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AHL champion Toronto Marlies take on a new challenge

After an incredible 2017-18 campaign, the Maple Leafs' farm team brings back a lot of talent – but a lot has left for the NHL, too. Despite the difficulty of repeating, the Marlies don't intend to go quietly.

In the past thirty years, only two teams have repeated as AHL champions – the Springfield Indians (1990-91) and more recently, the Hershey Bears (2009-10). The nature of the league is transitory, so this is no surprise – but the odds won’t deter the Toronto Marlies from at least trying. The Maple Leafs’ farm team dropped just five games en route to their first-ever title last summer and despite the loss of key players such as Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott and Garret Sparks to the NHL, the Marlies don’t intend on sitting back this year.

“I don’t think anybody wants to think ‘OK, we’ll make the playoffs, lose in Round 2, it was a good year, everyone goes home happy,’ ” said right winger Jeremy Bracco. “The standard here set by the Maple Leafs organization is to put your best foot forward and you want to win every year. We lost a couple guys who were big for us, so some guys have to step up. We’re looking to do a repeat for sure.”

Bracco in particular will be key. Last year, the rookie pro saw only four games of action in the playoffs, but coach Sheldon Keefe made a point after the championship of telling the right winger he would be counted on this season.

“Anytime you’re not a part of things and the team wins, it can be tough on a young player,” Keefe said. “We wanted to give him that reassurance and put that thought in his mind as he went into the summer. I felt that offensively, he would be the real driver for our team this year; he has that ability. He did make progress last year and we wanted to make sure he was inspired to come in and take advantage of the opportunity we expected to give him.”

To that end, Bracco has been electric, notching about a point-per-game and playing with veteran center Chris Mueller. The two of them sit 1-2 in team scoring. A smaller but dazzling talent who cut his teeth at the U.S. National Team Development Program (where Auston Matthews was a teammate), Bracco put in a lot of work in the summer and Keefe has noticed a change in the 21-year-old’s build. As he gets stronger, Bracco will get quicker and he’s already pretty dangerous thanks to his playmaking abilities. His hockey IQ is also translating to the defensive side of the puck, where his play is beginning to grow.

With players graduating to the NHL and veterans Ben Smith and Miro Aaltonen heading over to Europe for this season, the Marlies are very different squad and it took some time for them to get going. But there is still plenty of talent there, given the additions of NHL veteran center Sam Gagner and 2018 first-rounder defenseman Rasmus Sandin, among others.

“The focus was in trying to motivate the group to continue to push,” Keefe said. “Because we had a mixed bag: you had a little over half the group that was part of last year’s team that played a lot of hockey and had very short summers that would maybe be behind in some areas because they didn’t have as much time to train and rest. Then you had the new players you were integrating into the group. In general, we were trying to push the group to stay focused, stay on task and be competitive once again. We struggled with that for a multitude of reasons, but as the season has gone on we’ve made daily improvements.”

Last year, the Marlies put up the best record in the AHL and it wasn’t even close. This season, the team is still in a playoff spot, but it’s tenuous. The team is beginning to string together more wins and certainly the return to health of Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen helps the call-up situation down on the farm.

But of course the mission is not to simply survive; the mission is to thrive once again. Repeating in the AHL is just as hard, if not harder, than repeating in the NHL and that’s what the Marlies have ahead of them. But hey; it’s a fun challenge, to say the least.


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