When assessing a minor league hockey team, wins and losses, playoff games, gaudy scoring totals, all these things matter.
But what really counts is readiness. The feeder club deals in bulk but is judged on quality: how good were the prospects who slipped into an NHL uniform when injuries felled a big-league regular? How much progress does a prospect enjoy?
On that level, the Marlies were a success.
“Our job is to develop guys who when they are called up can play admirably.” said Marlies coach Greg Gilbert. “Obviously, you would like to be still playing and it’s unfortunate that we’re not.”
The Marlies went 39-29-5-7 and won two critical road games in Winnipeg to earn a playoff spot. When the post-season arrived, they were beaten by a better Winnipeg team in six games.
“All our guys did the same thing,” Gilbert said. “They were excited to be called up but as soon as they got back to the Marlies, they worked extremely hard.”
Three-year-Marlie John Mitchell was a success story. He graduated from the minor league club and distinguished himself as an NHLer with a 12-goal season that included a lot of sound positional play.
Jeremy Williams came up and delivered five goals in 11 games before a shoulder injury knocked him out.
Jaime Sifers stood in for 23 games as various Leaf blueliners went down. Andre Deveaux grabbed 21 Leaf games and gave the club some badly needed size up front. Phil Oreskovic paved the way for a leap to the big team with 10 games that caught the eye of a Leafs management team looking to toughen its defence corps.
Twenty-seven-year-old Tim Stapleton racked up a club record 79 points.
Perhaps most importantly, Jiri Tlusty came down after going scoreless in 13 Leaf games and scored 25 times with the Marlies.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” said Sifers, as optimistic and clear-headed a kid as you will find in any locker room. “There were ups and downs (with the Leafs) and sometimes the downs were what you really needed to develop. There are some games I struggled and they told me when I did and that’s probably the best learning tool that I received this year.”
Sifers is a free agent. The Leafs have the option to qualify goalie Justin Pogge whose 2.70 goals against average was one of the league’s worst. Pogge played well in stretches but was torched in the big leagues and coach Greg Gilbert chose to go with understudy Adam Munro in Game 6 of the first round playoff against Winnipeg. The Marlies lost 4-2.
“You switch it up. It’s part of hockey,” Pogge said. “It happens. I think I put in my best effort.”
“(The season) was a bit of a rollercoaster,” Pogge said. “I felt like I improved and got a lot of experience. Overall, I thought it was a great year. We made the playoffs and made a great effort.”
“I think it was a good season,” said Williams. “I got to play 11 games with the Leafs but unfortunately got injured there. Ron (Coach Ron Wilson) put me with two very skilled players, (Jason) Blake and Dominic Moore. The playoff push was great. Unfortunately it ended too soon.”