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The Toronto Marlies are marching, with great promise on defense

The pairing of Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren has brought together two of the organization’s best young talents and a Calder Cup is now just six wins away

Amidst all the front office moves in Toronto these days, fans of the Maple Leafs can at least still watch some hockey with an eye on the future. The AHL’s Toronto Marlies took the first two games of the Eastern Conference final on the weekend and now head to Lehigh Valley for two more matches against the Phantoms, Philadelphia’s farm team.

 

The Marlies were the best team in the league this year, pretty much post-to-post. Toronto won 16 of its first 20 games and finished first overall in the regular season. While the first round of the playoffs against Utica went the full distance, reinforcements in the form of defenseman Travis Dermott and left winger Andreas Johnsson got the team back on top and they haven’t lost a game since. It’s bittersweet, but the Maple Leafs’ playoff loss to Boston was a boon for the Marlies.

 

“It’s been big,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “Both Derms and Johnny were huge parts of our team when they were here before. They’re a big reason why we are who we are as a team.”

 

Johnsson and Dermott both showed great potential in their NHL call-ups this year and getting time in The Show helped turbo-charge their AHL playoff run.

 

“You get to experience the next level and you try to bring back tips for these guys and help out as much as you can,” Dermott said. “Our team was doing well enough without Johnny and I, but I felt we came back and got in the groove.”

 

Johnsson already looks like the type of skilled and versatile winger that could play up and down an NHL lineup where needed, but if there’s one glaring deficiency the Maple Leafs need to address heading into next season, it’s on defense. Dermott should have a regular role next season, though it will be interesting to see how soon his Marlies ‘D’ partner joins him. Timothy Liljegren is only in his first North American season and still a teenager. But as a right-shot blueliner with mobility and skill, he’s looking like a great future asset.

 

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“Stick skills he’s got me beat,” Dermott said. “He’s a young guy, so he’s got some learning to do, but the way he has learned already, it’s nothing to worry about. He’s someone to be excited for. Soon enough he’ll be up there for sure and making a great impact.”

 

Fundamentally, it’s the skating of Liljegren and Dermott that make them so intriguing right now. While neither has put up a ton of points in the post-season so far, they are using their speed to nullify chances in their own zone (and given how potent the Marlies’ forwards are, offense from the back end isn’t needed as much), which is a great harbinger for the next level. That philosophy is also helping the Marlies keep last-minute leads.

 

“Backing off the gas pedal is the last thing you want to do,” Dermott said. “Some teams back off and almost let the team get in the zone. With the skill we have, we don’t have to do that. We can pressure them and force them to get the puck out of their zone, instead of us getting it out of ours.”

 

Though Lehigh Valley lost the first two games of the series, the Phantoms have kept things close. They have some great young talent of their own (Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers to name two) and veterans who play hard. Should the Marlies succeed, they will likely meet another tough squad in the final, as the veteran Texas Stars hold a 2-0 lead on Rockford in the West.

 

All of this is great experience for youngsters like Dermott and Liljegren and a title would really validate the work new Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has done with the team’s AHL squad in recent years. While the Leafs would do well to bring in a top-end defenseman this summer, the youngsters bubbling up from below could really take the unit to the next level in the near future.