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Hockey Maple Leafs developing roster with more than just star players

The successful arrival of Andreas Johnsson shows the unheralded side of the Toronto Maple Leafs' rebuilding program is also in full bloom.

It is this side – the steady development of young supporting talent – that is just as important as finding prodigies such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. When those prodigies inevitably command big contracts, teams without cheaper, younger talent available to fill the vacancies resulting from tough decisions regarding the salary cap quickly fall from contenders to pretenders.

A case in point is the Chicago Blackhawks. Their rebuild through the early 2000s produced Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. But ever since that 2010 championship the Blackhawks struggled mightily with the salary cap as large contracts awarded to the above four players and others resulted in the departures of both star and supporting players such as Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell and Brandon Saad (who came back this season).

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Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman was able to juggle his salary-cap grenades for a few years, but when the supply of supporting players could not match the quality of the departures trouble arrived. Now Bowman has a team that has not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in the past two years and is last in the Central Division with a 30-34-8 record before Sunday's games, headed toward its first non-playoff finish in 10 years.

The Blackhawks also have to contend with contract millstones such as Seabrook's US$6.9-million cap hit over the next six seasons for a player who suddenly grew old this season at the age of 32. Those problems are not far away for the Maple Leafs, with Matthews, Marner and Nylander among others due for big raises in the next two seasons. But the talent pipeline under general manager Lou Lamoriello and assistant GMs Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter is gushing hard.

Johnsson, who scored his first NHL goal in Saturday night's 4-0 drubbing of the Montreal Canadiens, is just the latest player to make an almost seamless adjustment from the Toronto Marlies farm team to the Leafs since January. He followed defenceman Travis Dermott and fellow winger Kasperi Kapanen, who both quickly won permanent spots after their promotions.

In his second game with the Leafs, Johnsson was moved to the top line with Zach Hyman and Nylander. He was fourth in the AHL in points with 54 in 54 games when he was promoted last week and looked at home immediately. Johnsson finished the Canadiens game with the goal plus seven shots on net, two that missed and one that was blocked. He may end up back with the Marlies this season but head coach Mike Babcock said he will definitely be on the team next season with van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, Dominic Moore and Tomas Plekanec all headed for free agency.

"I think he had – I don't know what he had – I think he had seven shots or something," Babcock said of Johnsson. "He had so many chances it wasn't even funny.

"Good for him. He's on the puck, he's smart with it, he's obviously not scared, he's quick – his first couple of steps are quick – it's good. You want to have as many players as you can."

Thanks to the work of Lamoriello, Dubas, Hunter and Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, the Marlies now are providing a steady supply of NHL-ready players. And by playing the same systems with both the Marlies and the Leafs, the adjustment for the players is even easier.

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"I feel like the good thing is that we have the same system in the hockey," Johnsson said. "So when I get here it's nothing new really, it's the same system and just meeting other guys and it's a higher pace. So it feels like they really prepared me for this opportunity."

Along with handling the salary cap, the Leafs are also facing the same problem all successful NHL teams do – keeping the architects together.

Lamoriello's contract is up at the end of this season and there is much speculation about how the front office will shake out. While there was an assumption the 75-year-old Lamoriello would become a senior adviser this summer with one of his assistants, most likely Dubas, taking over as GM, Lamoriello is showing no signs he wants a lesser role.

The Leafs already shooed away the Colorado Avalanche, who wanted to interview Dubas last summer for their GM position, so keeping him happy as an assistant GM for another year or two will be difficult. At the same time, the talk around the team is Hunter as well as Dubas has ambitions to be a general manager. If there is a change in a few months and the job goes to Dubas it is hard to imagine Hunter wanting to stay for the long-term.

None of the principals shares much with the media, other than Lamoriello saying the matter of succession has not been discussed. So what lies ahead is only known by Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews says recovering from his Feb. 22 shoulder injury is a gradual process. Matthews took part in his second straight full practice Tuesday, but continued to wear a red non-contact jersey. The Canadian Press
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