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Marlies 2015-16 season a record-setting building block

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

A day after their record-setting season came to an end, the Toronto Marlies were still dealing with the sting and the swell of championship dreams cut short. But as their American League Eastern Conference Final loss to the Hershey Bears fades behind them, they’ll almost certainly look back on the 2015-16 season as one to cherish and build upon.

“The players felt good about the season that they had, and they feel good about where they’re at in their careers, but there’s a lot of disappointment about what happened in this series and falling short of the ultimate goal,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said Monday, one day after his team had its season end after falling 3-2 to the Bears in Game 5. “It’s going to take some time to really digest, everything that happened, not just in that series, but even the series that we won. We’ve got the summer to really digest things.”

There are a slew of positives to digest: the franchise finished the regular-season with a team-record 54 wins, claimed top spot in the entire AHL for the first time in the organization’s history, and earned a berth in the conference final for the second time in the past five years. Just as importantly, Keefe and the player development team assembled by Marlies GM Kyle Dubas produced an astonishing number of youngsters – 15, to be exact – who at one point or another were recalled to play at least one game for the Maple Leafs. Whether it was the growth of highly-touted forwards William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen or the ascent of relative revelations such as wingers Nikita Soshnikov and Brendan Leipsic and blueliner Rinat Valiev, Toronto’s future is as bright as any team’s.

“Reflecting back on the year, it was an awfully successful year for the team with the regular season that we had, and to win two playoff rounds, and a lot of guys had great individual years,” said veteran defenceman and team captain Andrew Campbell. “There was a ton of improvement from everybody, and that’s what you look for at this level, is improving and trying to get to that next level. For the most part, we accomplished that as a group, despite the disappointing ending.”

“Definitely the most talented group that I’ve been a part of,” added veteran centre Sam Carrick. “I just think we had a great group of young kids who had a lot of drive. It was just fun to be a part of.”

The Marlies had the AHL’s most potent offence in the regular-season, scoring a franchise-record 292 goals – 17 more than the league’s next-best squad in that department – and proved themselves capable of erasing just about any in-game deficit via their impressive firepower. That was a credit to the virtually unheard-of roster depth Dubas was able to assemble, and also a tribute to the tremendous job Keefe did in his first year as a professional head coach.

“I thought he was unbelievable this year,” Sam Carrick said of Keefe, who earned the job of AHL North Division All-Star coach for the work he did this season. “He really established what he wanted from us right from the start, and he rewarded guys for giving back to him. It was one of those seasons where it felt like it flew by, and that’s a credit to our coaching staff for making every day coming into the rink fun.”

The Marlies players’ respect for Keefe was very evident Monday, as was their thankfulness to Dubas for including them in the group. Veteran winger Rich Clune was especially effusive in the praise he had for the young GM, who called him last summer and asked if the Toronto native would come aboard to help mentor the organization’s youngsters while still helping him chase his own NHL dream of one day pulling a Maple Leafs jersey over his head. Clune got to do both those things this year – playing 19 games for the Leafs, and scoring the game-and-series-winning goal in Game 7 of Toronto’s second-round series against Albany.

“I have the utmost respect for Kyle Dubas,” an emotional Clune said Monday. “Before all the hockey stuff – and he obviously has an extremely high understanding of the game and putting together a team that has what it takes to win – I think he’s a good person, a good man, a family man. He’s been almost a bit of a mentor for me this year…It has been a very positive experience working for him. From the day-to-day stuff, I have never seen a guy who cares so much about his players – and I really mean that.”

From Dubas’ perspective, the Marlies’ season was difficult to see come to a conclusion, but he was heartened to see a high degree of versatility from so many of the players at both the AHL and NHL levels.

“I thought a lot of the guys played many different roles on the team throughout the year,” Dubas said. “When our guys went up to the NHL, save for a few of them, they could play anywhere in the lineup for (Leafs head coach) Mike (Babcock). Brendan Leipsic went up, he started on the fourth line, then the next game he was on the first line, and played up and down the lineup…We want the guys to learn as much as they possibly can here and then let Mike and his staff make the decision about where they’ll fit in his lineup. And our hope is that they’re really versatile, and depending on the matchup, he can use them in many different ways.”

One of the young players whose role regularly changed – indeed, the youngest on the Marlies roster at the tender age of 19 – was Kapanen, who experienced arguably the biggest roller-coaster season of any of the franchise’s prospects. Kapanen began the 2015-16 campaign with a new organization after coming to Toronto in the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, then dealt with an injury that hamstrung his start, headed over to his native Finland to play in the IIHF World Junior Championship and scored the gold-medal-winning goal for his homeland, returned to Toronto and played nine games with the Maple Leafs, was reassigned to the Marlies for the remainder of the season, was a healthy scratch in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, then came on extremely strong to become one of Keefe’s best players the rest of the post-season.

It doesn’t get more up-and-down than that, especially in your first full season of professional North American hockey. But Kapanen’s response to the challenges he faced was one of the most impressive things the Marlies could point to this year.

“Kappy is another guy that just really leaves on a positive note here,” Keefe said of the youngster, who finished the playoffs with three goals and eight points in 14 games. “This is a guy that started at the bottom. He was a healthy scratch in Game 1 of the playoffs for us. We felt it was a really important time in his development in his growth, just in how he would deal with that.

“For elite young players, quite often they’re being told that, maybe they’re not quite good enough for the first time. And that was the situation with Kappy. We had to talk him through it and his teammates had to help him through it. But he really grew and earned his way into premium ice time and earned his way into being a difference-maker for our team. He’s another young player that really grew a lot through this experiences, and (I’m) proud of him for doing that.”

“I’m still 19, I’m young, so it’s a lot to handle,” added Kapanen. “It’s a lot of ups and downs: injuries and then you come back and it’s not going that well, and then you go to World Juniors and you win a gold medal there. And you come back and it’s been an emotional roller-coaster and a physical one, too. But if I could do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”

With many of this season’s Marlies expected to push for a job with the Leafs next season, Dubas expects next year’s group of AHL players to be even younger than this year’s squad. But what will remain in place – what will sustain the organization, both on a competitive level and in terms of providing NHL-worthy talent for the Leafs to employ – is the approach Dubas and Keefe have implemented. This team won’t be able to set new winning records each and every season, but it can extend the same attention to detail, and the same personal care and concern for players as people, that has helped set it apart from the rest of the league.

"This is an unbelievable program,” Clune said, “and there’s nothing but good things to look forward to here.”

You can see what Clune refers to in the one phrase that kept being tossed around on Monday: first-class.

“It’s a first-class operation,” Keefe said. “The resources are put in place to remove excuses for the players and the staff…from a player’s perspective, they’re fed, they’re taken care of. All of the things that make it easy for them to come to work everyday. It’s a positive environment. And it’s a world-class city, a great place to be, a great place to play. And the fan support we got through the playoffs is just a sign of how great it is to play here and that the fans respond well when you’re winning. I was very fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to coach in the American Hockey League and for the Toronto Marlies.”

“Everything’s just such first-class,” added Campbell. “I grew up a Leafs fan, and for the chance to play here and the way you get treated, with all the good young players you get to play with, and the staff that wants to make you better every day, it’s got to be the best place to play in the American League for sure.”

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