Dallas Eakins, the coach for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, knows the challenges facing his team for the upcoming season.
Toronto largely flew under the radar last year, and surprised some by making it to the 2012 Calder Cup final. The team, however, won’t be able to catch the opposition by off guard this year.
“I’m not sure we’re going to take great enjoyment in teams trying to pick us off now,” Eakins told LeafsTV. “They’re going to look at us and say, ‘hey, they were the No. 2 team in the league last year. Let’s play our best game and see how we stack up.’
“There lies the challenge for our staff and our players and our team: to be prepared to go in and be able to match and better our opponent’s best game.”
But the reality of getting only two exhibition contests in this two-week pre-season period limit how much management and coaches can evaluate their players. It makes the process of rebuilding a championship-calibre team more difficult.
There are also a few new faces that Eakins will have to find fits for. Keith Aucoin, 33, was brought in as a veteran presence and scoring threat. Feisty Finnish forward Leo Komarov and defenceman Mike Kostka must complement the group of holdovers from last season’s team.
It is a process that the Marlies head coach says is up to the players.
“The players decide [if they’ll be a part of this team] and that’s what will happen here,” said Eakins. “We will go through a training camp. In this training camp it will be a little different.
“Your play in practice will weigh heavily on if you’re going to be here or not because we only have two exhibition games. So the players make the decisions. They always do.”
Eakins did make a concession regarding those who had played for last year’s Calder Cup final squad.
“Unless a guy just absolutely bombed in training camp… they’ve earned their spots,” Eakins told TSN. “They laid a lot on the line for us last year. All those guys have come in and played well; we haven’t had any real fall-off from those guys.”
The two pre-season games, a home-and-home affair this past weekend against crosstown rivals Hamilton Bulldogs – the AHL affiliate to the Montreal Canadiens – concluded in a 3-1 and 2-0 Toronto sweep.
It was a growing process for the players and the team. Paul Ranger showed some rust on Saturday, in part due to nerves, but proved to have retained the skills that made him an NHL defenceman for Tampa Bay Lightning.
Meanwhile, Aucoin has shown a considerable amount of chemistry with youngster Nazem Kadri, as well as Greg Scott.
On Tuesday, the first seven players were cut from Marlies camp ahead of Saturday’s season opener against the Rochester Americans. Some, like prospects Sam Carrick and Andrew Crescenzi, were sent down to Toronto’s new ECHL affiliate Fort Wayne Komets.
Others, such as goalie Andrew Engelage and Corey Syvret, were released.
There are no actual roster limits in the AHL. Theoretically, the Marlies could have retained as many players as they wanted. But in a practical sense, holding onto a player that won’t play at this level is not an effective strategy.
The NHL lockout plays another factor, with a number of young, talented regular or would-be NHLers filling up AHL rosters – a situation that has more talented players fighting over a limited amount ice time.
That will make the league far more competitive than in previous years.
“How can it not?” said Eakins. “I expect the skill level and the pace this year to be as high as it has ever been and we look forward to that.
“Let’s go, let’s see how we stack up against other team’s top prospects. Let’s see how our defenceman can handle NHL skill. Let’s see how our forwards play against an NHL defenceman.
“I look forward to it and I fully suspect our group, knowing them, that they look forward to it as well.”