The Toronto Maple Leafs may be off to a red-hot start, but that same success has unfortunately failed to translate at the level below.
The Toronto Marlies have opened their season to date with a 1-4 record. According to my data, that’s not good. Bad, even.
Such initial sputtering is a relatively surprising development, especially considering how the Marlies brought in some notable additions over the summer to shore up their depleted depth. Is this slow start the result of buyers remorse? Or have these recent arrivals been pulling their weight?
Well, you’ll have to read below to find out. Here are early-season report cards for all players new to the Marlies organization. Enjoy.
Adam Cracknell joined the Marlies over the summer for what boils down to a single purpose; replace Ben Smith.
No, the expectation wasn’t for him to burst into the room and outright earn the captaincy, but Cracknell and Smith both share the mould of veteran centres who possess nearly identical NHL experience and point production, with similar success at the AHL level to boot.
It wasn’t outlandish to assume the former could fill the void left by the departed latter.
Now five games in, and the version of Cracknell who somehow managed a point-per-game pace on a putrid Laval Rocket squad last season has only surfaced for one. Cracknell isn’t playing poorly, per say. From a baseline standard, he’s still racked up five points, three of which came in yesterday’s rematch with the Utica Comets, while continuing to log significant time on the first power-play unit.
He just looks…slow? A step behind those around him, or at least where he’s expected to be.
And that’s exactly what’s plagued the Marlies en route to their dismal 1-4 start, the worst in franchise history For a team who, only a year ago, deployed a downright frightening offensive attack, these Marlies seem toothless. They’re completely incapable of sustaining any meaningful possession in the offensive zone, and even when they do, they ultimately pass their way into a turnover.
Cracknell came to play on Sunday, putting forth by far his best effort as a Marlie. But performances like that must become commonplace for this team to make any noise.
Grading these new additions isn’t all fun and games, folks. It’s hard work, particularly when the first five games have gone so poorly.
Case in point, evaluating Josh Jooris‘ first five games in Marlies blue was a constant struggle for me to come up with anything notable to say. Which, come to think of it, may wind up encapsulating his performance more perfectly than I ever could.
To make a long story short, he’s been completely invisible thus far. And that’s a problem.
Signed by the Leafs on July 1st, Jooris’ one-year deal reportedly carries an AAV of $650,000, high enough to land him in the top-5 among Marlies skaters. Conversely, his single point, an empty-net goal graciously gifted to him by Colin Greening, plops him down to 16th in team scoring. Not only is that a less-than-stellar discrepancy between dollars and value, it could lead to some future roster headaches as well.
“But Mike,” you say. “It’s the AHL. Player salary doesn’t matter at this level, idiot. You moron. Shut up, moron”
Well, it kind of does. See, the AHL enforces a roster stipulation they deem “The Veteran Rule”. Per the league’s official FAQ:
"Of the 18 skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least 13 must be qualified as “development players.” Of those 13, 12 must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season."
If you didn’t bother to read the blurb above, it essentially boils down to the fact that, on a per game basis, AHL teams are limited to including only 5 skaters with more than 260 games at the professional level to their name in their lineups.
Jooris joined the Marlies this season having logged 299, thus qualifying him as a veteran.
Here’s where things get tricky.
Jooris, Sam Gagner, Chris Mueller, Vincent LoVerde, and Colin Greening comprise the Marlies’ current group of veteran regulars, occasionally being joined by the often-scratched Rich Clune, and recently, by PTO signees Ryan Sproul and Kyle Cumiskey as well. That’s 8 different veterans vying for 5 total lineup spots on any given night, with that figure anticipated to inflate further from the inevitable demotion of either Martin Marincin or Justin Holl.
Sure, Sproul and Cumiskey could just be released from their PTO’s, but that may not be in the team’s best interests. In fact, Sheldon Keefe, amidst a dreadful weekend stretch, endowed both rearguards with a vote of confidence, admiring how the pair seem to inject mobility and poise into a floundering back end.
So, at its core, this is just my long-winded way of explaining how Jooris’ lack of meaningful production doesn’t simply hurt his team on the ice, it complicates their personnel structure off of it as well.
It was Jooris’ positional versatility and NHL resume that coerced me into including him in the top-5 of my preseason Marlies power rankings. Compiling that list today, a combination of the veteran roster limit and poor performance may leave him off of it entirely.
It seems as if the only person unaware of Sam Gagner being an NHLer is Jim Benning. Which is pretty unfortunate, considering how the Canucks could probably use a few NHL calibre players right about now.
But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.
Take one glimpse of Gagner, and he quickly epitomizes what a big fish swimming in a small pond looks like. Gagner skates faster than the opposition, gets his shot off quicker, and displays a level of instinct noticeably more fine-tuned.
Take the clip below for example.
Facing an identical situation, your typical AHLer wires that puck directly into the sprawling defender’s gut, effectively snuffing out any scoring threat and forfeiting possession. Not Gagner, though. He’s patient enough to hold back, seek out an opening, and instantly find the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy.
There’s honestly not much else to say, really.
Gagner is good. Good enough for the NHL, good enough for the Canucks, and as long as the Marlies continue to retain his services, makes them a markedly better team overall.
Jordan Subban‘s decision to sign with the Marlies this summer carried with it the asterisk of his status as a reclamation project. There’s undoubtedly a fair bit of untapped upside housed within the 24-year-old D. It was all simply a matter of finding it.
We’re now five games in, and I don’t think anyone – myself included – could have foreseen just how much reclaiming this project required.
But first, the positives.
Subban has done a fine job of quarterbacking the Marlies’ power play thus far, demonstrating an innate ability to distribute pucks quickly from the point which, in turn, provides the man advantage with a luxury both units from the year prior had glaringly lacked. Couple that with his accurate, booming shot, and Subban’s offensive impact is a welcome addition to his team’s suddenly-thinning blueline depth.
Subban’s first goal as a Marlie speaks volumes to this, encapsulating all of the strengths mentioned above.
So, with his positives on the offensive side of the puck now firmly established, let’s shift focus over to Subban’s defence.
It’s bad. Real bad.
What Subban truly lacks is a modicum of positional awareness. For a player with such a strong skating stride, he somehow finds himself beaten cleanly by opponents off the rush far too often, largely resulting from a routine penchant for overcommitting in the offensive zone.
Yes, Subban can flash brief glimpses of dynamism, enough to keep you wanting more, but for every end-to-end rush he embarks upon in jaw-dropping fashion, a defensive gaffe is sure to follow.
Then again, Subban is an important reminder of the AHL’s true purpose. Above all, this is a developmental league, and while Subban may have his fair share of blemishes, he’s continuing to develop nonetheless.
(It also doesn’t help that he’s been paired entirely with Andrew Nielsen, either.)
Grade – C+
Emerson Clark is what he is.
Not an offensive dynamo by any stretch, he’ll nonetheless give the full 110% of his effort every time he steps on the ice, throw the body without abandon, and even chip in a goal or two on a good day.
Clark is a fine piece of AHL winger depth, perfectly serviceable for the level he’s at. Although, his services may be unavailable for a bit as Clark appeared to sustain a concussion against Utica on Sunday.
At least he’ll occasionally do stuff like this to keep the “WhY dOn’T tHe LeAfS pLaY lIkE dOuGiE aNyMoRe??” crowd hot and bothered.
To make this one short and sweet; Jeff Glass has not been good.
A 4.87 GAA and .844 save percentage is not exactly the stable veteran presence the Marlies had in mind when they signed him last week. Fortunately, however, Glass has time to figure it out. And he may be forced to do so pretty fast with Kasimir Kaskisuo exiting yesterday’s contest with a potentially long-term injury.
As things stand now, were Frederik Andersen or Garret Sparks to miss any time, Glass would be the Leafs backup. Take that as you will.
Ryan Sproul – B+
Despite the Marlies announcing that they had signed Ryan Sproul to a PTO on Sunday morning, the 25-year-old rearguard had in fact been skating with the team for the better part of two weeks, even suiting up for the Marlies’ final preseason game versus the Syracuse Crunch.
Honestly, Sproul has only played one regular season game to this point, so it’s not entirely fair or accurate to form a judgement of his performance quite yet.
That being said, the veteran right-shot has certainly looked at home in his limited service time, confidently joining the offensive attack in certain instances and even earning an assist, his first as a Marlie, on Pierre Engvall‘s breakaway goal.
It may take some veteran rule fanegaling to keep him, but Sproul may prove to be a valuable depth piece moving forward.
Kyle Cumiskey – B
As outlined in this wonderful piece from The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian, Kyle Cumiskey currently finds himself in one of pro hockey’s more unique positions.
Having recently turned 31, Cumiskey’s resume oozes with NHL experience, highlighted by the moniker of his role on the 2012-13 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, and yet the only work he could find this summer came via a training camp PTO with the Marlies. Why?
Well, groin issues have plagued the Abbotsford-native significantly since his run with the Blackhawks. In fact, Cumiskey has managed to log a total of just 30 games from the beginning of the 2015-16 season and onward, going far enough to sit out the 2017-18 season entirely.
His has all the makings of a cinematic comeback story, and in his first taste of game action in over a calendar year, Cumiskey looked anything but out of place. His true measure of success came from how he somehow emerged from the wreckage of the Marlies 6-0 second-period deficit as the only player with a positive plus/minus rating.
Plus/minus may be an outdated stat, but it at least suggests that Cumiskey was doing something right.
Thanks for reading!
All stats courtesy of hockeydb.com
All salary info courtesy of capfriendly.com
All gifs & footage courtesy of AHLtv.com