If there’s a silver lining to the storm clouds of the NHL lockout, Nazem Kadri has found it.
Were it not for the labour battle, the 21-year-old forward would probably have been suiting up for the Maple Leafs this fall. But on the first day of the Toronto Marlies training camp – where he and several other young Leafs were sent – he pointed out that spending more time in the AHL will give him a leg-up once major-league hockey returns.
“When something does get resolved, we’re going to already be in skating shape, in mid-season form to get to that NHL training camp all ready to go,” he said. “This is a developmental league, it’s a league to prepare you. Being here for one more year or one month or two months or three months is really not going to hurt anybody.”
The lockout has some worried about players who could miss out on career milestones – playing fewer games, racking up fewer points – as well as those who may lose their form and be unable to stay in the league.
But it could inadvertently be a boon for the players of the AHL. While others make do with informal skates, Kadri and his peers will have regular games and practices to keep them prepared.
“Most guys aren’t playing right now, I’m going to be in one of the best shapes, as opposed to other guys,” said Jake Gardiner, the talented defenceman who racked up 30 points in 75 games with the Leafs last year, before turning around to help the Marlies to the Calder Cup final. “It’s good that I’m playing.”
It’s a pivotal moment for the team. The playoff run helped the Marlies finally capture the attention of hockey fans in a city that typically cares only about the Leafs. Both the shutdown of the NHL and the infusion of big-league stars, which is expected to boost the level of play, should draw crowds.
“It’s a really exciting time for the American league ... it’s definitely going to be a memorable year,” said captain Ryan Hamilton, a veteran of six AHL seasons. “It’s going to be even better to have the talent pool, some more established guys that are coming from the NHL. We want to play against the best competition.”
That competition will place them all under the microscope like never before. The media scrum that turned up for the opening of training camp was larger than any player could recall. Ticket sales have skyrocketed. But players said the added scrutiny could only be a good thing.
“It’s always more fun to play in meaningful games where people care about what’s going on,” said Ben Scrivens, the affable goalie who played for the Leafs 12 times last season. “The more fans we have there, the more you feel like it’s a meaningful game.”
Coach Dallas Eakins, asked if he was feeling added pressure this year, was more blunt.
“Pressure is when you’re sitting in a foxhole in Baghdad or somewhere and you’re trying to save the life of the guy next to you. That’s pressure,” he said. “My goals are for this team to win and my goals are for these individuals to get better and hopefully go on to play in the NHL.”
It’s a given in hockey that your most bitter rival one season can become your teammate the next; there’s nothing you can do but suck it up and start fresh. Even when your new teammate is the guy that helped obliterate your hope of winning a championship, thanks to an illegal, fluke goal.
That’s the reality for the Toronto Marlies, who acquired defenceman Mike Kostka in the off-season. Kostka, you may remember, was a Norfolk Admiral during the team’s Calder Cup final against the Marlies last June. In the series’ third game at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, with the teams scoreless in overtime, Kostka dumped the puck into the Marlies’ zone. The shot struck a stanchion on the arena glass and bounced into the Marlies’ net, catching goalie Ben Scrivens out of position.
The AHL determined the following day that the goal shouldn’t have counted (the Admirals were off-side at the time), but the result of the game stood. It allowed the Admirals to take a stranglehold of the series, which they ultimately won in a sweep.
Scrivens was the first to reference the situation at training camp Thursday. Asked what he thought of the team’s blueline, he quipped: “We’re going to have to work on some puck-dumping.”
Kostka, for his part, said he and Scrivens had talked about the goal at a team skate.
“At one of the skates, we had a good chuckle over it. It was one of those really goofy plays; sometimes you’re at the right end, sometimes you’re at the wrong end of it. We’ve both been in both situations,” he laughed. “You get into the hockey world: you’re enemies a few months ago and then all of a sudden, you’re at the other end of it.”
As to the netminder’s suggestion that he could teach his fellow defencemen a thing or two about shooting, he grinned: “Maybe when we get back to the Ricoh for the first time, I’ll have to see if the stanchion is still there.”