TORONTO - Two hundred and fifty-four. That's how many steps separate the Toronto Marlies from the big-league Maple Leafs.
Steve Spott knows this, because he counted the paces from his office to Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle's at the teams' practice facility.
That's the kind of attention to detail he brings to his job as the new head coach of the American Hockey League's Marlies from his days as an elementary schoolteacher.
"That must be my teaching background," Spott said. "There'll be no balls dropped here? I pride myself in details. For me, it's knowing just how far away the Leafs are from these players. Those 254 paces are miles because of the fact that, as close as it is, it's still extremely far away and the boys have a lot of work to do before they get there."
The number 254 will be prominently displayed in the Marlies dressing room at Ricoh Coliseum, where Spott will have 20-plus new pupils after taking over for new Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins.
The Marlies are trending younger for 2013-14 after an exodus of veterans in the off-season. Gone are Will Acton (26), Tim Connolly (32), captain Ryan Hamilton (28), Mike Mottau (35), Greg Scott (25) and Mike Zigomanis (32). Moving up the depth chart are Tyler Biggs (20), David Broll (20), Josh Leivo (20), Andrew MacWilliam (23), Stuart Percy (20) and Garret Sparks (20) ??? all of whom played less than 10 games with the Marlies last season.
"You're going to see more of a youthful look to our club this year," Spott said. "We're going to have a lot of new faces and probably a lot more prospects for the Leafs as opposed to some of the American League-type veterans that we've had in the past."
Spott fits seamlessly into the Marlies' makeover with his history of developing prospects into pros. He spent the past five seasons as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, where he helped young stars like Jeff Skinner and Gabriel Landeskog jump straight to the NHL from junior as 18-year-olds. Others, like Ryan Murphy and Radek Faksa, have become first-round NHL draft picks or highly touted prospects.
"We as a group thought Steve Spott was one of the top young coaches available," said Dave Poulin, Toronto's vice-president of hockey operations. "Our decision to replace (Eakins) with Steve fits the development piece of it??? We had an excellent list of candidates. Steve stood out as someone who understood what we wanted to do."
The departure of so many veterans leaves leadership roles vacant on the Marlies roster. But Spott already has idea who he'd like to fill those positions.
"Gregg McKegg and Jerry D'Amigo are two players that come to mind that we're going to count on early for their leadership," Spott said. "Both those players understand the demands of playing professional hockey on and off the ice. Those are two guys right off the bat that I'll lean on and I know that our kids will lean on to definitely lead the way."
This is D'Amigo's fourth season with the Marlies, but he's still just 22. He came to Toronto as a 19-year-old out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) from the NCAA, and he's primarily played a penalty-killing/checking-line role. He's now the second-longest tenured Marlie, after Korbinian Holzer, and relishes the opportunity to take on a greater role.
"I'm ready for that," D'Amigo said. "A lot of guys aren't ready for that role or don't want to take it upon themselves to do it. But for me, I love it. I want to be that guy. I'm ready for it if it comes to me."
With the injection of youth into the Marlies, particularly up front, management brought back Drew MacIntyre, who at 30 years old will be the oldest player on the team. He shone in 21 games last season, posting a 13-5-3 record, 1.83 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
"We're going to need his game to be at the top of his level because of the fact we're going to rely on him," Spott said. "We are going to make some mistakes and we're going to need Drew to be there to mop up some of the messes that eventually could happen. He's going to be critical for us."
Under Eakins, the Marlies finished second in the Western Conference each of his past two seasons, reaching the Calder Cup final in 2012. With the team in transition, Toronto brass is tempering expectations for 2013-14, even as they push the Marlies to make those 254 steps up to becoming Leafs.
"I don't think you can quantify (this season) in terms of wins and losses, because we're all-in on the development side," Poulin said. "While we had successful years, we also developed players to play on the big club during those years????????? If we continue to develop players and continue to push the players at each position and push up through the system, then it'll be a successful year."