Help From The Farm
For the first time in years, the Maple Leafs can truly say they've received critical assistance from their farm system this season.
And they're probably going to need more.
Joey Crabb. Darryl Boyce. Keith Aulie. James Reimer. Jay Rosehill. All have arrived from the Marlies at different junctures this season and now, with the club dreaming about the playoffs again, are playing useful roles for the club. You might even be able to add the name of Christian Hanson to the list, a player written off by many (if you don't make it right away with the Leafs there's always legions of folks ready to write you off) but one who arrived for his latest audition this week and has seemed industrious and readier to contribute this time around.
Reimer and Aulie are kids, Crabb and Rosehill are retreads, Boyce is something in between. Reimer is the only one with a chance to be a star, but there's a grittiness to the rest that has to be compelling to Leaf fans.
Boyce expressed this physically in recent days when he had his face re-arranged by the camera hole in the glass at the ACC and barely missed a shift, let alone a game. At 26, he's never to going to land a big NHL pay cheque, but all he does is try and try some more, just like Crabb, and that's infectious. Crabb potted a gorgeous shortie against the Sabres on Wednesday - the game-winner no less - and has been among the most versatile of Leaf forwards this season, skating in everything from first line to checking roles.
Rosehill's obviously not a pivotal player, but when Colton Orr went down, Rosehill stepped in, and while he can't dance like Orr, he's a better player with better skating and hitting ability.
Dallas Eakins, the Marlie coach, is just starting out, but it's fair to say he's impressed all kinds of people with his work this season. These callups, for the most part, have arrived ready to play, and it could be that Nazem Kadri will too if Eakins is given some more time to work with him.
With J.S. Giguere limping off again Wednesday night with his ongoing groin problem, Reimer may have to carry the load for a while. With Giguere possibly out, Leaf fans might have got their first look at Jussi Rynnas, with Jonas Gustavsson now recovering from his third heart procedure in 18 months. The Leafs can downplay these procedures all they want, but at the very least they have set back Gustavsson in his training and development, and it would be hard to stick him in their now with the parent club.
At any rate, Rynnas isn't available either for the conceivable future because of a broken finger. So a position of Leaf depth is rather thin at the moment.
At 6-2-1 in their last nine games, and with very winnable games coming up against Ottawa and the Islanders, the Leafs have an undeniable chance to at the very least insert themselves into the playoff conversation. A helpful schedule of late and a weak Eastern Conference have clearly helped, but it's also true that back-to-back road wins in Boston and Buffalo are serious accomplishments, while a 3-0 victory two weeks ago on home ice against Carolina was Toronto's best performance of the year and showed potential most believe this team didn't have.
Interestingly, these callups haven't completely disabled the Marlies. A win over Manitoba on Wednesday gave them four wins in six games, and 25-year-old Ryan Hamilton potted a hat trick while Ben Scrivens got the win in goal. Kadri has 29 points in 30 games. Maybe Hamilton will be the next to get a try with the big club. Maybe Scrivens might get the call, if one is necessary, instead of the digit-damaged Rynnas.
Point is, there's help available with the Marlies. It's been the case all season.