The most used phrase of Head Coach Sheldon Keefe this season when discussing almost any players in the Marlies line-up at even given point.
Until not long ago the Marlies were dead last in the Division and struggling to find anything positive with their collective game.
Amazing how things can turn around within a couple of weeks.
Just ten days ago the Marlies were handed yet another loss, and were staring up in the standings and were kicked out of the Ricoh Coliseum for a six game road trip. Now, having won 5 of those last 6 games, the Toronto Hockey Club is back to playing .500 hockey on the season and are no longer DFL in their division. Huge gains for the team, and confidence is starting to creep back into their game.
I take full credit for the resurgence of starting goaltender Garret Sparks. Why? Based solely on my article about giving him another chance from a few weeks ago, Sparks now has a 1.97 Goals Against Average and a sparkling .930 Save Percentage. Impressive yes? Compare those numbers to incumbent Antoine Bibeau sporting a 2.79 GAA and a .900 Save %. Earlier this season the organization was clearly pushing Bibeau to be the starter. Great numbers out of the gate, but suffered as soon as Sparks came back and appeared to be vying for more playing time. In my opinion, then and now, Bibeau is a more positionally sound goalie. This means very little when it comes to stopping the puck. Lots of ugly style goalies have succeeded, and while Sparks relies on athletics and does spit out some juicy rebounds, who cares? He is getting the job done. Neither of these guys are on the radar for a starting position in the NHL soon, but Sparks is playing well enough if an injury occurred with the Leafs, he is a capable backup.
With the long term injuries to Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic and Tobias Lindberg the Marlies were hurting for offensive help. The recent addition of Seth Griffith has given the team a shot in the arm when it comes to possession and offense. In his 5 games since joining the team, Griffith has amassed 7 points (2 g and 5 a) over that period. Notice a correlation between the recent streak and his arrival?
Other recent additions in Tony Cameranesi, and Brett Findlay have given Coach Keefe a few more options up front. Two players who are contributing more are Kerby Rychel (AHL All-Star this weekend — 26 pts) and Andreas Johnsson (with 20 pts on the season).
Marlies and Leafs fans are constantly wondering where the next wave of Defencemen will come from. Rinat Valiev was recently added to the walking wounded of the team, but there is still a glimmer of hope. Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott provide offense and defence along the Marlies blueline with both of them hopeful to be regular contributors in the NHL before too long.
Nielsen, the 6’3 and 22o lbs kid from the Western Hockey league, continues to put up points for the Marlies. With 29 points on the season (9 g and 20 a) and a point shot that always seems to get on net, this 20 year old monster will look fantastic on the NHL blueline taking passes from Nylander or Marner on the Leafs powerplay as early as next season but probably the one after that. Each time somebody suggests he isn’t capable of keeping up his torrid pace, he scores again. Interesting to watch.
Slightly different but no less of a skilled player, Travis Dermott is another one to keep an eye on. Smooth skating, and an ability to separate player from puck is a calling card for Dermott. With 13 points on an injury shortened 30 game season thus far (1 g and 12 a), this 5’11 and 215 lbs fire hydrant is already a favourite of Sheldon Keefe. While not offensively flashy, Dermott does see the the ice well and his passes are always accurate. However, his true calling cards are positional play with an ability to move the puck with a first pass or to skate it out of danger depending on situational need. Another late 1996 birthday, like Nielsen, there is still plenty of time for this player to grow into his role but do not just read a stat line on this kid and determine his ceiling. Excited to see this one develop.
With all of that being said the Marlies are still in tough for the rest of the season. Did they dig themselves into too big of a hole with that inconsistent play? Or have injuries hindered them beyond repair?
Personally, I love the resiliency that I am seeing from this team from the goaltending to the determination of the Coaching Staff.
Sometimes it just takes an extended road trip, as was afforded to the Marlies because of the boat show at the Ricoh Coliseum, to bring a team together. Let us all hope this is the case and the Toronto Team can get on a roll towards the Playoffs. The winning tradition is ingrained at all levels in this organization, so one day Championships can be brought home.
Lets Go Marlies !!
“We are really pleased. We had an opportunity to regroup a little bit coming into this road trip, four, five days off there without games for the first time in a long time. It was a chance to chat a little bit as a team and work on some things in practice, have some meetings and things like that and guys responded really well coming on this trip. We are really happy with the effort, really happy with the result and it’s certainly something for us to keep building upon.”
Sheldon Keefe, Marlies Head Coach