 30 games in a season with the Marlies and with Mark Owuya the only other option at the moment, he is most likely going to have to exceed that greatly if they hope to make the playoffs.
A silver lining in all this could be the chance to give some younger players opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have received. Earlier on in the 2012-13 campaign the issue for the Marlies was having too much talent because of the lockout. Someone like Spencer Abbott was struggling to find a spot in the line-up with all the firepower the team had at their disposal. Now Abbott is taking advantage of increased minutes and has 20 points with a plus-10 rating in 29 games.
As disappointing as it is for the Marlies to be plummeting in the standings, head coach Dallas Eakins and his staff should take some pride in knowing they are a major reason for the Leafs’ early season success. Their efforts with the aforementioned players are a big reason they are all holding their own at the NHL level. Even someone like Leo Komarov, who only played 14 games earlier this year with the Marlies before going back to Russia, looks better prepared for the North American game because of his time with Eakins.
So the Marlies will continue to push on, like they always do. Players will come and go. Such is life for an AHL team. The main goal is to develop talent to play at the NHL level, even though you know when that happens you are probably going to lose them to bigger and better things. Eakins is one of the best in that regard as he always seems to get the most out of what he has been given. The Leafs are fortunate to have someone of his abilities running their farm team. However, it probably won’t be long before Eakins himself follows many of the players he has coached, and is given an opportunity to ply his craft somewhere at the NHL level.