As the youngest team in the American Hockey League, the Toronto Marlies inspired plenty of optimism in 2014-15.
A tough start to the season landed a team with five wins in the AHL's basement. A handful of crucial additions to the roster and refusal to punt on the season saw the club ascend the Western Conference with a 40-27-9 record. A seven game win streak to end the season clinched a playoff berth.
Their Western Conference quarterfinal against the Grand Rapids Griffins was a reminder of work ahead. Winning home games one and two carried the momentum over from the regular season. Grand Rapids responded the way you'd expect from a veteran group, regaining their legs on home ice and taking the series in five. They played poised, veteran hockey and earned their series victory over a young group.
As a facet of the Maple Leafs organization, the Marlies' playoff served as a reminder for a franchise beginning to build. Enthusiasm is warranted. The quest to be elite is in its infancy.
"I think we are enthusiastic but the one thing we learned, especially this past weekend, was we've got some good pieces but we've got a long way to go if we want to be an elite organization," said Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas.
"It's up to us as management to continue to bring in as many good, young players as we can. We've got some good pieces, they were excellent down the stretch and now it's just a matter of continuing to add to those players and not putting the weight of the world on the shoulders of William Nylander, Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic and so on and so forth."
Marlies head coach Gord Dineen spent five years as an assistant coach with the club before taking the helm this season. He noted the youth of the 2014-15 Marlies as a unique trait from years past.
Other Marlies teams may have advanced further in the AHL playoffs. They didn't earn their successes with young Leafs prospects. The youth of the group posed a challenge to duplicating past success, but the growth experienced was well worth it.
"We've had young teams here in the past but probably not the overall identity of the team being as young as it was," said Dineen. "There was a perception of our team early on that we had a team capable of going far and when it didn't happen right away I think the growth part of it was our biggest challenge."
"The biggest challenge and the most gratifying was the guys did grow in those roles."
The 2014-15 season now slides into the rearview for the Toronto Marlies. Every returning member of the roster will now shift their focus to becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf in the fall. It's no secret the combinations of age, experience and talent will make some more likely than others to make the jump to the NHL.
Players like Sam Carrick, Josh Leivo and Stuart Percy have shown the ability to compete at the NHL level in the past. Fans and pundits will be clamouring for the addition of exciting prospects in Brown, Leipsic and Nylander.
This year may have been the first in a shift to a younger Marlies squad. It is also the first domino in the club's reinvention of its development program.
"Every player is different and we have to treat every player differently, especially when we're talking about something as sensitive as their development," said Dubas. "We can't box ourselves into one way of developing a player. Every player requires a different type of development to maximize their potential."
The effort to fulfill that potential will begin this summer. The Leafs development team and Marlies staff restart their work with the group, shaping young talent into professionals. Leafs brass and Marlies fans can expect the 2015-16 club to come back a year wiser — one step closer to realizing the elite vision laid out.
The build is underway. The past season will go down as one brick in the foundation.