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.
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].
“But after that, all the guys are trying to get their foot in the door. For me, the only NHL player that we’re able to receive right now is Jake. The rest of the guys are trying to establish themselves. And even Jake, he’s only got one year under his belt. He still needs more time to blossom.”
Can you talk about some of the team’s new additions and what you’re looking for there?
Eakins: “Some of them, like a Mike Kostka, we played against him a couple years ago in Rochester and we really liked him. But we couldn’t get him and he signed with Norfolk. We’ve been able to get him now, and he’s a guy that’s just been getting better every year.
“Keith Aucoin is a top, top point getter in this league and played a bunch of games in Washington last year and is looking for opportunity. Those two right away are guys that are new faces.
“And Leo Komarov, we’ve kept an eye on him over the years. He’s a real agitator, pain-in-the-butt to play against and a guy that’s seen some success over in Europe. A real interesting kid. Really intelligent. We’re hoping all those guys help our group immediately.”
One of the effects of a lockout that doesn’t get talked about that often is the trickle down. Young NHL players are sent to the AHL and then young AHL players have to go to the ECHL. How competitive is your camp going to be as a result of all the players on the low end being squeezed for a spot?
Eakins: “These kids, I feel for them. They’re trying to crack a lineup of guys who had great seasons last year or were part of a team that went to a league final. That’s hard to unseat players in that situation. They’re in for a challenge.
“The difference with no NHL is that these guys won’t play a lot of games. In the NHL, there’s a whole bunch of exhibition games and they hold onto players for a while longer. We have only two scheduled... Now we’re looking at 34 players at camp and only two exhibition games. Then we’ll start the season.
“We’ll have some scrimmages coming up. I’ll split this group into two teams of three lines and five defence and we’ll play a couple scrimmages and we’ll have to make our decisions through those scrimmages, their practice play and the exhibition games.”
The final product should be interesting then.
Eakins: “That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about already – the matchups in this league, I don’t think there are going to be No. 1 and No. 2 lines [on most teams]. I think you’re going to have three good lines and a fourth line that will go and check the crap out of the other team. I think we can put together four lines that can play however we want.”
How do you manage what happens in goal with a lockout on? Ben Scrivens was a guy that may not have otherwise been available to the Marlies so can you carry three goalies and hope the NHL comes back for a while or does someone else have to go down?
Eakins: “I've thought about that but haven’t approached my bosses with anything yet. For me, Scrivens is in the No. 1 spot. That being said, if you come in and have a terrible camp or you’re not playing well early, that changes quickly. That’s the thing about pro sports that I love. You’re always trying to get established, you’re always trying to keep improving, but there’s also always somebody coming trying to unseat you, too. If you have a number of off nights, well you lose your status.
“Listen, Ben had the No. 1 goals against in our league last year, was part of a team that went to the final. He played a ton of hockey through those playoffs. For me, he’s earned the right for me to say he’s the No. 1 guy. And then after that, there’s a battle going on with Jussi [Rynnas] and Mark Owuya for who’s going to get the backup job. I hope one of those guys pushes Scrivens for his ice time.
“We’ll have to see how this falls out. Rynnas has more experience at this level, but Owuya came in and played a handful of games and had great numbers. So we’ll have to see. It’s like every training camp: Everybody thinks that the management and the coaches make the decisions. Well they don’t. The players make the decisions, every time.”