“What’s important is that what’s being taught to the Maple Leafs players is being taught to the Marlies players,” said Gilbert, who replaced Paul Maurice behind the bench. “We want to have that continuity within the organization . . . we think that helps give us our best shot at a championship. We want to create an atmosphere of winning.”
It may be easier said than done. While the Leafs missed the playoffs altogether last season, the Marlies finished fourth in the North Division – with a 41-29-10 record – before falling to Grand Rapids in the first round of the playoffs.
The bar will be set at least as high when the Marlies open the season Friday at home against the Syracuse Crunch. And this season, the Marlies need their younger players to shoulder more of the load.
“It’s the coaches’ job to help these guys prepare to play against anybody, whether it’s in the NHL or the AHL,” said Gilbert, 44, who coached the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Ice Dogs the past three seasons. “If we do our job as coaches, we’ll have success with young and old players alike.”
One of the most anticipated changes will be in goal, where hot prospect Justin Pogge will get the chance to earn the starting job. A 90th-overall draft pick in 2004 who has since raced up the prospect rankings, Pogge completed his major junior career with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen last season.
He posted a 38-10-6 record with a 1.72 GAA and .926 save percentage while taking time out to backstop Canada to the gold medal at the 2006 world junior championship.
Jean-Francois Racine, who backed up J.S. Aubin with the Marlies last season, will likely be Pogge’s partner.
“They’re both strong goalies, both battling for the No. 1 position,” Gilbert said. “We’ll play the guy that’s hot. It’s healthy for teams to have internal competition. That’s what a good team has, players that will push each other for ice time.”
Todd Ford saw a bit of action with the Marlies last season and is also in the mix but most likely is destined for the ECHL. Meanwhile, the Leafs are starting the season with three goalies – starter Andrew Raycroft and backups Mikael Tellqvist and Aubin. It’s a situation that’s unlikely to continue all season and could impact the Marlies at some point.
“We still don’t know what we’re going to have (in goal),” Gilbert said. “Ideally, most organizations like to have a veteran mentoring a younger prospect.”
On the blue-line, the Marlies might have the best group of defencemen in the AHL. But the Leafs, already beset by injuries and a one-game suspension to Pavel Kubina, have been slow to send any of them back down to the minors.
“Because of the injury situation with the Leafs, we’re still not quite sure what we’ll have (on the blue-line) in the regular season,” Gilbert said.
While the Marlies expected Carlo Colaiacovo, Staffan Kronwall and Andy Wozniewski to graduate full-time to the NHL, it appears Ian White and Jay Harrison will begin 2006-07 with the big team, too. Brendan Bell also was making a strong case before a pre-season leg injury sidelined him for a couple weeks.
Assuming the Leafs get healthy on the blue-line, Harrison and Bell probably will be sent back to the Marlies, where they’ll join captain Marc Moro and AHL veteran Dominic D’Amour, along with rookies Justin Sawyer and Jamie Sifers.
“The guys we have right now are working hard to learn the system and getting to know each other,” said Gilbert. “Whether we get guys back (from the Leafs) or not, we have to be ready to go when the season begins.”
The Marlies may have some problems up front as the top two scorers last season, centre John Pohl and left-winger Bates Battaglia, look like they’ll be skating with the Leafs this year. The same goes for Aleksander Suglobov, who was obtained late in the 2005-06 campaign and was the Marlies’ most electrifying player after joining the team.
The scoring will have to come from the likes of free agent addition Erik Westrum, who had 98 points with Houston last season and Brad Leeb, who’s coming off a 34-goal campaign.
Jeremy Williams, Colin Murphy, Kris Newbury, John Mitchell and rookie Robbie Earl will round out the forward lines.
“We anticipate being a four-line team,” Gilbert said. “We want to be a team that can play against anybody. We want to roll four lines and have confidence in each one.”
Another possibility at forward is 2006 first-round pick Jiri Tlusty (13th overall), an 18-year-old native of the Czech Republic who impressed at the Leafs training camp. However, the shifty winger may be sent to the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to get more playing time.
“The type of team that we want to be is to play with a lot of passion and at a high tempo, to play an exciting brand of hockey where everybody knows what’s expected of them,” Gilbert said.