As the defending Calder Cup champions, the Toronto Marlies have built a level of respect among their American League rivals. But make no mistake – this season’s Marlies squad is significantly different than the one that brought a championship to Toronto last year.
For one thing, this group of Marlies is younger and less experienced at the AHL level than the lineup that won it all in 2017-18. Last year’s Marlies tied the franchise record for wins (54) and went on to defeat Texas in the Calder Cup Final for the organization’s first AHL title, but this season’s Marlies had to scrape and claw all year, winning 15 fewer games, but finding their game at precisely the right time, sweeping both their first-and-second-round series to get to where they are today: the AHL’s Eastern Division Final, against the very talented Charlotte Checkers.
The Checkers dominated the regular season this year, winning 51 games and losing just once in their first two post-season rounds. The Marlies won three of four games against Charlotte this season, but the two clubs haven’t squared off since Toronto defeated them 5-0 Jan. 20 – and anyone who knows the quick-to-change nature of the AHL understands that both teams are notably different some five months later. That means Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe has to balance his experience squaring off head-to-head with the Checkers with the new looks Charlotte has shown in the post-season.
“We do both,” Keefe told the media Monday. “We look at regular season and playoffs, (and) more emphasis is on the playoffs. Everybody plays a little bit differently and a little bit harder, and so much time has elapsed also since we’ve played them in regular season. Both our team and their team have different looks. So it’s a mix, but certainly the most recent games are the ones we’re spending the most time on.”
The Marlies have experienced changes in their lineup since last they faced Charlotte – not just changes in terms of who’ll be playing in any given playoff game, but changes in the players themselves. And there’s likely no better example of that than Toronto forward Trevor Moore; the 24-year-old played 46 regular-season games as a top-line player with the Marlies – amassing 23 goals and 39 points in that span – but he also spent the latter half of the year with the NHL’s Maple Leafs, playing on the fourth line. And when the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs, Moore returned to the Marlies to resume his role as a leader and major force, scoring four goals and six points in four post-season games thus far.
Moore’s development – and his ability to be effective regardless of where his coach might play him at any given moment – is a credit both to himself and the Marlies’ coaching and management team. But Keefe deflected any praise and noted that Moore’s biggest area of growth is in his belief in himself at the top two levels in the sport.
“I think in his early time with us – I’d say for the first year-and-a-half, really; up until Christmas of last season – he was still really trying to find his way,” Keefe said of Moore. “As a coaching staff, you have a role in players developing confidence – putting them on the ice, giving them a chance to play, how you interact with them and how you coach them. But also, the players need to find their level of comfort on the ice, and learn that they can do some of the same things that they’re familiar with doing at lower levels, at this level. And they can be comfortable in uncomfortable situations – contact, competitive situations.
“Those are the things that (Moore) had to find his way, and once he did, he just took off and he hasn’t slowed down. He’s just really been one of those guys that, when you’ve coached them and you’ve talked to them about what it is you’d like to see from them, he’s really focused on. And once it clicked, he’s just run with it.”
For Moore – who earned the cheers of Leafs fans when he laid a thunderous check on Bruins veteran defenceman Zdeno Chara in Toronto’s first-round playoff series against Boston – his confidence is something he needed to work on at both the AHL and NHL level before he blossomed and showed why the Leafs signed him as an undrafted free agent out of the NCAA’s University of Denver in 2016.
“I think it’s more than just offensive (confidence), it’s confidence in the ‘D’ zone, too, to know that you’re in the right spot and believe that, which helps out the team,” said Moore, a native of Thousand Oaks, Calif.. “I feel like I gained a lot of confidence at this level, and then you go up there (to the NHL) and you’ve kind of got to start again and build your confidence there.”
The mental aspect of the game is crucial not just to Moore, but the entire Marlies team. Keefe’s practices over the course of the regular season are, by design, nearly as much about teaching as they are about strategy and muscle memory or system repetition. But now, with a lengthy stretch of time between the Marlies’ second-round sweep of Cleveland and the Eastern Final – which begins Friday and Saturday in Charlotte, before moving back to Toronto for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday of next week – Keefe believes one of his players’ biggest challenges is the need to remain mentally-focused on the task at hand.
“It’s a combination,” Keefe said of the balance between the mental aspect of the sport and the physical readiness of his players. “You want to stay sharp, you’ve got to have good volume on the ice in terms of continuing to condition yourself to play and be on the ice for long periods of time.
“But definitely, the mental part of it is something that, at this time of year, especially – practice time weighs on the players. It’s not even just the practice time – it’s the meeting time, it’s the workout time in the gym: those are the types of things that aren’t very fun. But games is what guys want; they enjoy the games, they enjoy the big crowds, they enjoy the emotions of the playoffs. And when you don’t have that, you’ve got to manage the situation. So we think we’ve found a good balance of managing that, both with time off, and modifying things (on the ice) here or there.”
This year’s Marlies team may not be identical to the one that ran the table and brought a Calder Cup to Toronto for the first time, but for the organization to get back to the third round and give itself an opportunity to repeat as champions is a massive achievement for Keefe & Co. And now, he’s focused on getting his charges not just ready to take on the Checkers, but to be champing at the bit for the chance to make hockey history in the sport’s biggest market.
Sure, there’s pressure that comes along with the challenge, but Keefe wants the Marlies to embrace the test they’re about to take.
“You just really have to embrace this time of year,” Keefe said. “(There) are mental blocks you’ve got to get over, (and) the teams that get over them I think are the ones that get to play a long time. But just staying engaged and embracing how hard it is this time of year, that’s the biggest thing. And fortunately for our group, we’ve been able to do that.”