Toronto Marlies defenseman T.J. Brennan, the Buffalo Sabres' second-round selection (No. 31) in the 2007 NHL Draft, has never quite found an NHL role after seven seasons in the American Hockey League.
"This league is bittersweet," Brennan said. "I guess I am biased, I've been in it for a while, but there are so many great things about this league. It just makes you appreciate it. It's just a totally different league."
Brennan, 26, is an offense-first defenseman who has helped the Marlies storm through the AHL this season. Utilized as a critical piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs' rebuild, the Marlies are 38-9-4-0. Their 80 points in 51 games put them 12 points ahead of the second-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the standings. Toronto leads the AHL in goals per game (3.94).
In the middle of it all is Brennan, whose 19 goals and 29 assists rank third in league scoring and first among defensemen. Brennan uses his strong shot often, and his 121 shots tie him for most among AHL defenseman.
Perhaps Brennan's best opening to stick in the NHL came before last season. He signed with the New York Islanders fresh off a season with the Marlies that ended with him winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's best defenseman; he had 25 goals and 72 points in 2013-14.
Brennan went to training camp with the Islanders, but they opted to bring in Nick Leddy instead, shipping Brennan in that same trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Brennan landed with the Rockford IceHogs last season before the Maple Leafs acquired him in a February 2015 trade.
"I went to the Islanders hoping to start maybe establishing myself in the NHL," Brennan said. "I think they were looking for a quicker, more immediate fix, and I don't think I was the right one."
So why has Brennan, who has played 46 NHL games, not received a look with the Maple Leafs this season?
Most of the knock on Brennan has centered on his defensive play, something that he acknowledges is an area in need of improvement for full-time NHL duty.
"I try every time I look at the NHL, I try to [remember] that just because you're not there, doesn't mean you're not doing things right," Brennan said. The biggest lesson that I've learned is really controlling what I can. I think things happen for a reason.
"I've had an opportunity to play in the NHL, maybe not the greatest opportunity, [but] I have to look at it and learned that maybe I didn't take advantage of that opportunity. The only thing I can do now is hope that I get another one and really put forth all of the lessons that I've learned in the meantime. ... I think I'm still on the same path, going upwards and really growing as a player and a person. I hope that one team can look at me and think that I could be really valuable to them because I truly believe that, and I hope that someone else does too."
Sometimes players anchored in the AHL will labor over NHL depth charts, wonder why a teammate received a call to the NHL, or let those concerns erode their AHL play.
"It's great to be aware of what's going on in the NHL, but for anyone that is in the AHL, you need to realize that you are in the AHL," Brennan said. "In order to get to the NHL, you need to do the best job you can with whatever is right in front of your face."
Brennan plans to keep learning as he pursues his first professional championship.
"For me personally, I don't understand how someone who was here couldn't appreciate it because it has been part of their path," he said. "It has been a huge factor in my life and my journey, so it's something that I really take close to my heart and appreciate.
"The way I have to look at it is that it's a totally different league than the NHL. There are things that you learn here that you couldn't in the NHL. Wherever you go, there are going to be lessons to be learned. This league has taught me so much and helped me grow so much."
Maybe the Marlies will win the Calder Cup this June, which could serve as springboard for Brennan and some of his teammates.
"There are a lot of things that I would take if I got an opportunity in the NHL, and one of the main things would be to make sure that I am enjoying every day and every opportunity to get better and to keep learning," Brennan said.
"I think that one thing that is a constant that I always want to keep in my mind is to always remember how much fun I have," Brennan said. "I have a lot of fun down here. You're playing hockey, and there are far worse things that could happen in life."
With Iowa Wild coach John Torchetti replacing Mike Yeo with the Minnesota Wild, the effects have trickled down to the AHL.
Long-time assistant coach David Cunniff has taken over in Iowa for Torchetti on an interim basis. It is Cunniff's first time coaching an AHL team. Cunniff, 44, spent 11 seasons with the San Jose Sharks organization in AHL coaching roles. Iowa brought him in this season after one season with the Albany Devils.
AHL GAME OF THE WEEK
A nine-game losing streak (0-7-2-0) has the Charlotte Checkers scrambling for a playoff spot. Charlotte's 12-game point streak earlier this season had provided a cushion, but the recent slide has eroded its playoff chances. The Checkers visit Van Andel Arena for back-to-back games this weekend against Grand Rapids. The Griffins have been up-and-down this season with losses in five of their past six home games after a franchise-record 14-game home winning streak. Along with a 15-game winning streak, another franchise record, the Griffins have started to slide recently and have four wins in their past 12 games.
The AHL named St. John's IceCaps rookie goaltender Zach Fucale its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending last Sunday. Fucale stopped 107 of 111 shots in three games, each of them wins, which was good for a .964 save percentage and a 1.32 goals-against average. With Dustin Tokarski traded to the Anaheim Ducks earlier this season, Fucale has claimed the No. 1 job with St. John's, which is in a battle for a North Division playoff spot.
Hershey forward Chris Bourque holds the AHL scoring lead at 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists). … A five-game goal streak (six goals) has moved Albany veteran forward Mike Sislo into a tie with Derek Grant of Stockton with 23 goals. Grant is out with a broken jaw…On recall with the Los Angeles Kings, Ontario veteran Peter Budaj's 1.58 GAA and 26 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His .935 save percentage, eight shutouts and 2,284 minutes also top the AHL.
ON THE MOVE
The Marlies are without forwards Mark Arcobello, Rich Clune, Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo and Jeremy Morin after they were recalled to the Maple Leafs last week. Portland forwards Greg McKegg and John McFarland are with the Florida Panthers, as is captain Brent Regner. Center Corbin Knight returned after 20 games with the Panthers.
AHL defensemen on the move to the NHL include Kevin Gravel (Ontario), Peter Harrold (Chicago Wolves), Slater Koekkoek (Syracuse Crunch), Andrew MacDonald (Lehigh Valley Phantoms), Xavier Ouellet (Grand Rapids) and Viktor Svedberg (Rockford). NHL veteran Dylan Reese joined the Springfield defense after his assignment by the Arizona Coyotes. Ontario defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who was reassigned by the Kings, played his first AHL game since the 2004-05 season last weekend.
Goalie Laurent Brossoit departed for the Edmonton Oilers, and goalie Anders Nilsson was sent to Bakersfield and started with two wins. There is a goalie logjam for Manitoba, which has Connor Hellebuyck. Eric Comrie, who started 31 of 34 games while Hellebuyck moved into a starting role with the Winnipeg Jets, apparently will have to split time. Karri Ramo's injury with the Calgary Flames moved Stockton's Joni Ortio back to the NHL. Kevin Poulin will take over Stockton's No. 1 job.
AROUND THE AHL
Providence owns a 16-game point streak (12-0-3-1), the AHL's longest of the season. Rookie forward Frank Vatrano has 20 goals and 10 assists in 19 games this season…With Providence goaltender Malcolm Subban out for a minimum of seven more weeks because of a fractured larynx, veteran newcomer Jeremy Smith debuted with two wins last week…Syracuse's eight-game losing streak (0-6-2-0) has it fading from playoff contention. … Chicago, expected to be a Calder Cup contender at the beginning of the season, sits on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race after earning three of eight points in four road games last week (1-2-1-0). Sixth in the Central Division, the Wolves are five points out of a playoff spot. … San Antonio has started with two wins in the first five games of an 11-game, 23-day road trip, but was outscored 10-1 last weekend…Rockford goaltender Michael Leighton is still tied with Johnny Bower for the AHL career lead with 45 shutouts…Five AHL players played their first NHL game last week, taking the season total to 90 players.