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AHL Notebook: Marlies' Keefe key in Toronto rebuild

by Patrick Williams

Adding general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock attracted most of the headlines for the Toronto Maple Leafs this past summer.

But what happens a five-minute drive from Air Canada Centre with the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies this winter is where the on-ice future begins for the Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leafs' organizational overhaul and the rebuilding process that begins this season will hinge on new Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe being able to open a pipeline of talent from Ricoh Coliseum to Air Canada Centre. Toronto management has provided Keefe, 35, with plenty of resources and raw talent to do so.

"I know that when I played we didn't have [dressing] rooms or amenities like this here at Ricoh [Coliseum]," said Keefe, who played in parts of four AHL seasons. "In this organization, the resources around the players and the attention to detail in all areas of development is top-notch."

Combining with those amenities will be a deeper pool of prospects than the Maple Leafs have possessed in years. Keefe will attempt to engrain organizational philosophies early as part of what is expected to be a slow, deliberate organization-wide rebuilding process.

Headlining the group is center William Nylander, the eighth pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. The 19-year-old, who had 14 goals in 37 AHL games with the Marlies last season after a midseason arrival from Modo of the Swedish Hockey League, had nine shots in the Marlies' season-opening win Oct. 9 against the Manitoba Moose and took over the game at times.

It will be Keefe's job to polish the rough spots in Nylander's game to ready him for future duty with the Maple Leafs.

"I think [Nylander] needs to find a level of consistency to his game and his effort and little things without the puck," Keefe said. "But he has got the ability, the intelligence, and in many ways he is on another level than players that are here. While he is here, we'll continue to be on him about those work habits and bringing it consistently."

Flanking Nylander early in the season is right wing Connor Brown, who grew up in Toronto before heading off to play alongside Connor McDavid with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. Brown, 21, overcame questions that his OHL production stemmed from playing with McDavid by putting together a rookie AHL season with 21 goals and 40 assists with the Marlies last season.

A chance to play with Nylander on the Marlies' top line reminds Brown of his OHL days.

"I had the chance to play with McDavid in junior and [it is] just the same kind of offensive mind, the way they think, the way they see the game, the way they can possess the puck at such a high speed," Brown said.

Another Toronto-area product, defenseman Stuart Percy, enters his third pro season after the Maple Leafs selected him 25th in the 2011 NHL Draft. Percy was limited to 43 AHL games and nine NHL games last season, and needs a strong season to remain a top prospect. Rookie center Frederik Gauthier (No. 21, 2013) is another first-round pick with the Marlies.

But Maple Leafs management has also found some intriguing, if less-heralded prospects.

A strong rookie AHL season for hard-hitting defenseman Viktor Loov has taken him from a seventh-round pick in 2012 to an intriguing prospect. Center Byron Froese, 24, started last season in the ECHL and earned a two-year contract with the Maple Leafs this past summer after scoring 18 goals in 46 games last season with the Marlies.

It will be Keefe that the Maple Leafs entrust with bringing along their pool of prospects as the long rebuilding process begins.

Keefe made the move to the pro game after two full seasons guiding Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL, going 54-12-0-2 last season with a league-leading 110 points and winning the Matt Leyden Trophy as OHL coach of the year.

"With [Keefe] being a bit younger, I think he thinks a little bit differently than perhaps a seasoned coach," Brown said. "We play fast, we play hard and we push the pace. It's that new style of hockey."

NHL jobs are available if Keefe and his Marlies succeed.

"Everybody knows that there are [NHL] opportunities," Brown said. "Even management has made it clear that there is opportunity and that the future of the team lies within development."

NOTES: NHL opening-night rosters featured 628 AHL graduates. … There were 11 franchise relocations and/or affiliation changes in the AHL this offseason, as the league expanded its reach to California. … Providence Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week on Tuesday. He had a four-goal game Sunday in a 6-4 win against the Portland Pirates. The undrafted 21-year-old forward out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has five goals in his first two games.

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