With the Toronto Maple Leafs in the midst of a rebuilding project that started at the beginning of this season, it was inevitable that general manager Brian Burke would have to rely on his team’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, to provide recruits for on-ice auditions. That, coupled with a host of Leafs injuries, forced several players from the AHL to fill voids in their fragmented roster.
As the Maples Leafs closed out the final game of their 2008-09 campaign on Saturday, however, it became clear that no more call ups would be necessary.
Despite claiming a playoff berth late in their season, the Marlies found it difficult to play with any kind of rhythm, due in large part to the 13 players poached from their roster over the course of the year. They were obligated to deal with their own injury woes and only enjoyed some balance in the lineup during the latter stages of their regular-season campaign, when the Leafs’ schedule grew lighter.
“It’s tough when players bounce in and out of the lineup,” said defenseman Phil Oreskovic. “I’m not going to say it’s an excuse for some of the losses taken, but it’s definitely been tough. Playing with new guys is always a little different, the comfort level is lost a little bit.”
While one of the many predicaments facing AHL teams is the imminent nature of seeing call ups or replacements sent to their respective NHL affiliates, it also provides a scenario in which an opportunity can pose unique possibilities for budding talent.
Oreskovic’s chance came when injuries hampered the Leafs’ defence corps. His stint only lasted 10 games, but he absorbed as much as he could in order to garner some kind of flavour about NHL life – and what it takes to be a qualified player in the big league.
“When I was up in the NHL, I knew it was definitely professional. You head to the rink to play; there’s no day off,” he said. “It’s your job and everyone is trying to take your spot on the team, so definitely you have to come to the rink and compete every day.”
There is also a unique dynamic to being thrown into the fray midway through an NHL season, as some AHL players aren’t as readily prepared nor assimilated in a roster from the beginning of the year.
No one experienced this more than Justin Pogge, who was called up on various occasions as either a proxy goaltender or as part of a deliberate plan initiated by Leafs management to test his mettle.
“There’s definitely a whole other level if you just get thrown into a game, but it’s good for you; just throwing yourself right in there and not having to worry about anything too much,” said the 22-year-old Alberta native. “The NHL is just a whole new animal. It’s pretty nice up there; you definitely want to work your way back to get up there.
“The plane rides sure beat the bus rides.”
But after recording a single win in six appearances with the Leafs this season, there are questions as to whether he deserves a contract extension before testing restricted free agency in the summer.
“I think I got a lot of games, but if I had a few more practices maybe I could have given a better effort. I’m pretty happy with the way the year went. I got a win, a shootout loss and a couple of other losses I’d like to forget about, but that’s part of the game.”
The Marlies, meanwhile, were left scrambling for wins as they coped with the effects of the Leafs’ trial-and-error procedures. Although they dithered in and out of playoff contention in the final weeks of the season, the Marlies did post a stretch of consistent efforts by recording at least a point in 44 of their last 66 games.
Forward Tim Stapleton, who eclipsed the Marlies’ single-season record for most points scored in a season at 75, believes that there’s an underlying advantage to having such a vast influx of players travel to the NHL. The aforementioned statistic proves that it hasn’t curbed performances when players are sent back down to the AHL.
“The guys who are getting called up are obviously key players and very good players,” said Stapleton, who spent four games with the Leafs. “But then again, they get sent back down and (their experience in the NHL) usually makes them better players, so it could benefit us.”
Without the Leafs banging on their door, the Marlies can rest assured they will head into the first match in a first-round playoff series against the Manitoba Moose with a singular focus: victory. And after some of the experiences enjoyed by members of this Marlies squad, there’s hope that the team can make a legitimate drive for the Calder Cup.
“As a team, we’ve been through a lot of highs and lows, but I find that we have good chemistry going on right now,” said Oreskovic. “We’re really bonding right now and we hope to have a good, long playoff run and that we have more time for team building.”