TORONTO – The road hardly seems like an ideal place for the Toronto Marlies to find their game. Especially a road trip as brutal as this one.
Toronto is preparing to set off on a 10-game swing that will see it play eight times in the first 11 days starting Wednesday in San Antonio. There will be virtually no time for the American Hockey League’s 30th-ranked team to practise as it travels around Texas for three games before visiting Oklahoma City, Hartford, Adirondack, Hershey and Binghamton.
It’s a section of the schedule that looms large, especially after a 2-6-0-0 start to the season. Only two of those games were played away from Ricoh Coliseum—both just down the highway at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum.
“That was a real key stretch we just had at home and we haven’t been able to get some wins,” Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Lake Erie. “I’m crossing my fingers and throwing in some hope that this road trip will be good for this group.”
With nine players either in their first year of professional hockey or their first year playing in North America, the coach has no shortage of projects.
Eakins thinks the majority of his team has yet to play up to its potential and he’s been unafraid to show the players tough love. He benched top prospect Nazem Kadri early in the season and scratched Marcel Mueller on Saturday afternoon, saying: “Suddenly, he’s gone invisible. He’s kind of like the kid you see on the milk carton box—`Have you seen him?'”
The task of turning things around has been made a little tougher with forwards Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson recently getting called up to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Eakins acknowledges that those depatures have left a bit of a leadership void in the dressing room.
Jeff Finger has the most NHL experience on the Marlies and is the team’s oldest player. The 30-year-old defenceman is looking forward to packing his suitcase.
“I think it’s what we need right now,” said Finger. “Get on the road, maybe (we’ll) bond a little bit as a team, and get away from here. It hasn’t been treating us good.”
One of the team’s biggest weaknesses so far has been scoring goals—something the parent Maple Leafs have struggled to do as well. After a slow start, Kadri has bounced back with a team-leading four goals and eight points through eight games.
Linemate Justin Hodgman has three goals while Brayden Irwin, Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce have each scored twice. Mueller and Jerry D’Amigo are among the players who have yet to score.
Kadri senses an urgency among his teammates to start contributing more.
“Each game we lose, obviously it’s getting tougher and tougher. We dig ourselves a deeper hole,” he said. “There’s really not too many excuses you can put out there. We’ve just got to put the puck in the back of the net.”
The long road trip comes with the Marlies displaced from their home on Toronto’s exhibition grounds by the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. They’ll go on a nine-game road trip in January when the boat show comes to town.
No. 1 goaltender James Reimer missed out on a lengthy road trip last season because of an injury. He expects the journey to be more of a mental test than a physical one.
“I think you’ve just got to make the most of whatever situation you’re in,” said Reimer. “In this case, we’re going to be close together. Hopefully we get closer as a team and learn to fight together kind of as a pack.
“We need that desire to win.”
Eakins knows his team is frustrated after losing three straight games but he’s going to have limited time to instruct them on the ice. The team practises Monday in Toronto, flies to San Antonio at 6 a.m. Tuesday and plays Wednesday night. They will also have games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“We’ll watch how hard and how long we practise now,” said Eakins. “Our morning skates are optional on the road so the guys can sleep in if they need to, to get ready for the game. We make sure they’re well-hydrated, well-fed, all of those things. … We’re very aware of what needs to happen with their bodies.
“We give them the best tools we can so that when they hit the ice, they’re ready to go.”
Ultimately, less will likely be more.
“You’ve got to really pull back,” said Eakins. “Once your guys get tired, they either get hurt or they get sick. And you don’t want that either way.”