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Marlies look for a good start, unlike last year's stumble out of the blocks

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TORONTO - The Toronto Marlies have had success developing players for the NHL-parent Maple Leafs in recent years, but they haven't qualified for the American Hockey League post-season since 2009.

They're hoping to find a little more balance in 2011-12.

Getting off to a good start would help erase the memories of last season?s forgettable finish.

The Marlies lost nine of 10 games in the final month of 2010-11 to fall out of the playoff race and ultimately end up 13th in the AHL?s Western Conference with a 37-32-11 record.

?We definitely want to get to the playoffs this year, that?s our No. 1 goal,? said winger Ryan Hamilton. ?And once we get in, we want to go as far as we can.?

The 26-year-old Hamilton, entering his sixth AHL campaign and third season with the Marlies, is a veteran leader on a young team packed with prospects trying to make the jump from Ricoh Coliseum to the nearby Air Canada Centre.

?The AHL is a developmental league, and the Leafs are doing a great job building depth,? he said. ?You?re excited for guys who get the call to go to the big leagues, and it encourages you to keep working.?

Up front, Hamilton is joined by mid-20somethings Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb, both of whom spent the second half of last season with the Leafs, and Mike Zigomanis, a 30-year-old veteran of nearly 200 NHL games.

But Marlies coach Dallas Eakins also has several young guns at his disposal, such as Joe Colborne, a six-foot-five centre who was an integral part of the trade that sent Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins last February. Colborne, 21, was drafted 16th overall by the Bruins in 2008, and recorded an assist in a one-game recall to the Leafs late last season.

Other kids with NHL dreams include rookie pro Kenny Ryan, 20, a two-time Memorial Cup champion with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires; Jerry D???Amigo, 20, a speedy graduate of the U.S. national program; and Marcel Mueller, a 23-year-old German who got into three games with the Leafs last season.

Dale Mitchell, 22, and Brayden Irwin, 24, are also working towards bigger things, while Luca Caputi, 23, has bounced between the NHL and AHL since 2008.

The Marlies skate into the 2011-12 campaign without four of their top six scorers from last season, with Zigomanis and Colborne the most productive returnees. In other words, the cast of kids will get their chance to shine.

???We???ve got good depth and we just need to get off to a good start and stay healthy,??? Hamilton said. ???It???s a long, grinding season.

???On the back end, we???ve got a bunch of defencemen with NHL experience. And we???ve got solid goaltending ??? (Ben) Scrivens had a real good camp with the Leafs.???

Scrivens, 25, and Jussi Rynnas, 24, will likely split the netminding duties, behind a youthful and promising blue-line that might be the Marlies??? biggest strength.

Keith Aulie, 22, played 40 games for the Leafs last season ??? usually paired with Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf ??? and Jesse Blacker, a 20-year-old drafted in the second round in 2009, had an impressive training camp as a rookie pro.

Korbinian Holzer, 23, and Matt Lashoff, 25, had a taste of the NHL last season, while Juraj Mikus and Simon Gysbers are looking to work their way into the big-league mix. Jeff Finger, at 31 and with 199 NHL games to his credit, is the group???s savvy veteran.

The Marlies open Saturday on the road against the Binghamton Senators.

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