Friday, 15 June 2018

1967, 2014, 2018

What are years in which the three Toronto professional hockey teams last won their respective league championship trophy? If this was Jeopardy!, that answer would be correct as the AHL's Toronto Marlies downed the Texas Stars in Game Seven by a 6-1 score on Thursday night to capture the Calder Cup! While this championship won't erase 1967 in most hockey fans' minds, it does bring more legitimacy to the work being put in at the AHL level by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment in trying to build a championship roster at the NHL level. If you're a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the outlook is bright, but it still isn't guaranteed when it comes to erasing the ghosts of 1967.

If you're asking how 2014 factors into this, let's not forget that the Toronto Furies were the Clarkson Cup champions in that year. 1967 is, of course, the last time that the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, and the Marlies added their names to AHL lore as they won the Calder Cup for the first time in their franchise history last night. If the Leafs could ever get their act together, the city of Toronto would be the most successful hockey city in Canada by a large margin. That, however, is a big "if".

Andreas Johnsson, who was named the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy winner as playoff MVP, and Mason Marchment each scored two goals while Carl Grundstrom and Ben Smith added single tallies in the game. Texas' Austin Fyten - brother of former Manitoba Bisons women's hockey captain Caitlin Fyten - scored the lone goal for the Stars. Garret Sparks recorded the win while Mike McKenna suffered the loss.

It's not the first time that a Maple Leafs affiliate has won the Calder Cup, but it has been a while since it happened. The one to do so? The New Brunswick Hawks way back in 1982. The Marlies, though, played in the 2011-12 Calder Cup Final, but were swept by the Norfolk Admirals. The St. John's Maple Leafs also played in a Calder Final, but they fell in seven games to the Adirondack Red Wings in 1991-92. There have been chances, but the Marlies finally ended the AHL drought this season after 36 years!

Andreas Johnsson, mentioned above, was on a different level than everyone last night. His speed and tenacity on the forecheck continually frustrated the Stars resulting in turnovers, and those turnovers was where Johnsson and linemates Miro Aaltonen and Carl Grundstrom went to work. Johnsson, a seventh-round pick in 2013 at #202 for the Maple Leafs, will almost assuredly be a regular in the NHL's blue-and-white next season after posting a point-per-game in the AHL this season and dominating when the stakes went higher in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He found some incredible chemistry with Grundstrom once he arrived in Toronto following his season with Frolunda, and the second-round pick in 2016 may push for a roster spot as well.

There will be questions as to who will lead the team next year with this season's leading scorer, Ben Smith, and the second-leading scorer in Johnsson potentially gone. Smith signed a deal with the German Elite League's Adler Mannheim hours following the victory, so there will be a significant chunk of the Marlies offence playing elsewhere next season.

Where one team suffers, though, another usually benefits, and the benefits will be seen close to home as Kyle Dubas - once the man responsible for building the Marlies - will now man the helm for the Maple Leafs. He has had first-hand experience watching this Marlies team develop, and that will spell good things for the Maple Leafs as replacements for high-priced free agents may be waiting in the wings. Dubas knows who would be closest to taking the next step, and that's a big benefit for the GM when it comes to finding available dollars for players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

Perhaps what was most noticeable this series was the difference in styles of play between the two teams. The Western Conference champions seemed to use a more physical game similar to their NHL affiliate as the Stars won battles using size and physical play. The Marlies used more of an NHL Eastern Conference style where team speed was always on display in the games that they played. Game Seven was all about that speed, and combined with the skill assembled on the roster the Marlies skated to the large margin of victory.

It was an inspiring season from a Toronto professional men's hockey team for once. The Marlies got out of the gate early, played incredibly smart, skilled hockey all season long, and it culminated in a championship lap with the Calder Cup. They came close before, so this victory was all the more sweeter. Congratulations to the Toronto Marlies, your 2018 Calder Cup champions!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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