Win now vs. develop the future: The Toronto Marlies walk the line

The reigning Calder Cup champions are once again in the AHL's Eastern Conference final, but with a younger squad and a tougher opponent. Coach Sheldon Keefe hasn't blinked when it comes to playing the kids however and the Marlies are having fun.
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At any point in Game 4 of the AHL Eastern Conference final, it looked like the Charlotte Checkers would overwhelm the Toronto Marlies. After all, the Checkers had a more experienced goaltender in Alex Nedeljkovic, two defensemen who had been with the Carolina Hurricanes during their NHL playoff run in Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean and a whole host of heavy forwards who also happen to be pretty skilled. Oh, and that vaunted Marlies power play surrendered two shorthanded goals.

So of course Toronto ended up winning in overtime, right? The Marlies got a monster game from winger Michael Carcone, who netted a hat trick (including the overtime winner) and an assist in a 4-3 win. In a big-picture season sense, however, it was illuminating to see coach Sheldon Keefe let young defensemen, particularly Rasmus Sandin, play through mistakes.

And don’t get it twisted: the 19-year-old Sandin has been very impressive during Toronto’s playoff run – but he was a little too loose with his puck decisions in Game 4, which is uncharacteristic for the kid.

And therein lies the challenge for Keefe and his coaching staff right now: The Marlies are two wins away from the Calder Cup final, with the chance to win back-to-back titles after last year’s triumph. But giving players like Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and other youngsters important minutes will benefit the parent Toronto Maple Leafs as early as next season. So what’s the path, coach?

���We’re trying to do the best we can to win games at this point,” Keefe said. “We’re one of four teams in the American League still playing hockey, so the additional reps for all of the players gives them extra time to develop. We’re already looking back at a few things we’ll meet with Rasmus about tomorrow that we want him to do better. But you get those reps in difficult conditions that a lot of players and teams aren’t going through. We recognize there will be mistakes and it’s not just him – we’ve got a very young defense. But we’re playing because of those guys like Rasmus and how they’ve done through the season. We’re going to live with those mistakes and there are a lot of good things as well.”

Indeed, the Marlies blueline is both young and comically Swedish right now. Of the six players who suited up in Game 4, only veteran Vincent LoVerde isn’t from the Scandinavian nation and those other five are all, to varying degrees, options to fight for a spot on the Leafs’ blueline as soon as next season. Rosen and Andreas Borgman, the most senior of the prospects, have already played NHL games, while Liljegren and Sandin both have the first-round pedigree and early results to be intriguing.

A longer shot is 22-year-old Jesper Lindgren, who is just playing his first games in North America after winning a Finnish Liiga championship with HPK. Given how many defensemen the Marlies have at their disposal right now (Mac Hollowell and Joseph Duszak are two other prospects who have seen post-season action), it’s understandable that Lindgren has only played two games to date, but he has two points already and his new coach likes what he sees.

“Lindgren hasn’t played as much, but he’s got such poise out there,” Keefe said. “He’s not one to get rattled. The puck comes to him, he’s going to make a play and put it in the hands of the forwards. It’s a nice thing to have; he’s not worked up with what’s around him.”

Can the Marlies overcome the Checkers in this series? It’s going to be their biggest challenge to date. Charlotte was the best team in the AHL this season, while the Marlies caught a break when the No. 1 seed in their division, Syracuse, was upset in the first round by Cleveland.

Toronto lost many key drivers from last year’s title team, with playoff MVP Andreas Johnsson, defensive catalyst Travis Dermott and starting goalie Garrett Sparks all becoming full-time NHLers. So the 2018-19 Marlies weren’t the same juggernaut as their forebearers. But that has given the new crew some adversity to handle – and that’s a great development lesson itself.

“Even in the last month of the season, we weren’t certain that we were going to make the playoffs,” Keefe said. “We were battling and trying to solidify ourselves. It’s not uncommon ground for us. We hope that will help us in terms of remaining resilient, having fun and enjoying the moment: We’ve come so far as a team, so give yourself every opportunity to enjoy it. We’re playing hockey at the end of May.”

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