TORONTO – The Toronto Marlies are counting on healthy competition within a youthful roster to trigger an improved performance this season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate has been affected by the sweeping turnover within the entire organization and the result is a young, fast team that won’t lack for motivation.
“I think, in a simple word, we have great balance,” said second-year coach Dallas Eakins. “There’s no area that’s going to stand out and win us games.”
The most prominent new Marlie is highly touted prospect Nazem Kadri, but he’s not alone in the category of young talent. Winger Luca Caputi, centre Christian Hanson, defenceman Keith Aulie and the goaltending duo of James Reimer and Jussi Rynnas are all part of a green group looking to establish themselves.
The Marlies missed the playoffs last year with a group that included since-departed veterans such as former captain Ben Ondrus, forwards Andre Deveaux and Kyle Calder, defenceman Jonas Frogren and goaltender Joey MacDonald.
Supplementing the team’s youthful corps are holdovers like forwards Darryl Boyce and Alex Foster, while Danny Richmond was brought in from the Chicago Blackhawks organization to solidify the defence.
Though Eakins praised Ondrus, who signed with the Edmonton Oilers, for being “about as good a captain as you’ll find,” he clearly believes there’s a positive culture shift on his club.
“We’ve weeded out a few that were on different programs and now we have guys who want to come in, they want to be in the weight room and they want to practise and they want to eat well away from the game and they want to live their lives right,” he said.
The coach said there’s no guarantee he’ll have the C on anybody’s sweater when the Marlies open at home Saturday against the Rochester Americans.
What he does guarantee are fierce battles for spots throughout the lineup.
“That’s going to be the first layer of competition,” Eakins said. “The second layer is, you have to play a good solid game and be at the top of your game every night because sooner or later my phone is going to ring and they’re going to say, ‘We need a forward’ and they’re going to ask for a recommendation and it’s up to these players to establish themselves as a call-up guy.”
Reimer, who played 26 games as an AHL rookie with the Marlies last year, said there’s a new energy in the air.
“This year already, I can feel everyone has that excitement,” the 22-year-old said. “It’s not back to same old team, like it sometimes is with older players. Guys are excited, they see an opportunity. There’s competition, but it’s healthy competition.”
Boyce, a relative veteran on the team at 26, believes the hunger will be obvious.
“You’re going to see names like Kadri and Caputi, guys who are knocking on the door and just waiting to get their shot,” he said.
Starting the season in the AHL is meant to be a learning experience for Kadri, who just turned 20 on Wednesday. Eakins said the talented forward is expected to soak up good habits, from learning to go hard in every practice and the finer points of defensive play, to simply getting to the rink 15 minutes before the appointed time.
“Just the simple rules of any job, not just hockey, be on time, be alert and that’s where we’re going to start with him,” Eakins said.