Can anything stop the Toronto Marlies' rampage across the American Hockey League?
The loss of their two top goaltenders, leading scorer and a number of top forwards making the quick cab ride to Air Canada Centre for duty with the parent Toronto Maple Leafs has not slowed the AHL-leading Marlies.
Goaltenders Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks have been with the Maple Leafs at various points. Before Bibeau and Sparks were loaned to the Marlies on Monday, they were forced to go with ECHL recall Rob Madore and NHL veteran Ray Emery, who they signed to a tryout deal in December.
Center William Nylander departed the Marlies before the holiday break as the AHL's leading scorer to represent Sweden in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Nylander's tournament ended early after a hit in Sweden's first game. He has 14 goals and 20 assists in 27 AHL games, and his return date remains unknown.
Nylander joins an impressive collection of talent that is missing. His fellow 19-year-old forward, Kasperi Kapanen, led Finland to the gold medal and is not yet back in the lineup. Forward Mark Arcobello had 12 goals and 15 assists in 24 games, and was loaned back to the Marlies on Monday. Right wing Connor Brown, who scored 21 goals as a rookie last season, has been limited to eight games and out since Oct. 30 because of injury. The Maple Leafs also recalled forward Josh Leivo (11 goals, 19 assists) on Monday.
And yet the Marlies continue to win. They lead the AHL with 60 points, seven ahead of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. They have won 29 of their first 38 games (29-7-2-0) and 17 of their 20 road games (17-2-1-0) under rookie coach Sheldon Keefe.
Other than a brief post-holiday stumble, the Marlies have won nine of their past 11 games. They have won five consecutive games as they start to wind down a five-game road trip this week.
Tied for first in the AHL with the Texas Stars (a considerably more run-and-gun team) at 3.82 goals per game, the Marlies have six players with 10 or more goals, including newly acquired forward Jeremy Morin, an arrival via trade from the Rockford IceHogs.
"We have a lot of skill on our team," Leivo said. "We have a good group. There is a lot of chemistry. It's great to have [the recalls with the Maple Leafs] when they're here, and I'm sure it will be even more offensive, but we've been battling it out and getting the big wins."
Six goaltenders have appeared in at least one game, but the Marlies are fourth with 2.34 goals allowed per game. They are fifth with 32.7 shots per game and 28.1 shots-against per game, and their 87.6 penalty kill is second-best.
"They've been battling for us, [each] one," Leivo said of the goaltenders. "We're just happy to have these goalies in the back of our pocket."
The veteran pairing of T.J. Brennan and captain Andrew Campbell might be the best in the league. Brennan has 14 goals and 20 points in 31 games, most among AHL defensemen. The Brennan-Campbell pairing has allowed for the growth of a group of prospects on the blue line including Stuart Percy, the Maple Leafs' first-round pick (No. 25) in the 2011 NHL Draft.
With their considerable offensive firepower not available, Keefe is preaching a commitment to system and structure.
"That's how we have to win games right now," Keefe said. "We were getting four or five [goals] a night a month ago. Now goals are harder to come by. We're still winning games, and that's a credit to the guys for sticking with it."
What is life like for a player on loan to another NHL organization?
Well, for one, it is a long way from Boston to Iowa. It brings a combination of a Minnesota Wild-themed mask and Boston Bruins-style pads.
But Iowa Wild goaltender Jeremy Smith is experiencing that life this season. With prospects Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre needing playing time with the Providence Bruins, Boston loaned Smith to Iowa before the season.
"[Boston management] said, 'You're going to Iowa,'" Smith said. "'That's your team. Embrace it and take the challenge head on,' so that's what I'm doing."
The arrangement worked for Minnesota and Iowa. With only rookies Brody Hoffman and Stephen Michalek on hand, Iowa needed a veteran presence in net. So they shipped the Hoffman-Michalek duo to the ECHL, added Smith and brought in journeyman Leland Irving, a first-round pick (No. 26) in the 2006 NHL Draft.
Smith has been one of the few first-half bright spots for the Wild, who are last in the AHL at 9-24-2-3. Smith, 26 is 4-11-2 with a 2.98 goals-against average, but has a .911 save percentage even though Iowa is 25th in the league in shots-against per game. The veteran goaltender also won CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors in the final week of December.
But the arrangement is strange, Smith admits.
"It's certainly a unique situation," Smith said. "I'm really thankful that Minnesota allowed me to come here and play with all of their prospects and want me to develop."
He still remains in touch with the Bruins. Video is sent after each of his games to Boston goaltending coach Bob Essensa for feedback.
"I hope I'm still on [Boston's] radar," Smith said. "If something was to happen [in Boston], I hope that I would be their first call."
But regular work in Iowa offers another opportunity for an up-close look by Minnesota.
"That's exactly what was on my mind when the situation happened," Smith said. "I may not be Minnesota's property, but they'll definitely be able to look at me under a microscope and who knows? It may not be this year, but in years to come if there is an opportunity maybe they [consider Smith]. You never know what can happen."
With previous stops with Providence, and the AHL affiliates of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators, a season with defensively suspect Iowa has offered a different type of experience for Smith, who is in his seventh pro season.
"For this, I've actually had to really break my game down because I've been fortunate to maybe get away with some things [in the past]," Smith said. "This year, your flaws are exploited very often, so it has been good for me in that sense to really work on my game."
As for the mask and pads? Minnesota bought him a Wild-themed mask as well as pads that he still has to break in first.
"They said that when I'm here, they'd really like for me to be part of the organization," Smith said. "That's great because I want to fit in."
Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque tied Texas Stars captain Travis Morin for the AHL scoring lead at 36 points…Wilkes-Barre/Scranton left wing Scott Wilson slipped past Petr Straka of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for the AHL goal-scoring lead (18)…Ontario Reign veteran Peter Budaj's 1.74 GAA is best among AHL goaltenders. His 18 wins hold the league lead in that category…Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Matt Murray has a league-leading .939 save percentage.
AROUND THE AHL
The AHL named Albany right wing Mike Sislo its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. He had three goals and three assists in three games. Sislo, 27, began last week by playing two games with the New Jersey Devils and was also selected to play in the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic…After a six-game road trip, the Charlotte Checkers returned home owning a record 12-game point streak (10-0-1-1). They also have a nine-game point streak on the road…Syracuse Crunch left wing Jonathan Drouin has two goals in his first three AHL games since his assignment by the Tampa Bay Lightning…The San Diego Gulls have a crowded crease after the parent Anaheim Ducks acquired goaltender Dustin Tokarski from the Montreal Canadiens. Tokarski did not dress in either of San Diego's two games this past weekend. Fellow veterans Matt Hackett and Anton Khudobin have handled goaltending duties in San Diego since John Gibson's recall to Anaheim…The New York Rangers extended their affiliation agreement with Hartford Wolf Pack through next season. The Rangers-Wolf Pack affiliation is in its 19th season, second only to the Boston-Providence partnership that began in 1992…Three more AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 76.