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Game 7 of Calder Cup final prime proving ground for Maple Leafs, Stars prospects

It's been 15 years since the last Game 7 in a Calder Cup final, but the winner-take-all contest gives the youngsters, veterans and coaching staff from the Toronto Marlies and Texas Stars the opportunity to show just how far they've come.

In all likelihood, the Toronto Marlies would have preferred to wrap up the Calder Cup final with a victory on home ice in Game 6 Tuesday night. Although, you know, the extra home date doesn’t hurt and this is an organization that has perfected the art of making money. We joke. Maybe.

But one of the fringe benefits of failing to close things out and going to the first Game 7 of the American League final in 15 years is the organization will not only learn just a little more about its young coach and prospects, it will also provide another experience that will better prepare them for playing in the NHL. The same goes for the Texas Stars, a more veteran-laden team that has battled back in this series. There is a handful of possible future Dallas Stars on that team and it gives them a chance to show what they can do under the glare and pressure of a Game 7.

The game tonight will be the only significant hockey game being played in the world. It will also be played in the Center of the Hockey Universe™ and televised nationally in Canada. For a guy in the minors, the spotlight doesn’t get more glaring than that. And both organizations will be keeping a close eye on how their players respond.

“We’re done growing,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe after his team lost Game 6. “It’s time to just play and get it done.”

This series is an interesting study in contrasts. The Marlies are a younger, prospect-heavy team, while the Stars have more of a veteran presence. Some of the Maple Leafs’ best prospects outside the NHL are playing in this series, most notably defensemen Timothy Liljegren and Travis Dermott, along with center Miro Aaltonen, right winger Carl Grundstrom and left wingers Andreas Johnsson and Dmytro Timashov. One player with more than a little on the line is goalie Garret Sparks, who played 17 games for a terrible Leafs team in 2015-16, but hasn’t appeared since. The soon-to-be 25-year-old was the AHL’s goalie of the year who was soundly outplayed by Stars goalie Mike McKenna in Game 6. Sparks’ contract becomes a one-way deal next season, meaning he’ll make $700,000 whether he plays for the Leafs or Marlies. With Curtis McElhinney on the final year of a deal that pays him $850,000, Sparks could enhance his chances of being the Leafs backup goalie next season.

And here’s where the development comes in. Through much of this series, the Marlies’ top line of Aaltonen between Grundstrom and Johnsson has gone head-to-head against the Stars top unit of Trevor Morin between Justin Dowling and Curtis McKenzie. Collectively, the Stars’ top line has 21 years on the Marlies’ trio and has outscored them in this series 8-3 at even strength. There’s not a much better training ground for the NHL than that.

“We’re just looking for them to be the players that they’ve been,” Keefe said. “We’re playing here in this series and playing as deep in this series because of our young players. If our younger players don’t blossom the way that they have in the second half of the season, we don’t have the depth to get to this point. It’s another great experience and all of our young guys are going to play a lot.”

That’s not to say that the Stars don’t have a few young players in this situation as well. Wingers Roope Hintz and Remi Elie, as well as defenseman Dillon Heatherington are on the cusp of NHL employment and Jason Dickinson could find his way to the NHL as a fourth-line center.

“It’s higher level hockey and you get a little pressure on yourselves, so it’s good to see how these young guys react,” McKenzie said. “If they go on to the NHL, which you hope they all do, there’s going to be big moments and big times where you have to be your best. I think the biggest thing with those guys is their legs. If they’re skating, they’re playing well. Elie, (Dickenson), Roope, those guys are all great skaters and when they’re skating they’re at their best.”

There’s something riding on this for the coaches as well. Keefe has long been tabbed as a future NHL coach and could be behind Toronto’s bench as early as next season. Should Barry Trotz re-sign with Washington as expected, there is speculation that Leafs’ assistant D.J. Smith could be in line for the New York Islanders job, which would leave an opening on Mike Babcock’s staff. Stars coach Derek Laxdal has been around for a while and has won both ECHL and Memorial Cup championships, but 52 is not ancient by NHL coaching standards and he has never had a crack.

And it’s interesting to note the last time the Calder Cup final went to a Game 7, two pretty familiar faces were behind the benches in Todd McLellan and Claude Julien.

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