At the risk of enraging a decidedly sullen fan base, it bears pointing out the Toronto Maple Leafs do have one bright spot on their horizon.
Actually, it is more of a faint glow but the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' American Hockey League team, do hold the promise of paying dividends for the parent club next season. The Marlies, who were second in the AHL's Western Conference before Saturday's games with a 37-22-4-3 record, are poised for a good playoff run when the regular season ends April 15.
If this comes to pass, the Maple Leafs could add as many as six players to their roster next season who bring with them the experience of playing and winning in NHL-style playoff games. If you don't think this means a lot, look no further than the Ottawa Senators.
Last spring, the Senators' farm team, the Binghampton Senators, won the AHL championship. This season, seven players from that team have been regulars with the NHL Senators for much of this season: forwards Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Kaspars Daugavins and Jim O'Brien and defenceman Jared Cowan. While a couple of those players, such as Butler and Daugavins, faded late in the season, the overall effect on the team is positive.
Senators general manager Bryan Murray says having those players on his team this season helped the Senators surprise a lot of people this season.
"We talk about developing players all the time and how to develop them best is let them play games," Murray said. "It [the AHL playoffs]gives them two more months of hockey. Everything in the playoffs is pressured no matter the level you're playing, so that gives them experience in how to handle it."
The Maple Leafs, it turns out, were paying attention.
As Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin said Friday on Ottawa radio station The Team 1200, the reason defenceman Jake Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin were sent down to the Marlies on paper recently was to make them eligible for the AHL playoffs. Getting that experience was deemed important enough that the Leafs used up two of the four AHL player transactions they are allowed after the NHL trade deadline to do it. Another was used on forward Carter Ashton, who will also go back to the Marlies for the playoffs.
"I can point to no better example than the Ottawa Senators and their success in Binghampton last year," Poulin said. "All of the [Senators players]benefited greatly from their success. I know the impact that has had and we hope to have a similar thing in Toronto."
The Leafs called up two of the Marlies for Friday night's 4-3 shootout win in New Jersey against the Devils, forwards Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton. But they were emergency promotions, which do not count against the four AHL promotions, and both players will return to the Marlies when the injured players they are replacing, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin, are ready to play.
In looking over the Marlies' roster to get an idea of which six players are likely to crack the Leafs' lineup next season, do not look at the top six scorers. The AHL is a professional league for men, so veterans whose days as NHL prospects are behind them tend to dominate the statistics.
The Marlies' leading points producer, for example, is well-travelled centre Mike Zigomanis, 31, whose brief stay with the Leafs was on the fourth line.
Among those players who spent most of this season in the AHL and are considered potential Leafs next season are forwards Joe Colborne, Ashton and Kadri and defencemen Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker and Simon Gysbers.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle spent six seasons as the head coach of the Manitoba Moose in both the AHL and the defunct International Hockey League. He is well-versed in how success in the minors translates to the NHL.
"If you saw them in their rookie [AHL]season and again in their second [AHL]season, it's a big difference," he said. "They're not as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They're not as in awe and they're fitting in. They're much more at ease."