After nearly reaching the top of the mountain, the Toronto Marlies are expecting the journey through another American Hockey League season to be even tougher.
No longer the little team that could, the Marlies have set their sights on the Calder Cup after the trophy slipped through their fingers last spring.
Toronto was swept in the four-game final by the Norfolk Admirals, and that near-miss remains a strong source of motivation. It should also serve as a warning for opponents.
“I think we caught teams off-guard early (last season), but that’s not going to happen this year,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “Listen, we went to the final, we were the second best team in the league and teams are firmly going to know that once the weekend starts.”
The Rochester Americans won’t even need a reminder when they visit Ricoh Coliseum for Toronto’s season-opener on Saturday. The Marlies eliminated their division rival in the first round of the playoffs last year.
The game will be televised on Rogers Sportsnet — an early example of how the AHL is benefiting from the NHL lockout.
During last year’s run to the Calder Cup final, the Marlies created a wave of enthusiasm unlike anything they’ve seen since moving to Toronto in 2005. It appears to have carried over — season-ticket sales are up 74 per cent — and the team is ready to embrace all of the added attention coming its way.
“I know there’s no NHL hockey, but there is certainly hockey in Toronto,” said Eakins.
The Marlies surrendered a league-low 175 goals against last season and have adopted a new defensive system that Randy Carlyle hopes to eventually implement with the parent Maple Leafs.
Ben Scrivens returns as the team’s No. 1 goalie — at least until the NHL’s work stoppage ends — and is hoping to pick up where he left off. By doing so, he could solidify his standing within the organization even further.
The 26-year-old knows a promotion to the Maple Leafs would almost certainly follow a resolution to that league’s labour dispute, but doesn’t plan to spend much time focusing on collective bargaining talks.
“It crosses your mind — you can’t help but acknowledge that (a callup) is a possibility,” said Scrivens. “But I can’t control anything like that. All I’m going to go out and do is try to have a good start with the Marlies here.
“We’ll see where things end up.”
Other Leafs-in-waiting include defencemen Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer, not to mention forward Nazem Kadri, whose fitness generated the biggest headlines at training camp.
Kadri was the seventh overall pick in 2009 and spent the last two seasons bouncing between the AHL and NHL before signing up to work with fitness guru Gary Roberts over the summer. However, Eakins revealed to reporters that the 22-year-old scored near the bottom of the team in body fat percentage, something the coach deemed “unacceptable.”
The resulting controversy provided local talk radio shows with plenty of fodder and saw CBC personality Don Cherry weigh in via his Twitter account. For his part, Kadri seemed to take it all in stride.
“I’m still a young guy,” he said. “I’m slowly learning how to be a pro and what types of food to put in my body. It’s not like you’re going to get it in a couple months — you’ve got to start to figure it out gradually.”
There are numerous other interesting storylines on the Marlies. Former NHL defenceman Paul Ranger is returning to pro hockey after a self-imposed three-year hiatus; journeyman Keith Aucoin, a perennial scoring machine in the AHL, signed as a free agent; forward Leo Komarov, a 2006 Maple Leafs draft pick, has finally joined the organization after seven pro seasons in Europe; and prospects Greg McKegg and Brad Ross have each graduated from the junior ranks.
When you add them to a strong returning cast that includes Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton and Greg Scott, the Marlies believe they have all the makings of a contender.
One thing that hasn’t changed from the beginning of last season is the outlook from the team’s popular coach.
“Last year when training camp was over, we looked at our roster ... and I walked in (to the dressing room) and said ‘Listen, I’ve played in this league before, I’ve coached in it and this team can win the championship,“’ said Eakins. “So that will be the same message. We’ve basically got the same group back.”