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Marlies Calder Cup win shows Leafs are still flexing their financial muscles in the salary cap era

The salary cap era has levelled the playing field, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have still shown they can flex financial muscle by pumping money into the minor league.

As confetti rained down from the rafters of the Ricoh Coliseum Thursday night and 8,818 fans professed their undying love for a minor pro team that usually goes ignored, something happened in Toronto that has not occurred for more than five decades. A professional hockey championship came to The Center of the Hockey Universe™ when the Toronto Marlies won Game 7 of the Calder Cup final.

It provided an infinitesimally microscopic glimpse of what things would be like if the Toronto Maple Leafs were ever to win the Stanley Cup. And that possibility is closer to coming to fruition than it has since they last won it in 1967. The Maple Leafs have won two playoff rounds five times since then, but aside from a couple of brief forays as a contender, have never really been that close. That is all changing and while a Calder Cup doesn’t guarantee anything, in this case it points to an organization that is hitting almost all the right notes and going in a championship direction.

And here’s one of the major reasons why. In a salary cap world where teams can spend a limited amount on players, the Maple Leafs have finally come to grips with the fact that there is no limitations on pouring resources into your hockey department. And the 2018 Calder Cup champions are a perfect example of that.

“It’s not just the coaching staff,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. “We have so many people who help with that. This is an organizational win, from (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman) Larry Tanenbaum and the MLSE board, the support they give the Marlies in making us a significant part of the organization, and the vision that (Leafs president) Brendan Shanahan has for what the minor league team has for the big club, and the plan that (current Leafs GM) Kyle Dubas put forth. The number of people who have a hand in this is vast.”

Yes it is. And it happened in large part because, under Shanahan, the Leafs have put their organizational financial muscle behind the Marlies, knowing that it will reap dividends down the road for the NHL team. When the Leafs are on the road and not using the practice facility, the Marlies have access to two sheets of ice, one that Keefe uses to work with half the team on systems, the other half of which is used for skill development. The Marlies have their own hockey operations director in Mike Dixon, who was brought in from the Florida Panthers organization. They have a hockey operations analyst in Will Sibley, who works exclusively with them doing video and statistical analysis. They have their own exclusive goalie coach in Piero Greco and a director of athletic performance in Richard Rotenberg.

All of this for a minor league team. It all stems from a decision in 2005 to move the team’s American League affiliate from St. John’s, Nfld., to Toronto to have a tenant for the Ricoh Coliseum and reduce travel costs, but it has morphed into so much more than that. Once an organization where prospects went to watch their careers get ruined, the Maple Leafs have become one of prime developers of young talent in the NHL. Mark Hunter, who recently left after being passed over for the GM job that went to Dubas, brought in players in every round and via free agency, while management, with Dubas having a huge hand in the process, has done a terrific job of developing them.

The accomplishments of the top-end players and the results of embracing the tank are well documented. But this is an organization that is finding players in late rounds and outside the draft and getting them under the organizational umbrella to develop them the right way. Examples of that abound. Andreas Johnsson was named MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs and has a certain immediate future for the Leafs, but only nine players were picked after him in the 2013 draft when he went 202nd overall. After a number of stops and starts and two years in the minors, Johnsson is more than ready for NHL employment, perhaps as a top-six forward. Mason Marchment didn’t play junior hockey until he was 19 and earned his way into the organization as a free agent. Trevor Moore was undrafted after three years of college hockey. Both Marchment and Moore were standouts in the playoffs and could find themselves in the NHL one day.

The minor league team has become to the Leafs what it has been for years with prospect rich organizations such as the Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, six players who won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals – Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Jay Beagle, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos – played at least 80 games with their Hershey affiliate, and Dmitry Orlov played 79. There is a direct correlation, something the Maple Leafs have embraced.

“We have so many resources here to make people better everyday,” Keefe said. “Brendan Shanahan valued the minor league team and Kyle Dubas has built it into a first-class operation and one that checks every single box in terms of providing what the players and coaches need to get better. What is it going to translate to? We don’t know. But obviously you hope it pays dividends.”

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