TORONTO – A trip to the conference final last year merely raised the Toronto Marlies’ expectations for this season.
The Marlies, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, won their division for the first time last year with a 50-21-9 record and captured their first two playoff rounds. They eventually lost in the Western Conference final to the Chicago Wolves, the eventual Calder Cup champions.
Coming into this season, they want more.
“We didn’t get to where we wanted last season,” said coach Greg Gilbert, back for his third season behind the Marlies bench. “We wanted to win the championship and we fell short of that goal. But in the process, a lot of our young players were exposed to high-level, high-tempo hockey in the playoffs.
“With that experience, we expect to go further this year.”
Highly touted goalie Justin Pogge didn’t see a lot of action during the Marlies’ playoff run, but he figures to play a much bigger role this season.
The 22-year-old, who was drafted 90th overall in 2004 and is the Leafs’ best netminding prospect, played only the final two of 20 playoff games (one win, one loss) as he backed up veteran Scott Clemmensen.
Clemmensen signed with the New Jersey Devils organization in the summer, elevating Pogge to starting status for the first time in his pro career.
“Right now he’s going to be the No. 1 dog and he’s got that responsibility,” said Gilbert, who also has 26-year-old journeyman Adam Munro and rookie pro James Reimer vying for crease time. “We expect Pogge to get in there and put the team on his shoulders.”
And even if Pogge has some off nights, the Marlies, who open the season at home Friday against the Binghamton Senators, think they have enough scoring punch and veteran presence to stay in most games.
“This year, we have a good mix with leadership and some good young players who we have to get into the lineup and develop,” Gilbert said.
Up front, the Marlies’ forward corps features several players who have been together for a few years, including captain Ben Ondrus, franchise scoring leader Kris Newbury, veteran Bates Battaglia and sniper Jeremy Williams.
Speedy Robbie Earl and fan favourite Alex Foster are also back, joined by centre Boyd Devereaux and big winger Mark Bell, both of whom have ample NHL experience but were waived by the Leafs after training camp.
Centre Darryl Boyce, who missed the second half of last season when he was hurt in his first game up with the Leafs, and right winger Brent Aubin return for their sophomore seasons.
“With the talent and the experience we have, we should be a good team,” Earl said. “We’re definitely a contender in the sense we have a lot of talent, but it’s how we jell as a team. The nucleus of last year’s team is back, so that’s obviously a positive.”
There are also a few new faces among the forwards.
Tim Stapleton, 25, a five-foot-nine centre from La Grange, Ill., placed second in Finnish Elite League scoring with 62 points in 55 games for Jokerit.
“He’s a smart little centre with good speed,” Gilbert said, “and he’s great on the power play.”
Andre Devaux, a six-foot-four, 217-pound forward, joins Toronto after winning a title with Chicago last season, while Max Taylor and Stefano Gillati are making the jump from Columbia in the ECHL. Taylor and Gillati got into a few games with the Marlies last season, as did Kyle Rogers, who skated in 10 AHL playoff contests after finishing up at Niagara University (NCAA).
Toronto’s biggest changes come on the blue-line. Mainstay Jamie Sifers is back, joined by second-year Phil Oreskovic and 25-year-old Staffon Kronwall, who has bounced up and down between the Leafs and Marlies the past few years.
He’s also suffered his share of injuries. A six-foot-four, 210-pounder with good mobility and offensive skills, Kronwall has missed more than 100 NHL and AHL games combined since arriving in Toronto in 2005.
The Marlies also added depth by signing three veteran defencemen: Josef Boumedienne, Andy Schneider and Richard Petiot.
Gilbert indicated he planned to work in the younger players as much as possible, but he’s looking to the veteran Marlies to lead the way.
“Winning breeds winning,” Gilbert said. “And obviously, those guys (returning Marlies) were a big part of our club last year. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t able to stick with the Leafs right now.
“But selfishly, from the Marlies’ standpoint, it’s nice to have them back.”