Toronto Maple Leafs: The Marlies are Hockey’s Best PR Firm

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Frank Corrado #27 of the Toronto Marlies skates up ice against the Syracuse Crunch during AHL game action on February 22, 2017 at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Frank Corrado #27 of the Toronto Marlies skates up ice against the Syracuse Crunch during AHL game action on February 22, 2017 at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images) /

There are more than a few benefits to existing within the Toronto Maple Leafs organizational umbrella.

The Toronto Marlies are a unique body.

Punctuated by the franchise’s first Calder Cup this past June, recent years have seen the Marlies not only cement themselves as what some argue to be the most effective developmental machine in all of hockey, but one of the sport’s greatest public relations firms as well.

Ricoh Coliseum – er, Coca-Cola Coliseum – is where dying careers seek rebirth.

Responsible for the hype trains which fuel the Justin Holls and Trevor Moores of the world, “reclamation project” is a term so publicly intertwined with the Marlies of late that once again rehashing this relationship is about as far from breaking news as one can get.

Only, there is a caveat here. Stalled prospects and cast-off collegiate gems are not the only cases taken on by the PR wizards at Toronto Marlies & Associates™.

Sure, moulding Mason Marchment into an ELC-worthy asset just 18 months removed from finding him drifting aimlessly in undrafted limbo is a commendable feat without question.

Marchment arrived in Toronto as raw as they come, noticeably lacking what most consider to be the bare bones of a true skating stride and otherwise being completely incapable of effectively channelling his hulking frame into a tangible on-ice product. The Marlies, as they so often do, willfully welcomed Marchment and his flaws into the fold before overseeing a rapid process to refine them entirely.

It worked. And today, he’s knocking on the door.

It’s what they do best.

Although, even the most unruly puppy can learn new tricks. A different, altogether unique challenge lies in the old dogs, those deemed either too far gone or too outdated for life the modern era.

Prospects, raw they are, carry with them the luxury of a blank canvas. Bad habits can be ironed out and instincts can be adjusted. A 10-year vet, on the other hand, is far more difficult to re-mould, weighed down by muscle memory bedrock having formed since childhood.

Even as their future hangs in the balance, a future all but certainly removed from the very sport to which a lifetime has been dedicated, you’d be surprised how resistant an old dog can be to change.

So, the Marlies don’t opt for change. Or, at least, not entirely. Because, at its core, PR is an industry not built on change. PR is built on spin, and few can spin better than the Toronto Marlies.

Case in Point

Calvin Pickard, Martin Marincin, and Sam Gagner were not changed by the Marlies.

Each player landed in Toronto under largely similar circumstances; veterans cast down by way of professional disappointment, who, at one point or another, had flirted with true NHL establishment.

It wasn’t too long ago when Gagner was a top-10 pick, once thought to be a pillar of the mid-2000’s rebuilding Oilers whose 8-point night in 2012 forever etched his name in their record books. Joining the Leafs at the apex of the analytics boom, Marincin brought with him favourable underlying numbers which endeared him – initially, at least – to a bevvy of online circles. Pickard rode into the summer of 2017 as having been crucial to Team Canada’s silver medal-winning effort at the World Championship.

By all accounts, they are all NHLers, and while the trio has indeed experienced a collective taste of upper-level success, they, in turn, share victimhood to improper usage as well. Usage, mind you, responsible for their respective demotions.

Gagner, after thriving in sheltered minutes with Columbus, signed with Vancouver that very summer and immediately began to be deployed as a shutdown centre, the exact opposite of his time as a Blue Jacket, before the Canucks feigned bewilderment once Gagner’s offence expectedly dried up.

The Leafs’ dearth of backend depth forced Marincin into something other than the sheltered, PK-heavy role he’s best suited for, exposing his flaws and torpedoing his value.

Pickard emerged from his first full season as a starter with a .904 save percentage, a paltry total upon first glance until realizing that it came from behind the unquestioned worst roster of the salary cap era.

Sensing a trend here? The Marlies do.

Emboldened by the AHL’s lesser talent quotient, Sheldon Keefe & Co are blessed with the necessary means to welcome in any veteran who can claim to be hampered by misuse, identify precisely what made them NHLers in the first place, and proceed to deploy them in a manner which maximizes exactly that.

Sure, an aspect or two of their games will be tweaked here and there – Marincin spent countless hours last season improving his standing as a puck handler – but the bulk of focus is spent on the simple act of placing these players in whichever position is deemed most conducive to their success.

It’s all spin. And, truly, what purpose does spin serve without exposure?

Nestled just down the street for their parent club Maple Leafs, the Marlies reside firmly in the midst of hockey’s global capital, playing their games inside a rink whose press box is at full capacity on a nightly basis and whose upper bowl stands as a second home of sorts to scouts from all 31 NHL teams, regardless of opponent.

Surging Marlies tend to become overvalued for a reason. The sheer coverage tracking their every move simply dwarfs any AHL counterpart, carrying news from market to market to assure no name is left buried.

Pretend, for a moment, you’re an agent. Your client, whose resume bears a track record of relatively meaningful experience in the NHL, is suddenly placed on waivers.

Now headed to the American League and in dire need of a career resurgence, what is your prefered outcome; treading water in Utica, New York? Or performing in proper usage before of a host of NHL scouts while word of your client’s every development is reported on by multiple outlets?

The choice is not a difficult one. And the results, they speak for themselves.

Early last season, the Marlies recognized Pickard’s ceiling to be that of a competent 1B. And so, that’s exactly what he became to them, with Pickard thriving in his most suitable role while every save, shutout, and handshake shared with his incumbent, Garret Sparks, birthed puff piece after puff piece.

The Philadelphia Flyers must have been dedicated readers, as they plucked Pickard off waivers from the Leafs immediately to shore up their goaltending depth.

Pickard began this season in the NHL.

In Marincin’s case, both Keefe and Kyle Dubas, upon his demotion, identified Marincin’s most effective attribute to be a near-impeachable ability to prevent opposing zone entries. And so, they opted to weaponize it, installing Marincin as the driving force behind one of the most efficient penalty kills in AHL history and, ultimately, capturing a Calder Cup as a result.

After failing to do so 12 months prior, Marincin survived the final round of cuts this year to earn a spot on the Leafs out of training camp. He’s begun the season in the NHL.

Which then leaves Gagner, whose image reboot remains in progress.

Joining the Marlies just days prior to their season opener in Cleveland, the 29-year-old has unsurprisingly benefited from the favourable usage he was otherwise denied as a Canuck. As outlined by J.D. Burke in his illuminating piece for The Athletic, Gagner’s 2016-17 renaissance under John Tortorella arose from a melding of factors; namely, a marriage between sheltered even strength minutes and a first unit role along the power play’s half wall.

And, wouldn’t you know it, that is precisely how the Marlies have opted to use Gagner so far, and all Gagner has seemed to do is reward them. With 8 points in his first 7 games, the 11-year vet has definitively confirmed what nearly the entire hockey world, save for Jim Benning, has been privy too all along; Sam Gagner is an NHLer.

You can thank the Marlies’ PR machine for that.

Not Done

This machine doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, either.

With news of the Marlies signing Frank Corrado breaking on Monday morning, it seems as if the 25-year-old’s second go around in the organization will be done for the purpose of a now-commonplace career spin.

The circumstances could not be more perfect.

The Marlies, mired in a disappointing 2-4-0-1 start, happen to have a need for depth on their blueline’s right side and Corrado happens to be a right-handed defenceman with a track record of AHL success. Couple that with his arrival amidst the most media-heavy era in Marlies’ history, and the stage is set.

Rinse and repeat.

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