TORONTO – Collectively they stand as the second best team in the American Hockey League, but come the arrival of NHL training camp, a number of Toronto Marlies will be challenging for jobs with the Maple Leafs.
"It's the American Hockey League and the transition to the NHL usually is a little bit more difficult as we all know," said Randy Carlyle from the Air Canada Centre on Monday morning, "but they've put themselves in a great position."
Jake Gardiner, sidelined with a concussion at the moment, is the only lock to make the Leafs out of training camp, but others will be firmly in the running for jobs, notably on defence.
Leading the pack in that respect is 27-year-old Mike Kostka, proving to be a real find after joining the organization as a free agent this past summer. Kostka has stormed out of the gate with 34 points in 33 games, ranking second among all AHL defenders while sitting eighth overall in league scoring. One of the final cuts at Florida Panthers training camp last year, he is still searching for his first NHL opportunity. "Personally I feel like I'm on top of my game," said the Etobicoke native in conversation with TSN.ca on Monday afternoon.
Like many American Leaguers eager to break through at the next level this season, he figures to have an advantage on his locked out peers. Unlike say Mike Komisarek – who hasn't played since April – Kostka has been battling in a pumped-up AHL since October and may be at least a step ahead of his competition. "It's hard to say that it wouldn't be an advantage," he conceded. "That being said, guys are used to coming into camp having not played all summer." A poised, intelligent defender, Kostka has shown that he can play in all situations – notably power-play, but also penalty kill – surprising some in the organization with a sturdy defensive game. While he's assumed a front-line role with the Marlies, Kostka would be competing for a depth gig with the Leafs.
Toronto figures to have five locks on the blueline with Gardiner, Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, and John-Michael Liles. With Gardiner sidelined (concussion) – his immediate status in doubt – and Cody Franson as yet unsigned, two to three spots look to be up for grabs. In addition to Kostka and 18-year-old Morgan Rielly, others in the conversation include:
• Paul Ranger: The 28-year-old will get serious consideration because of his performance this season and vast NHL experience playing in Tampa. Ranger sits second in the American League with a plus-17 rating and while he hasn't played in the NHL in three-plus years, he's been impressive from the get-go.
• Korbinian Holzer: Earns points for reliability, but hasn't been quite the nasty presence of last season when the Marlies advanced to the Calder Cup final. His role has slightly diminished with the additions of Gardiner, Kostka and Ranger, but he's a solid, if unspectacular, commodity.
• Mark Fraser: Has 98 games of NHL experience with the Devils and can be a physical force, but is a long shot to make the Leafs at this point.
Matt Frattin leads a group of Marlies challenging for jobs up at forward with the Leafs. The 24-year-old has nine goals and 16 points in 20 games this season, but after a hot start (seven goals in his first six games) has cooled off somewhat. Frattin is as good a bet as any to make the Leafs out of camp, his size, versatility and knack for finding the back of the net all points in his favour.
Barring a trade, the Leafs appear set in their top-six forward group with Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur and/or Nikolai Kulemin. Jobs up for grabs figure to be amongst the bottom two lines.
Among the other Marlies likely to be in the mix up front:
• Nazem Kadri: Will this be the year Kadri lands a full-time NHL job? He's in for a challenge. Stumbling out of the gate this season – he was a healthy scratch at one point – the 22-year-old turned a corner in November and has posted 22 points in the past 17 games. Problem for Kadri is the lineup and his place in it. If he's not amongst the top-six forward group – almost certain – where does he fit?
• Keith Aucoin: A good bet to land with the Leafs in some capacity this season, just not at the outset in all likelihood. Aucoin, 34, is experienced - 102 NHL games – and can fill a variety of roles. Playing with the Washington Capitals in stints last season, Aucoin earned time on the first line with Alex Ovechkin before emerging in a fourth-line energy capacity during the playoffs.
• Leo Komarov: A 2006 draft pick, Komarov demonstrated in brief duty with the Marlies that he could impact the game as an agitator while also chipping in offensively (six goals in 14 games). He'll be in the running for a checking line gig, bringing a unique blend of skills to the table.
• Colton Orr: A one-dimensional skillset landed him in the American League last season, an unhappy development for Brian Burke. But following his Marlies assignment (he has not been with the club this season), Orr reshaped his body – becoming leaner and more defined – while evolving into a contributor of sorts for Dallas Eakins. Carlyle's penchant for roughness is well-known, making Orr a fourth-line contender, however unlikely.
In goal, Ben Scrivens could be in contention for the Leafs starting job, but a Roberto Luongo trade would obviously wipe out such a notion. Jussi Rynnas stands third on the depth chart behind Scrivens and James Reimer, but is not in the plans this season in spite of a terrific start (three shutouts in seven games) .
A regular at both games and practices, Carlyle had a first-hand look at the Marlies this fall, discerning carefully which might contribute to his club at the NHL level. The brief, week-long training camp won't leave much audition time and may favour the more established, but considering the success of the American League affiliate and some of its members, a long look is likely required.