LONDON, ONT – For Brad Ross, it was quite the adjustment. A second round draft pick in 2010, Ross was still cooking from a year that saw him score 42 times, adding 12 more in the playoffs for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. But there with the Toronto Marlies in the fall of 2012, Ross, a rookie, was on the outside of a veteran squad peering in.
"It wasn't too good to be honest," he said of his introduction to pro hockey during a conversation with TSN.ca. "The games that I would get in I would only play four or five shifts so it's hard to really improve doing that.
"But it's hard to talk to the coach and be like 'Look I want to play' when you have Matt Frattin, Kadri, all those guys down [in the AHL]."
Ross tiptoed in and out of the lineup for 40 games, scoring only eight goals, and even spent a bit of time in the ECHL. This year promises to be different for Ross and a barrage of other top Leaf prospects though with the once potent and veteran Marlies veering in a youthful direction. Gone are a cast of mainstays who helped the club to a Calder Cup final two years ago, among them captain Ryan Hamilton, Mike Zigomanis, Will Acton, Greg Scott and the man who led the resurgence, Dallas Eakins. His replacement behind the bench, Steve Spott, will focus on the development of a youth-infused group.
"And that's why I'm excited about it," said Spott with enthusiasm, "because we're going to see the progression."
The head man in Kitchener for the past five seasons, Spott has a track record of cultivating young talent, a challenge he's prepared to take on at the next level in Toronto. "I don't have a lot of ready-made guys," he said of the roster he'll guide with the Marlies. "I've got guys that I'm going to have to work with and develop along with Gord [Dineen] and with Derek [King] to get them ready to play in the next step. I take a lot of pride in that challenge. It's going to be a lot of video, a lot of teaching and something that we pride ourselves in, but ultimately, yeah, there's not a lot of ready-made products we have with our team."
The Marlies will be built on the foundations of those looking to rise up to the next level of their respective careers. There will be the likes of Jerry D'Amigo and Carter Ashton, aiming for the NHL stage and those like Ross, Greg McKegg, Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, Josh Leivo, David Broll, and Petter Granberg, trying to assert their place on the still new stage of the American League.
An offensive star in junior, McKegg waded uncomfortably in his first year with the Marlies, gaining some steam late in the season. Training camp last fall brought with it a loaded roster, NHL talent in the form of Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner lingering because of the lockout. The results saw McKegg, among others, dangling on a tight rope of sorts.
"Even if you make a mistake in junior you're used to going right back out the next shift and that wasn't the case when we turned pro last year," he told TSN.ca, noting the constant worry of tripping up with mistakes.
"I was a lot more nervous last year," added Ross, who hopes to rediscover the feisty offensive game which made him successful with the Winterhawks. "With the lockout it was so tough to get a spot."
Each player will, in many ways, represent a project for Spott and his staff, an opportunity to shape individuals through their habits on and off the ice and "transform them into becoming day-to-day professional players."
"I think that's maybe a big reason why I'm here," said Spott, a longtime protégé of Devils coach Pete DeBoer, hired by the Leafs organization in early July. "…the pride in the development and making sure the players, once they have a chance to play, that they're complete players. When you look at the Skinners, and the Landeskogs and the Roys, those guys we took a lot of pride in developing them the right way."
For Percy, a first round pick in 2011 who thrived in Mississauga last season, that process involves "putting the pressure on himself to become an elite player". For Biggs, selected three picks before Percy that same year, it's "playing with that passion every night", Spott stressing the physical elements required of the 6-3 winger.
Leivo, a power winger who drew acclaim from Leafs brass for his goal-scoring efforts last season, will be equally tested under Spott, having spent 39 games under him in Kitchener. "The training, the nutrition side of the game, that's all going to be new to him," Spott said. "Those are the types of projects individually we're excited about."