TORONTO — There was a time — and it was not that long ago — when it seemed like any prospect with a pulse and a small amount of skill would inevitably get called up from the minors to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Remember Simon Gamache and Andy Wozniewski? How about Ben Ondrus and Robbie Earl? Or Jaime Sifers and Alex Foster?
Unless you follow the Austrian, Swiss or other European hockey leagues, you probably have forgotten about these players. But a few years ago, these were whom the Leafs turned to when injuries struck.
For head coach Ron Wilson and predecessor Paul Maurice, it made for some restless nights. But after years and years of emptying the cupboard of draft picks and prospects, the Leafs appear to have built back their organizational depth to the point where the team has lost 86 man-games to injuries already this season without actually having lost many games.
“The talent that we have now, which wasn’t necessarily there three years ago when I got here, is definitely a lot deeper and you feel good,” Wilson said. “We get an injury and I don’t lose sleep at night, because I know somebody coming in is going to get the job done.”
The Leafs currently have three players on their roster who began the season playing with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies and who are being leaned on to contribute.
Joe Colborne, a former first-round entry draft pick who was named the AHL’s player of the month in October, has one goal and three assists in six games. Joey Crabb has five goals and two assists in 14 games. And in two games, Keith Aulie has seamlessly gone from playing in the minors to alongside Dion Phaneuf on the top defensive pairing.
The talent pool is so rich that the team has no immediate plans to recall Nazem Kadri, another former first-round draft pick who was named the AHL’s player of the month for November.
“It’s funny. I know there are people in the city who are like, ‘what’s going on with Kadri? What’s taking so long?’ ” Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said. “But he’s 21 years old. He’s still very, very young. I’m glad that we have great depth with our organization and our big club has been upgraded that he’s not forced in the fire. He can have a little more time to develop.”
This ultimately goes back to Brian Burke. Ever since he was hired as the general manager three years ago he has stockpiled high-end prospects through trade (Colborne, Jake Gardiner and Joey Crabb) or free agency (Tyler Bozak, Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens). He has also stressed that players earn their stripes in the minors before becoming full-time Leafs.
Sure, Gardiner and Matt Frattin managed to punch a ticket to the NHL without having to ride on many buses. But overall, the Leafs want their players to knock down the door rather than have it held open for them. That way, when they are recalled, they are more than just placeholders.
“We know it’s not going to be an easy ride,” Aulie said. “Knowing every day it’s going to be a battle just makes us better for the future.”
“That’s really what you need,” Scrivens added. “You need guys who are going to step right up and play and not just play and kill minutes, but make positive contributions on the ice.”
The Leafs appear to be getting that these days. At times in the last two months, the team has been without several key players, including starting goaltender James Reimer, top-six forwards Tim Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski and defenceman Mike Komisarek. And yet, you would never know it with how seamlessly the call-ups have fit in.
Part of it is because the Marlies and Leafs play a similar style. But a bigger reason is that unlike previous years, the minor leaguers are treated as equals.
“The guys that come up feel like they’re a part of the team,” Wilson said. “I think that’s huge. When they’re sitting in the room, they’re not sitting off to the side. We don’t have a Marlies corner and we don’t have Marlies dinners at night. They become a part of the team.”
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