In the 2015-16 regular season, the Maple Leafs continued building a firm and important link between the team’s NHL roster and its American League affiliate Marlies squad. With the year over for the Buds, team management returned many young players to the AHL for what it hopes is a very long playoff run – and a number of veteran Leafs who’ve been through the grind of a post-season charge at the professional level made sure they advised the youngsters on the challenges that lie ahead.
“I was talking with (rookie Leafs centre) Willie (Nylander) the other day, about it – you’re not going to go down there and run the show,” Leafs centre Brooks Laich said in early April of the message he delivered. “Like, you guys aren’t going down and going 16-0. You’re going to face a Game 7. You’re going to lose a Game 5 in your barn and face a Game 6 in theirs. Like, that stuff’s coming. It’s coming. But that’s the stuff you’ve got to go through. There’s no other way to acquire that knowledge than to go right through it. So for them, it’s a huge, huge opportunity. I’m going to be watching. I can’t wait.”
“We definitely had a conversation with them on the plane,” added blueliner Morgan Rielly of the Leafs’ youngsters. “They’re great players. They’re going to make a run in the AHL, I’ve got my fingers crossed for them, and I think they’ve got a chance of doing something special.”
Nylander was one of a large number of Leafs up-and-comers who spent most of the season honing their craft with the Marlies, received a longer look with the Leafs after the end-of-February NHL trade deadline, and finished the year strongly before being reassigned to the American League to help the organization win a Calder Cup championship. And make no mistake – they definitely add to a roster stacked with talent.
Indeed, they return to a Marlies team that posted the best regular-season record in franchise history (54-16-5-1) and that will be a target for the rest of the AHL throughout the playoff tournament. And though Nylander and Marlies teammates and Leafs rookies Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown and others have had playoff experience at different levels, there’s really no comparing what they’ve endured before to what they’re about to experience. Winning four games – let alone four series – with grown men doing their utmost to derail their dreams is no small task, and no amount of teaching or preparation can prepare them for the rigours of this race.
“I think they’re still going through it,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said of the learning process for Toronto’s prospects. “It was part of our hope and our plan to bring them up (to the Leafs) at some point for a viewing. Not just for us, but for them as well – for us to see what we had, and for them to see what it takes to be successful up here. But them going back and getting prepared for the playoffs is an important part of their season and their development as well. I think (Marlies head coach) Sheldon Keefe and his staff, and (Marlies GM) Kyle Dubas have done a great job in getting to where they are. Now they’re getting ready for the playoffs, and it’s a whole different challenge, a whole different animal.”
“There’s a great culture that’s being developed there within these young players,” added Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. “When you’re winners, you find a way to win. And that’s what we hope is going to transpire. But they’re also going to understand that first round is going to be very difficult, and then how they sustain that – they can’t get too high, they can’t get too low. They can’t allow a loss to get in the way, or how you dismiss something in the playoffs. How you recover from things that didn’t go right that night – that’s what it’s all about. That’s what separates winners, and that’s something that you learn how to do. It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just be told that you do this. You have to experience it.”
Toronto’s group of blossoming youngsters – which includes forwards Frederik Gauthier, Tobias Lindberg and Kasperi Kapanen, and defensemen Connor Carrick and Rinat Valiev – can look to Laich’s experience as an example of the effect an AHL run can have on a developing player. The 32-year-old, acquired at the deadline from Washington, played 73 games in his rookie campaign in 2005-06, then at the end of the season, with the Caps out of the playoffs, he went to Hershey, where he amassed eight goals and 15 assists in 21 games and was instrumental in the Bears winning it all. And less than two years after that, Laich tripled his goal-scoring output and nearly tripled his rookie-season point total.
As Laich explains it, a player might have championship experience in his formative years, but nothing compares to being on a genuine frontrunner in one of the world’s best leagues, taking on fully-grown men desperate to derail your plans.
“That’s why I think it’s so exciting for the guys to go to the Marlies,” Laich said. “These guys are going to get used to playing when they’re expected to win, when it’s tough, not just chasing a game. Chasing a game is easy. There’s no pressure on you. But playing with a lead, playing structured, playing smart, how everything matters – getting a puck out, not hooking a guy, moving your feet, body position. Everything matters when you’re playing with a lead.
“That’s what I think they’re going to learn with the Marlies, and they’re going to bring that back. And then we have to learn to do that in the NHL.”
When asked to pick out which Leafs youngsters stood out the most for him in his short time with the team, Laich – who experienced a major rebuild with the Capitals – couldn’t narrow it down. In fact, he pointed to Toronto’s diverse collection of talent as one of the organization’s biggest strengths.
“The cool thing I like about our prospects and our younger guys is they’re all different,” Laich said. “You can’t win a championship with 20 William Nylanders. You can’t win with 20 Zach Hymans. You need a blend. Like, I was talking to (Gauthier) the other day and I was like, ‘Man, you don’t realize how important you are to this team, because other guys that maybe get the headlines can’t do what you do. So don’t let that dissuade you. You are a very important part of this team.’ ”
“Quality and quantity, and different types of players,” added Lamoriello when asked what impressed him most about the Leafs’ prospect pool. “I’ve always looked at a team like an orchestra – you need violinists, you need drummers, you need trumpet players, and I think that we’ve got a pretty good set of young musicians.”
If the Leafs’ rising young talents aren’t enough, they’re also winning friends and influencing people because of the quality of their character.
“On top of what Brooks said – we have a good variety, but they’re also very good kids, very good people, and I think that can really go a long way,” Rielly said. “More than anything, we got a chance to get to know them, and I think we’re very pleased with the kind of kids that they are. It’s exciting.”
When the AHL’s regular season ended April 17, Keefe & Co. found themselves with an astonishing amount of talent from which to build the Marlies’ playoff roster. But regardless of the overall look of the team, when Nylander, Hyman, Soshnikov and Toronto’s other burgeoning prospects take the ice in the opening round, they’ll be better players because of their time with the Leafs – and once the post-season ends, they’ll be all the more prepared to contribute meaningful minutes in a long and productive NHL career.
“There’s an old expression in life – you don’t know what experience is until you have it,” Lamoriello said. “They don’t know what it’s like until they experience it.”