Toronto Maple Leafs: Young Marlies Playoff Grades Part One

HERSHEY, PA - MARCH 15: Toronto Marlies defenseman Rasmus Sandin (8) waits for a face-off during the Toronto Marlies vs. the Hershey Bears AHL hockey game March 15, 2019 at the Giant Center in Hershey, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
HERSHEY, PA - MARCH 15: Toronto Marlies defenseman Rasmus Sandin (8) waits for a face-off during the Toronto Marlies vs. the Hershey Bears AHL hockey game March 15, 2019 at the Giant Center in Hershey, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

There are many uncertain aspects of the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, but their prospect pipeline is not one of them.

The Toronto Marlies are currently undefeated throughout the entirety of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. Pretty impressive, right? This is a surge that few saw coming prior to the end of the regular season, when a slew of injuries and call ups threatened to significantly deplete an already drained roster.

Yet, here the Marlies stand; the lone remaining team with a zero in their loss column.

Perhaps the most driving force behind this postseason success has been the team’s stable of talented prospects. The past few weeks have served as a tremendous period of growth for the young Marlies. And with postseason now (almost) reaching its half-way point, there is no better time than the present to hand the kids their mid-term report cards.

Without further adieu, let’s dive into Part One.

Rasmus Sandin

Postseason Stats: 0 goals, 7 assists; 7 points in 6 games

Grade: A

Have you ever watched a hockey player and thought; “this guy just has it”? 

It’s weird, right? Like going against your best judgement, or, at least, what your best judgement should be. And given how stifling the very nature of prospect analysis can be when it comes to generating hype, this hesitation is far from an accident. It’s a feeling, rather, typically found buried underneath a subliminal need to sniff out a flaw, any flaw, capable of tempering expectations. All prospects have them, of course, and it’s far easier to cover your bases by fixating on a lacklustre skating stride or occasional brain fart early on than to eat the blame when your touted “Next One” fails to pan out.

But on the rare occasion when your brain overrides its programming and allows itself to become enamoured; it’s special, and should not be taken for granted.

This feeling, from now on, will be known as the Rasmus Sandin Experience.

Believe me, I’ve tried to find glitches in this Matrix. And there are a few if you choose to look close enough. But doing so more or less defeats the purpose of what is actually happening in front of you. Sandin has been a bonafide revelation for the entirety of his Marlies tenure up to this point, give or take around ten minutes.

Ignore for a moment that he leads all AHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 7 points in 6 games. Ignore, as well, that his 7 postseason assists land him fourth in that category league-wide; the only defenceman to even crack the top-10. Sandin’s offensive accomplishments are ancillary right now.

They’re fine, yes, but goals and assists are not what elevates him beyond that of your typical freshman.

Playing close to 30 minutes per night, in the playoffs, as a teenager, does. Quarterbacking a Marlies power play currently clicking at a 35% success rate – nearly 10% higher than the next closest team – does, too. And establishing himself as the Marlies’ top defenceman despite being the youngest member on the entire roster? Well, that certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

19-year-olds simply do not do this. They don’t earn such a large portion of their coach’s trust, and, in the rare event that they do, it doesn’t come so quickly.

19-year-olds don’t make these passes.

That is veteran-level poise from a rookie not yet old enough to legally drink in the States. It’s special, worthy of the hype so often dampened for prospects. If you had asked even the most optimistic, pie-in-the-sky observer for their prediction of Sandin prior to this season, it’s highly doubtful that they would have foreseen it going as well as it has.

Sandin will continue to be relied upon as the lynchpin of a young and thoroughly solid Marlies D corps with Calle Rosen now sidelined indefinitely. And considering how he’s now filled this role for the better part of the past three months, this is a challenge Sandin is assuredly up for.

Nearly two full playoff rounds and zero defeats later, there’s no reason to think he isn’t.

Jeremy Bracco

Postseason Stats: 2 goals, 8 assists; 10 points in 6 games

Grade A-

It’s often easy to forget that Jeremy Bracco watched from the press box above last year as the 2017-18 Marlies went on to capture the franchise’s first Calder Cup.

Bumped from the lineup by a returning Andreas Johnsson, the experience was surely a humbling one for the then-21-year-old who, at the time, was but one year removed from playing an integral role for the Windsor Spitfires in their Memorial Cup-winning effort.

Sheldon Keefe was aware of this. And amidst the celebrations in the days that followed the victory, Keefe pulled Bracco aside to inform him that, as of next season, the Marlies would be “his team”.

It was a bold statement to make for a rookie coming off a 6-goal output through his first 50 pro games. Fast forward roughly ten months, though, and Keefe’s prediction has come glaringly true.

Bracco finished the 2018-19 regular season a mere three points shy of the AHL scoring lead – his 79 points in 75 games setting the Marlies single-season franchise record in the process – and has now appeared to carry that statistical dominance into the postseason. Six games in, Bracco sits atop the AHL leaderboard in both points (10), and assists (8), with nearly double the number of power-play helpers (7) as the throne’s next closest challenger.

Bracco has been, without a doubt, one of the primary factors for why the Marlies have yet to be defeated. And save for a lone quiet performance in Game Three of the first round, Bracco has otherwise taken his game to an entirely new level from the beginning of the postseason and beyond.

The power play is his bread and butter, of course. It always has been. Bracco’s presence along the half wall is downright lethal for opposing PK units to grapple with – heightened to an even greater extent now that he’s managed to evolve as a shooter, therein forcing defenders to choose between anticipating either a back door feed or high-percentage shot from the circle.

This damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum Bracco traps his opponents in succeeds in opening up passing lanes that otherwise would not have been available. It’s a trait he’s weaponized all postseason long, to the immeasurable success of his team.

In the clip below, watch how the threat of Bracco peeling down from the mid-circle pulls the second Cleveland defender out of the slot and into the shooting lane, therein granting just enough room for Bracco to hit Chris Mueller for their usual tap-in.

It’s clockwork, and not an isolated instance of it, either. Of the six total power play goals the Marlies have scored throughout these playoffs Bracco has assisted on every single one of them while having dram the primary helper on three, as well.

That is simply remarkable.

But similar to any prospect, occasional lapses persist throughout.

As Bracco’s confidence has begun to gradually increase over the course of the playoffs, so has his willingness to take risks and, inevitably, fall victim to the mistakes which follow. But these are worthwhile mistakes – intrinsic to Bracco’s overall creativity and easily refined with some developmental TLC. For the most part, Keefe appears willing to let them go, content in taking the occasional drop of bad so long as it’s then followed by a waterfall of good.

Bracco has delivered on that front so far.

Truly, a relative lack of even strength production is the sole factor which holds Bracco back from earning a team-best grade. And even then, it’s still pretty close.

Joseph Duszak

Postseason Stats: 1 goal, 0 assists; 1 point in 3 games

Grade: B-

Joey Duszak needs to be graded on a curve. It’s only fair, really. Two games of professional experience were all which sat under his belt before an internal need for mobility thrust the 21-year-old into the Marlies lineup ahead of Game Two versus Rochester.

That is more or less the hockey equivalent of teaching your child to swim by throwing him in the deep end. Sometimes it works, but you’re still taking the risk that he ultimately sinks.

So far, Duszak hasn’t. He even scored a goal! And when taking into account Duszak’s lack of reps against top competition and the fact that he’s been paired with another rookie in Mac Hollowell while playing on his off side, the Mercyhurst alum has indeed flashed some real, tangible potential in admittedly sheltered usage.

As is the case with most undersized and mobile D, Duszak thrives in instances with the puck. He’s calm in his decision making, content with circling back to re-evaluate the play rather than ringing it up the boards in desperation.

There are times when this patience has bitten Duszak, though. Making the panic play is almost always the least useful option at a defenceman’s disposal, but a sense of urgency is required on certain occasions, namely when transitioning into the offensive zone.

Duszak’s game – bless his heart – is geared firmly away from the tired “chip and chase” mentality.

Which, frankly, is superb. Possession-heavy zone entries are precisely where the defence position is heading towards in the coming years, and ingraining this modern style into their prospects’ heads early on appears to be a tactic the Maple Leafs are intent on executing. But Duszak tends to take these controlled entries to a “Leroy Jenkins” level at times, adding an unnecessary complexity to what should be a routine play.

There are options ahead of Duszak in the clip above; either turn on the jets to beat the pinching defender, or drop the puck to a coasting Adam Brooks for a quick give-and-go. Instead, Duszak actually cuts into the crowd gathered at the blueline. He loses possession in the sea of bodies as a result, therein triggering what very well could have been a clean breakaway, were it not for the presence of Hollowell.

If Duszak were playing on his normal right side, perhaps he opts for Option A. We don’t know. Hence, the grading curve.

Prospects are meant to make mistakes. They’re inevitable, a natural part of the process. For Duszak to opt to circle back after an initial failed entry and try again, even if the result ended up being less than ideal, shows that the developmental infrastructure is there.

All that awaits is the execution.

Sheldon Keefe's Masterpiece. dark. Next

Thanks for reading! Part two will drop later this week.

All footage and gifs are property and courtesy of AHLtv