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Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner is congratulated by teammates after scoring on the Edmonton Oilers during first period NHL action in Toronto on Monday February 6, 2012 (The Canadian Press)

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner is congratulated by teammates after scoring on the Edmonton Oilers during first period NHL action in Toronto on Monday February 6, 2012

(The Canadian Press)

Dallas Eakins on the Marlies stepping into the spotlight Add to ...

You get the sense this is going to be a pretty interesting year to be a minor league hockey team in Toronto.

Without the Maple Leafs struggles dominating the hockey headlines during the season, it’s likely going to be the Toronto Marlies getting all of the attention in this city.

That’s partly why we saw last week’s Nazem Kadri body fat percentage fiasco blow up the way it did, with Don Cherry helping keep it in the news cycle for nearly a week.

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For the most part, however, Marlies coach Dallas Eakins sees nothing but positives coming out of all the extra bodies in the seats and media on hand to talk about his team.

I chatted with Eakins recently about that subject and some of the decisions he has to make with his roster in what could be a defining year for this franchise:

There’s a lot more talk about the AHL these days with all of the high profile players being sent down and the NHL obviously in another lockout. Are you looking forward to that spotlight being a little brighter than before?

Eakins: “Well, I think our group, coming off our playoff run and with the growing support the city showed us, we’re getting more used to the attention. It’ll be a nice follow up for our players. We’ve got a lot of characters here. Guys at different stages of their careers and still looking to get a shot. I think when the NHL is going, they’re greatly overshadowed and you don’t get to know these players. I think near the end of last season, the city took notice of these young men. I want them out there [in the spotlight]. I want our city to get to know these players because a lot of them have very special stories...

“To be honest with you, when I was an assistant coach with the Marlies or Maple Leafs, I didn’t pay much attention to how many people were in the building or what it meant. But when I went to do the player development job, I got to sit in on different types of meetings up in the office floors and learned more about the money side of it and if you’re winning or losing on the money side of hockey. This team has been bleeding.

“It’s a thing where our organization looks the other way on the money side of the Marlies because they know how great it is [for development] to have a team in the same city. But, for me, when I took this job, not only did I want to develop players, but I at least wanted to try and help stop some of the bleeding. Help our business guys put more people in the rink and getting awareness out there. I think our players are second to none in our league.”

What do you think the talent level will be like in the AHL this season? In 2004-05 it was considered as high as it’ll ever be.

Eakins: “How could it not be [fantastic] when NHL teams have sent down their top talent? Guys that are regulars in the NHL and have already earned that right to be called that. When these guys shows up, the bar gets set a little bit higher and usually those players drag the rest of the group with them.”

There’s a perception issue with the AHL, especially in Toronto, that it’s minor league and therefore not as worth watching. You played in the league a long time and now you’re coaching there - is that notion frustrating at all?

Eakins: “You know, I think our game is extremely exciting. Part of it is in our arena, you are right on top of the players. You’re not far away. Our arena holds just under 8,000 and you are part of it.

“The second part is, there’s more mistakes [than in the NHL]. This is a skilled league, they play at a high pace, but they’re here for a reason, and there’s mistakes made. Which makes for more action.

“The last part is the people who are dismissing this league as minor league hockey, I can guarantee you they have not seen more than three games. Guaranteed... I would certainly put our games up against any hockey game, whether it’s junior or NHL. In the end, it’s a hockey game and people want to be entertained.”

To what degree will your roster benefit from there being an NHL lockout? More or less than other teams?

Eakins: “Well, unless he had just an awful NHL camp, Jake Gardiner would not be in our room right now. After that, Korbinian Holzer has earned a shot [at the NHL].

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