National Post (Latest Edition)

Marlies strike winning balance

Leafs’ farm team setting sights on Calder Cup title

- Lance Hornby

Etching their name on the Calder Cup would enable the Toronto Marlies to sign off on a historic season.

But if you’re Kyle Dubas, watching from the executive box at Ricoh Coliseum, or Sheldon Keefe, pushing buttons behind the bench, 201718 has already been a bountiful season in so many ways for the Maple Leafs farm team.

“It’s as close a team as we’ve had. The leadership group is as great as we’ve had and we’ve gotten better as a team,” Keefe said as the Marlies prepare for Game 1 of the Calder final Saturday against the Texas Stars. “As the playoffs move along (the Marlies have won nine straight), our team becomes more and more comfortabl­e with itself, finding out how much it can grow.”

Keefe is near completion of a difficult juggling act that began the day the Leafs announced their opening night NHL roster.

When the Marlies first gathered at Ricoh, one side of the dressing room represente­d promise, guys like a bubbly Timothy Liljegren, Toronto’s No. 1 draft pick. On the opposites side, there were sour players such as the demoted Martin Marincin and a few others with futures in doubt. In the middle, there were veterans and kids with question marks instead of sweater numbers.

A 76-game schedule, with minor league variances from bad weather to 3-in-3 bus trips to killing a week off, unfolded with 54 wins and first place overall. That pace was maintained despite the Leafs scooping defenceman Travis Dermott and forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Sniper Kerby Rychel and defenceman Rinat Valiev were dealt away.

None of those losses could interfere with Keefe’s mission statement to nurture future Leafs as overseen by Dubas, who was general manager of the Marlies before replacing Lou Lamoriello in the big chair on May 9.

“Kyle and I would talk every day. We were in constant communicat­ion over what’s right for our team, balancing developmen­t versus giving us the best chance to win that particular game,” Keefe said. “I think we’ve done a really nice job of that in my (three years) here. You look through the regular season, Justin Holl and Marincin led our team in being healthy scratches, two of our top defencemen and two of the best in the league. Vinny LoVerde, same thing.

“You are scratching these kind of guys to give opportunit­y to guys such as Andrew Nielsen. We looked at it (after Game 1 of the opening round against Utica) and 12 players were on entry level contracts. That’s a good chunk of your team. When you look at how many young players have left and are up playing with the Leafs and then to have another crop come in and complement the veterans we have, it’s a real good sign there’s a lot happening here.”

Dermott came back to Ricoh after a half season with the Leafs, anxious to shoot for a Calder and not sulking about going back to the farm after the excitement of a seven-game playoff against Boston. That nudged third-rounder Nielsen on blue-line standby, but he was the first to go back in after Andreas Borgman got hurt.

Jeremy Bracco and Kyle Baun are the spares up front. Mason Marchment, Adam Brooks and Trevor Moore beat the latter two out for a role on the energy line, but Keefe makes sure scratches aren’t forgotten, while junior grad picks such as defenceman Eemeli Rasanen and goalie Ian Scott spent time around the team this month with skating coach Barb Underhill and the player developmen­t staff.

Pursuit of a championsh­ip is also a life lesson and that’s when the scales tip in favour of using experience in May in June. The Marlies have a Stanley Cup champion in captain Ben Smith, three Calder Cup winners in the 32-year-old LoVerde (who captained Manchester in 2015), Chris Mueller (Texas in 2014) and Colin Greening (Binghamton in 2011).

Now completing his fourth AHL season, Garret Sparks was the league goalie of the year and currently leads all post-season stoppers with a record of 10-2 and 1.96 goals-against average.

Mueller impressed Keefe at the outset, when he put down an extra month or two in rent money for his Toronto residence, emphasizin­g he expected to be playing in June.

Put the 26-year-old Holl in that seniority group, too, with the team’s off-ice catalyst Rich Clune and backup goalie Calvin Pickard.

“That leadership group set the table here every day and things fell into place,” Keefe said. “That’s what’s most important, to have those pieces available to young people. A Liljegren needs time, developmen­t and role models. Whether it’s a forward or a defenceman, there are a lot of people for him to look up to and give him guidance.”

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