There’s a healthy dose of the Toronto Marlies in this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs team.
And that’s just the way new general manager Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle like it.
Six of the 23 players that made the Leafs final roster for Saturday’s season opener in Montreal played key roles with the minor league squad this year, with three of the Marlies top defencemen, two scoring forwards and the team’s starting goalie making the jump.
Combined, those six have just 163 games NHL experience, the bulk of which (98) came when beefy defenceman Mark Fraser played a depth role for the New Jersey Devils a few years ago.
“It’s giving people a chance,” Nonis said. “We can’t keep talking about giving young players an opportunity and never doing it. ”
Unlike the Edmonton Oilers’ group of kids, who are coming up from the AHL to play an abbreviated season, however, Toronto has a more motley crew of unlikely candidates who could be assuming important roles.
Take Mike Kostka, who spent much of camp skating on a pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf despite the fact he is an undrafted 27-year-old defenceman who has logged nearly 350 AHL games without getting into one in the NHL.
After a half season in which he put up 34 points in 34 games with the Marlies and was selected for the AHL all-star game, there’s every indication Kostka is in the top six on the blueline, especially until Jake Gardiner returns from a concussion.
Kostka was demoted on the final day of the Florida Panthers camp a year ago and wasn’t sure how to react when asked about making the team on Friday.
“It’s definitely been a long road,” said Kostka, an Ajax, Ont., native who admitted he was “a huge Leafs fan” growing up.
“I was walking out of the trainer’s room with all the new gear [last year] and then I ended up being the last cut the next day. So I’ll believe it once I’m wearing the jersey and I’m on the ice.”
Beyond Kostka, there’s also Fraser and Korbinian Holzer joining the eight-man blueline, with Holzer sticking seven years after he was drafted in the fourth round out of Germany by former GM John Ferguson.
Up front, 25-year-old Finnish vet Leo Komarov (another midround pick from 2006) is pencilled in on a line with Nazem Kadri, who has bounced between the NHL and AHL since being taken seventh overall in 2009.
Then there’s netminder Ben Scrivens, who could well make a surprise start on Saturday after emerging as one of the top stoppers in the minors.
Of the six, only Kadri is your typical prospect. The rest average more than 26 years of age, which is hardly the time to be making their first tangible impact on an NHL roster.
Nonis, however, insisted that they wanted to take the players who performed the best in camp, regardless of who they were – which is why veterans Matt Lombardi and Tim Connolly were traded and waived, respectively, in the days leading up to Friday’s roster deadline.
The Leafs also sent down Matt Frattin, another Marlie prospect, and returned last year’s fifth overall pick, Morgan Rielly, to his junior team.
The end result is a Toronto team that remains young, with an average age of 27.3, which ties them with three other teams (Carolina, Los Angeles, Winnipeg) as the second youngest in the league behind perennially rebuilding Columbus.
With so many Marlies who may have been long shots to make an NHL team two or three years ago, the organization is hoping this will be a hungry team that’s ready to buy-in to yet another fresh start for the franchise.
“We told them that ‘if you play well enough, you’re going to stay,’” Nonis said of his message before camp began last weekend. “That has to be the message to the players: If you’re going to play well enough, you’re going to play, regardless of your contract, regardless of how much money you make. ...
“The coaches have the say as to who they want to play. I never went into the room and said ‘Randy you have to put young players in the lineup.’ But he’s embraced it. Randy’s happy with how the young guys have played.”