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Maple Leafs see brighter future after AHL title

Prospects dominate Toronto's Calder Cup-winning roster

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Toronto Maple Leafs co-owner Larry Tanenbaum stood at center ice at Ricoh Coliseum on Thursday, smiling and soaking in every precious sight and sound of the euphoric chaos.

Fireworks crackled over his head. Blue-and-white confetti fluttered from the rafters. Toronto had just won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup with a 6-1 victory against Texas, becoming the first men's professional hockey team representing the city to claim a championship since the 1967 Maple Leafs hoisted the Stanley Cup. 

Now came party time.


[RELATED: Marlies win first Calder Cup title]


With the city celebrating the end of that 51-year drought, Tanenbaum watched Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas lift the Calder Cup with an emotional scream. 

Tanenbaum sees the influence Dubas has had with the AHL affiliate as the general manager there since being hired four seasons ago. He believes that influence can be carried to the NHL, one of the reasons Dubas was named general manager of the Maple Leafs on May 11, a decision made by Toronto president Brendan Shanahan but blessed by Tanenbaum.

"It's going to be a seamless transition from Kyle with the Calder Cup to Kyle with the Stanley Cup," Tanenbaum said. 

Lofty aspirations? Tanenbaum doesn't think so.

Tanenbaum is the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the corporation that operates the Maple Leafs, Marlies, the NBA's Toronto Raptors, the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. He owns 25 percent of MLSE. 

Having purchased a stake in the Maple Leafs in 1996, Tanenbaum has endured an emotional ride with a team that has reached the conference final twice in his 22 years there (1999, 2002).  

His renewed optimism these days is fueled by the success of the Marlies. If Dubas can do a job like this at the AHL level, think about what he could potentially accomplish with the Maple Leafs.

"If you look at our Leafs today, 14 of our players came up from the Marlies and are Leafs today," Tanenbaum said. "And you can see at least half a dozen guys on this team that could be up with the Leafs next season. This is what the exciting part is about this."

Among the Marlies expected to make an impact on the Maple Leafs next season, forward Andreas Johnsson tops the list. 

Johnsson, 23, won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs after leading in postseason scoring with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists). A seventh-round pick (No. 202) in the 2013 NHL Draft, he had three points (two goals, one assist) in nine games with the Maple Leafs this season.

"He's a special, special kid," Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said. "He's taken the long road to get here. It doesn't matter where you get drafted."

Maples Leafs forwards James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak can become unrestricted free agents July 1 and are not expected to return. As a result, there will be opportunities for Johnsson and Marlies linemates Carl Grundstrom, who had 14 points in the Calder Cup Playoffs (eight goals, six assists) and Miro Aaltonen, who had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) to turn heads at training camp.

Defenseman Travis Dermott could play a prominent role with the Maple Leafs next season. He spent the final three months of the regular season in the NHL and, like Johnsson, was returned to the Marlies after Toronto was eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round. He had four points (one goal, three assists) in the AHL postseason.

Goalie Garret Sparks is another intriguing option for the Maple Leafs. Sparks, 24, went 14-5 in the postseason (2.22 goals against average, .915 save percentage) and could be a skilled complement to incumbent Frederik Andersen next season.

As for Keefe, Dubas said it's likely a matter of time until he is snapped up for an NHL coaching job. Such an opportunity is unlikely to come in Toronto, where coach Mike Babcock is under contract for another five years.

Dubas hired Keefe as coach of Sault St. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League when he was GM there in 2012, and brought Keefe in to coach the Marlies three years later.

"Kyle deserves this [Calder Cup title] more than anyone," Keefe said. "He's been here with us every step of the way, every single day, even after he was named GM of the Leafs. And I think our players appreciated that. He made clear when he got his new position that nothing had changed and that he was with us right to the very end.

"One of the sweetest and best things about Kyle is that he's never changed dating back to our days in the Soo. He's always evolving, he's always learning, but he's always stayed true to himself and I think the players appreciate that. This is so great, but especially for him. This is his vision. This is his plan coming together."

A plan Tanenbaum hopes works equally well for the Maple Leafs.

Lead photo credit: Thomas Skrlj/AHL

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