Toronto Maple Leafs: Young Marlies Rise to the Occasion

ROCHESTSER, NY - APRIL 19: Toronto Marlies Adam Brooks (14) forechecks during game 1 of the Calder Cup Playoffs between Toronto Marlies and the Rochester Americans on April 19, 2019 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY. (Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).
ROCHESTSER, NY - APRIL 19: Toronto Marlies Adam Brooks (14) forechecks during game 1 of the Calder Cup Playoffs between Toronto Marlies and the Rochester Americans on April 19, 2019 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY. (Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images). /

Regardless of recent events, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a bright future ahead of them.

Toronto Marlies defenceman, Mac Hollowell, waited for the puck to transition into the offensive zone before turning to skate towards the bench at approximately the 10-minute mark of the third period.

The mid-game occurrence seemed as routine as it gets. Reaching the tail end of what culminated in being a roughly 35-second shift, Hollowell, a rookie playing in just the second professional game of his career, was due for a change, with veteran rearguard, Vincent LoVerde, prepared to take his place.

What came next, however, was not routine at all. Or, rather, what didn’t.

Moments after LoVerde hopped over the boards, an icing caused officials to whistle the play dead. Normally, this would present the chance for LoVerde’s defence partner, Andreas Borgman, to join him out for their regular shift. But he didn’t. Instead, no movement could be seen from the Marlies’ bench throughout the entire stoppage, and as players from both teams gathered around the circle to resume play, 19-year-old Rasmus Sandin stayed on for the ensuing draw.

It wasn’t until 30 seconds later that he eventually came off.

In the third period of a playoff game in which the Marlies could (and did) eliminate their opponent to advance to the second round, Sheldon Keefe opted to double shift his roster’s youngest defenceman.

It’s not as if this was a one-time occurrence for the Marlies this year, either.

Despite welcoming Calle Rosen back from the Maple Leafs just in time for Game Three, it was Sandin who continued to quarterback the Marlies’ clearly-superior top power-play unit, staying out for a minimum of 1:25 of every 2-minute minor. Keefe tapped Timothy Liljegren to headline the Marlies’ penalty killing efforts with under three minutes remaining in regulation, and the 19-year-old ultimately proved successful in weathering a flurry of Rochester chances while protecting his team’s one-goal lead.

Less than two minutes into the first period, Adam Brooks pounced on a loose puck in the slot to pot the first of three goals he would score that evening, earning the Marlies an early-game lead and, ultimately, a birth to the Division Final.

Such is business as usual for a Marlies squad few had predicted to sweep the higher-seeded Rochester Americans in three games. Entering into the highest leverage situations in the game’s biggest moments, Keefe has now made it a habit of turning the keys over to his youngest players.

So far, the strategy has worked.

“All the way through the lineup, great contributions from the young prospects,” reflected Keefe in the aftermath of what is now his fourth second round birth in four years behind the Marlies’ bench.

“When you get those contributions, and you can win? All the better. That experience serves them well and now they get to play more games” 

Brooks, in particular, appeared to benefit from his coach’s trust the most on Wednesday night.

It’s been a relatively up-and-down sophomore campaign for the 22-year-old centre prospect, with Brooks missing 12 total games due to injury at various points on the year, including the first 9. The newly-formed Brooks – Mason MarchmentMichael Carcone line, as well, had been held off the scoresheet entirely throughout the first two games of the series; their lacklustre performance prompting Keefe to sit down with his young pivot ahead of Game Three.

“I talked to him yesterday. I thought he and his line had a really rough night in Game Two,” explained Keefe of his conversation with Brooks.

“He had a very calm…calm but focused approach when I spoke with him. I think he knew he needed to be better and he wanted to be better. And when I left my discussion with him, it was pretty remarkable, frankly. I’ve never really seen him like that; the level of focus that he had.” 

“He was outstanding today”

The frank nature of Keefe’s words is significant. For a coach who tends to keep praise for his prospects internal, this was a very telling moment for how far Brooks has come. An exchange, mind you, the young centre has earned.

Even while dealing with ailments throughout the season which, as Brooks admitted to himself, withheld him somewhat from reaching his true potential, the Winnipeg-native actually cracked the 20-goal barrier for the first time as a professional this year while more than doubling his rookie point total in the process.

Brooks’s growth as a prospect has certainly been gradual. Selected by the Maple Leafs in 2016 as a fourth-round over-ager, it was always expected to be that way. But that growth has quietly begun to accelerate as of late. And after more than a few stops and starts along the way, it all seemed to culminate in Brooks’s dominating effort on Wednesday night.

“With the amount of ice time I got, and the situations Keefer has put me in over the last two years, you’re very able to develop confidence, especially when you’re playing for a coach like that,” Brooks explained postgame.

“So, it’s a lot of fun.” 

The praise didn’t stop at Brooks, however. At one point, Keefe purposefully deviated from a question to point out that Liljegren had been “outstanding for the entire series” before further applauding Hollowell and Joseph Duszak for their respective performances in spite of limited professional experience.

“It’s been such a long period of time now where we’ve relied on those guys,” Keefe continued.

“They’ve done well for us. We don’t get to the playoffs if those young guys can’t step up and play the minutes that they’ve had to play for us at different times when we were depleted for injuries or call-ups or whatever it was. We don’t get to play in the playoffs (without them). So, we had full confidence in them for sure”

“It’s a great accomplishment” 

Setting their sights now on a second-round matchup with the winner of the Syracuse Crunch versus Cleveland Monsters series that is still in progress, the Marlies’ path to defending their Calder Cup title runs directly through their stable of prospects, perhaps more so than any remaining team.

It’s a delicate position to be in. But if the results to this point happen to dictate anything, it’s a position these Marlies seem entirely suited for.

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