The Toronto Maple Leafs are riding high of late, putting together a 9-1-3 record in November, and rising to second place in the Atlantic Division. It’s impressive they’ve done as well as they have, given that their defense corps has been decimated by injuries: D-men Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Jordie Benn all are sidelined at the moment, and Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has had no choice but to play a quartet of youngsters – 24-year-olds Victor Mete and Mac Hollowell, 23-year-old Timothy Liljegren, and 22-year-old Rasmus Sandin – in the past few games.
The fact Toronto has been able to be as competitive as they are is a credit to the drafting and development arm of the organization. And if you’re a Buds fan who pays attention to the Leafs’ American League affiliate Toronto Marlies squad, you can take comfort in the fact they’ve got a slew of up-and-coming talent up front who can be promoted to the NHL in the event the injury bug chomps into their group of forwards.
Leading the way for the Marlies this season – other than AHL veteran winger Logan Shaw, who is not under contract with the Leafs, but who is tops on the team with 13 assists and 21 points in 18 games – is 24-year-old winger Joey Anderson. Now in his third year with the Marlies, Anderson has 10 goals and 18 points in as many games, Like all Marlies we’ll list below, Anderson has a low salary cap hit, and that’s crucial for the cap-strapped Leafs. Andersen has had short stints in the NHL, but he could step in to the Leafs’ roster should regular members be sidelined by injury.
Four more Marlies forwards are in double-digits in points so far this season: 22-year-old Alex Steeves has 11 assists and 17 points; 22-year-old Semyon Der-Arguchintsev has 12 assists and 17 points; 25-year-old Adam Gaudette, an off-season new acquisition by Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, has a team-best 12 goals and 16 points; and 23-year-old Nick Abruzzese has six assists and 11 points. Any one of them could be called up to play a role amongst the Leafs’ bottom-six forwards.
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We’ve already seen one Marlies call-up to the Leafs – forward Pontus Holmberg, who scored a big goal in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins – show some staying power. There’s also youngster Nick Robertson, who has two goals and five points in 11 NHL games this year, providing competition on the Leafs’ non-core forwards. That’s five forwards who could contribute at the NHL level, just waiting for the opportunity to come.
And opportunity almost certainly will come. The NHL has become a triage league, with players getting injured almost every night. And by the time the playoffs roll around in mid-April, the Leafs could have to rely on a number of current Marlies players to step up and help take pressure off Toronto superstars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander to do the heavy lifting night-in and night-out.
This is why depth is so important to NHL teams in the salary-cap era. You can’t keep adding expensive parts from the free-agent or trade markets as you deal with injuries. At some point in the season, you have to turn to prospects in your system, and give the best of them a chance to stick around at hockey’s top level. Dubas and Leafs’ management have built a solid AHL team, and as a result, the Leafs possess sufficient depth to help them make it through the regular season and be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
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