The Toronto Maple Leafs will be hurting the development of their top young prospects if they don’t promote any of them from the Toronto Marlies AHL farm team this season. So far the Leafs have brought up players from the Marlies on an emergency injury basis to fill in when regulars have been sidelined and the majority of these have been journeymen such as Rich Clune and Bryan Froese. The Leafs do have some talented youngsters down the road at Ricoh Coliseum including forwards William Nylander and Connor Brown, but both were out of action at times this campaign with injuries.
The Leafs have been struggling as usual this season, but the Marlies have been a pleasant surprise and as of February 20thwere leading the North Division and the entire league with an impressive record of 39-9-4. The team’s 82 points gave them a 14-point lead on their closest rivals, the Atlantic Division-leading Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins. The 19-year-old Nylander was one of the league’s top scorers before suffering a concussion at the World Junior Championships. Nylander posted 32 points in 37 games with the Marlies last season and the centre has 42 in 33 contests in 2015/16.
Brown is a 22-year-old right-winger who racked up 61 points in 76 contests with the Marlies last year and has 13 points in 17 outings this season after returning from injury. Nylander and Brown are seen as key figures in the Leafs’ future and there are some other fine prospects with the Marlies including Kasperi Kapanen, Tobias Lindberg, Brendan Leipsic, Nikita Shoshnikov, Josh Leivo, Jeremy Morin, Stuart Percy and T.J. Brennan. Leivo, Brennan and Percy have all played a handful of NHL contests, but when the Leafs have called up players from the AHL this season, they have been players who have already made their NHL debuts.
The only exceptions this season were goaltender Garrett Sparks; forward Leipsic and defenceman Viktor Loov. Sparks ended up recording a shutout in his first NHL outing and played a few games before he was injured. Leipsic scored in his debut and was then sent back to the Marlies and Loov earned an assist in his first game. All three layers were called up as emergency replacements though. If the Leafs hope to develop their youngsters they need to give them a taste of NHL life this season before it’s too late. Once the trade deadline passes on February 29, each club is allowed just four recalls until the end of the year.
Young prospects need to be given a few games in the NHL so they know what to expect next season. These players need to know what they’re up against when it comes to the speed, skill, strength, and experience of seasoned NHL veterans. They also need to get used to the travelling, practices and lifestyle. What better way to motivate a player than to give him a taste of the highlife before sending him back to ride the buses in the AHL? Once a youngster knows the first-class treatment he’ll receive in the NHL, he’ll work that much harder to make sure he makes it at soon as possible.
If the Leafs don’t bring up any of their prospects this season they’ll be taking a step backwards by starting at square one in 2016/17. Everything will be new to them next campaign and they’ll have to get their feet wet, which will take time. These players need to know what to expect once training camp starts and they’ll hit the ice running if they already have a few NHL contests under their belt.
By throwing several rookies on the ice next season with no NHL experience whatsoever will be a step backwards. The proper way to develop possible future stars is to let them experience it for themselves as it will motivate them to aim their goals higher.