When Brian Burke pledged to revamp the Maple Leafs and re-energize the Leafs’ minor league operation, he admitted a difficult truth.
The Marlies aren’t teeming with front end prospects.
Some of that centres over the decision of a Nikolai Kulemin to develop in Russia. Anton Stralman played only 21 games with the Marlies before he was called up. It’s hard to fault the American League team when the parent club’s top prospects develop overseas.
Some of the story can be attributed to early deals that diverted draft choices.
From 2003 to 2008 the Maple Leafs’ first draft position was 57th, 90th, 21st, 74th and fifth.
The player chosen 21st, Tuukka Rask, was dealt to Boston by GM John Ferguson for Andrew Raycroft.
Jiri Tlusty, taken 13th overall in 2006 is back with the Marlies, fighting to re-establish himself. He has 11 points in 16 games with the Marlies.
Dale Mitchell, drafted 74th in 2007 has 16 goals and 32 points in just 28 games for a talented Windsor Spitfires team.
Luke Schenn, of course, was drafted fifth last year.
But the wonder of the minors is that while developing a stream of prospects is obviously advantageous, you don’t need a flotilla. In fact, if you’re lucky, you will hardly need to call anyone up.
But when you do need someone, you need someone who can play.
Consider the four ex-Marlies the Leafs will bring to Friday’s date in Buffalo.
John Mitchell graduated to the Leafs after three years with the minors and has moved all over the forward lines.
Andre Deveaux was called up to address a perceived lack of grit. Deveaux has played seven games on the fourth line. He has mixed it up and is dead even in plus-minus.
Called up when Nik Hagman suffered lingering concussion symptoms, Jeremy Williams scored for the Leafs in their vital 4-2 win over the Islanders and set up another. He is an attractive commodity, a 24-year-old who can bring offence when he comes up. He had 11 goals with the Marlies.
Jaime Sifers played his first game for the Leafs, December 8. A conservative, puck moving defenceman, he played a low-key, intelligent game.
Now, no one suggests these players are adequate substitutes for the players they replaced. Schenn arrives on your team once a generation. Hagman has no doubt prompted Dallas Stars officials to wonder why they let him go as a free agent and instead invested in Sean Avery.
But Marlies coach Greg Gilbert has toughened his players in what might be the toughest minor league city of all. When you play in Winnipeg or Lowell, Mass., or Des Moines, Iowa, you do not face the daily, depressing reminders that you are still one step away from the big time.
Light on material, the Marlies have still helped the parent club. Someone is doing something right.