Maple Leafs investing in Marlies to build Cup contenders at both levels
Toronto simultaneously prioritizing development, winning at AHL level
The sensible course for each NHL team is to build through the draft and have sound player development in the American Hockey League.
The top-two Canadian-based clubs this season, the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, are proof of this philosophy.
Not only are the Jets and Maple Leafs considered legitimate Stanley Cup challengers, their respective AHL affiliates also are Calder Cup contenders.
The Leafs' farm team, the Toronto Marlies, have the best record in the AHL at 40-16-2, and the Jets' AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, sit third overall at 35-16-7.
But the longtime debate when it comes to NHL teams and its minor-league clubs is; Is it better to have a winner? Or, a team only concerned with development?
Well, why can't you have both?
Development 'priority No. 1'
"First and foremost, our job is to develop players — whether as Leafs call-ups who are going to help during the season, or guys who are going to play for the Leafs down the line or developing assets," Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said.
"That's priority No. 1, but we've been able to do that in a winning environment and that can help development too."
Some teams are going to have blue-chippers who won't spend a shift in the minors. But ideally, each club has five or so players in the AHL who will be cultivated and become contributors at the NHL level.
Keefe has turned over players like 21-year-old defenceman Travis Dermott and 21-year-old right winger Kasperi Kapanen to the Maple Leafs this season. At the trade deadline, defenceman Rinat Valiev and forward Kerby Rychel yielded veteran centre Tomas Plekanec from the Montreal Canadiens. Forward Nikita Soshnikov was sent to the St. Louis Blues for a fourth-round draft choice.
There are others such as forwards Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier, Jeremy Bracco and defenceman Timothy Liljegren who are close.
The 37-year-old Keefe, in his third season as the Marlies bench boss, added his team has been fortunate because of the financial resources the parent club has poured into its farm team, whether it's investments in the latest conditioning routines and nutrition trends, or salaries to bring in veteran players who can help in the win column and mentor the young talent.
The Marlies have several players who make good coin for playing in the AHL. Defenceman Martin Marincin is the club's top earner at $1.3 million US, followed by goalie Calvin Pickard ($1.075 million), and forwards Colin Greening ($750,000), Ben Smith ($650,000) and Chris Mueller ($400,000).
"It's incredible," Greening said. "Some guys call this the 32nd NHL team because of how much resources this team has. From what I'm told that all changed four years ago when the new management came in."
Greening, who turns 32 on Friday, has a good grasp on this NHL-AHL relationship. He won a Calder Cup with the 2010-11 Binghamton Senators and has played in more NHL regular season games than AHL games (286 to 234).
Greening a veteran presence
The Marlies, who have slumped lately with a 3-5-1 record in their last nine outings, have miles to travel before they can be crowned Calder Cup champs. But Greening sees a difference between his current club and the Binghamton team that won the AHL title seven years ago.
"What helped that team was that we had a lot of guys who had NHL experience," said Greening, who played 24 games in Ottawa that season, his first year of pro.
"We also picked up a few pieces, like Ryan Potulny. He thrived in the playoffs [with 14 goals and 26 points in 23 games that spring]."
Greening was rather green seven seasons ago. Now he finds himself in a mentoring position with the young Marlies.
"The teacher is the coach," he said. "I'm more of a veteran presence, someone who knows how to be a pro. It's something I've learned over a number of years. In 2011, I learned from players like Ryan Keller."
Calder Cup to Stanley Cup
This June marks the 25th anniversary of when the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the NHL final, the last time a Canadian-based club won the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, the Calder Cup has been captured by only three Canadian-based AHL teams in the same period: 1992-93 Cape Breton Oilers, 2000-01 Saint John Flames and 2006-07 Hamilton Bulldogs.
It's never easy to predict what a Calder Cup championship means to the parent NHL team. When Saint John won, the Calgary Flames made it to the Stanley Cup final three years later. After goalie Carey Price and the Bulldogs were victorious, the Canadiens advanced all the way to the East final in 2010.
When Greening and Binghamton celebrated its AHL championship, Ottawa came within an overtime goal of making it to the Stanley Cup final last spring.
It will be interesting to see what's in store for the Marlies and Moose in the next few months.