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 seven wins away from their second consecutive Calder Cup Championship. 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 deplete an already drained roster.
Yet, here the Marlies stand; a single defeat resting in their loss column.
The primary driving force behind this postseason success has undoubtedly been the team’s stable of talented prospects. These past few weeks have served as a tremendous period of growth for the young Marlies. And with the postseason now reaching its half-way point, there is perhaps no better time than the present to hand these kids their mid-term report cards.
So, that’s exactly what I plan to do. Over the next few days, we’ll be evaluating the postseason performance of each youngster, one by one.
Who has surprised? Who needs improvement? These are all questions you’ll need to read on to find out.
Today, we tackle an exception.
Postseason Stats: 8-1-0 record; 1.77 goals-against average, .940 save percentage, 1 shutout
When forming the initial outline of these grades a few weeks ago, I flipped flopped around whether I’d even include Kasimir Kaskisuo in the first place. These are the Young Marlies Mid-Terms after all, and Kaskisuo is set to celebrate his 26th birthday before the 2019-20 season kicks off. He’s not a prospect. In fact, the 25-year-old is roughly one year past the generally agreed upon prospect label cutoff date. Why lump him in now?
Well, did you read his postseason stat line? That’s why.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mid-season turnaround quite like this. At least, not to this extent.
There is absolutely zero hyperbole in what I am about to say here: Kaskisuo was awful this regular season – his plummet beginning in October and carrying through practically to the end of March.
When the Marlies took their AHL-leading offence into the New Year – with the soon-to-be-departed duo of Carl Grundstrom and Sam Gagner bolstering their current forward corps, no less – it was Kaskisuo’s mid-.860’s save percentage that not only threatened to torpedo the team’s season altogether, but actively withheld their prospects from furthering their development, as well.
The thing about prospects is that they improve by making mistakes. It’s how they learn. And with Kaskisuo in net, any given blunder from any given prospect at any given moment held a better chance than not of finding its way into the back of the Marlies net.
I mean, just look at this. Are you kidding me?
Score as many goals as you want. Lead the league in it, just as the Marlies did for half the year. But if your netminder is dropping these bombs in a one-goal game against a divisional opponent, it doesn’t really matter much, does it?
Funnily enough, Kaskisuo’s style draws some serious comparables to that of Garret Sparks.
He’s an erratic netminder, one who tends to commit HARD to shooters, relies on post-to-post transition, and whose overzealous approach often leaves him swimming in his crease. In some cases, this aggressiveness can work at the AHL level. Just look at Sparks. But Kaskisuo, for better or worse, is not Sparks, and simply lacks the athleticism which allows the latter to compensate for his unstructured style.
Given the pace of today’s game, it’s not a recipe for success.
This is a player who, a mere five months ago, effectively forced the Maple Leafs organization into forfeiting a portion of their draft capital (albeit only a 2020 5th rounder) for the purpose of acquiring his replacement. Michael Hutchinson was never meant to see big league ice in a Leafs uniform. His intended use was purely AHL depth – the kind whose services required the price of a potential NHL lottery ticket.
Do you have any idea how dire a situation needs to be for Kyle Dubas to turn his back on asset management? Pretty freaking dire, that’s how. And, at the time, that’s exactly what this was.
Now, it may seem as if I’m harping a little too heavily on one player’s struggles, which is not my intention at all. Rather, this is being hammered home for a reason. Providing necessary context of just how cavernous this particular net-centric valley was not too long ago is vital in understanding the mind-bending contrast between Regular Season Kaskisuo™ (bad) and Playoff Kaskisuo™ (God-like).
What you see today is an entirely different player.
Kakisuo indeed showed signs of improvement late in the year in the lead-up to the postseason, as evidenced by the 5-2-0 record and .943 save percentage he mustered following Hutchinson’s sudden departure on April 4th. But those numbers were otherwise dismissed on the basis of sample size. Really, they were glimmers of what was to come.
The 180-degree turn Kaskisuo has now made from liability to MVP candidate seemingly came out of nowhere. This is not a case of pucks hitting him now that previously would have snuck by. Kaskisuo looks infinitely more poised in the Marlies’ crease these days. He’s composed, displaying a noticeably more efficient playing style that allows for him to keep his positioning throughout any high-danger sequence, rather than banking on the hope that he can go post-to-post quicker than the play dictates.
Just look at how Kaskisuo tracks the puck in the clip above. He stays calm in the face of intense and sudden pressure, refusing to panic and thrust himself at the shooter.
Case in point; Kaskisuo plays it smart. He reacts to the sequence unfolding in front of him instead of where he thinks it will go – trusting the merits of his style over raw instinct. And, as the clip and entire postseason have since confirmed, it worked.
Whereas two-on-ones once went like this:
They now go a little something like this:
These are subtle differences, yet all too prevalent.
Kaskisuo’s glove hand is the focal point of the first sequence. By dropping it below his left pad when initially anticipating the shot, he renders it useless when, less than a second later, the shooter passes instead. That extra half second Kaskisuo needs to raise his glove back up now feels like an hour when in the context of an odd-man rush. An hour which, ultimately, proves to be too late.
Now turning to the second clip, his approach is noticeably different.
Kaskisuo’s glove stays active throughout the entire sequence, dipping only when he drops to his knees to shift laterally. As a result, it stays in the play, allowing him to prevent what otherwise seemed like a surefire goal. But it’s not just how Kaskisuo approaches the initial odd-man rush. Rather, it’s how he then continues to track the puck even after making the first save, recovers immediately, and gets back in position in enough time to turn away Charlotte’s second high-danger scoring chance, as well.
Let this be a lesson to all the young goaltenders out there: You don’t need to flop around to get on a highlight reel.
(Even if it is admittedly more fun)
The Marlies don’t even make it past the first-round without Kaskisuo.
That’s not conjecture. That’s just a fact.
Rochester outshot Toronto by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1 during their three-game opening-round sweep (101-65, to be exact), with the Marlies failing to put more than 23 shots on net in any of them. Outplayed, facing the higher-seeded Americans while also bearing a roster that was, at the time, yet to regain the services of Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen, this was a series that reeked of a potential sweep.
In the postseason, however, predictions often dissipate quickly. For when the odds are slim and the circumstances dire, goaltending tends to be the one factor that proves capable of bridging that gap.
Kaskisuo has done exactly that for this Marlies team.
Even on the heels of his first postseason defeat, there is still plenty of reason for optimism. Despite blowing a three-goal lead to Charlotte in Saturday’s Game Two, Kaskisuo has put the Marlies in a position where they just stole a road game against the top-seeded Checkers, and now head back to Toronto with home ice advantage and a chance to punch their ticket to a second straight Calder Cup Final.
I can’t believe it either.
Thanks for reading!
All gifs & footage courtesy of AHLtv