The Toronto Marlies recently announced the signing of center Denver Manderson, left winger Brett Findlay and center Patrick Watling to one year American Hockey League (AHL) contracts for the upcoming 2014 – 2015 season. Given how closely together the signings occurred and the type of players signed, one could assume that this appears to signal the beginning of a more intense focus on depth related signings and longer shot prospect development for the club given their relative no risk nature…although it could simply be coincidence. However to lend to the argument, this trio of signings appear to coincide with the recent announcement of a two year extension of an affiliation agreement between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Orlando Solar Bears of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and with new assistant GM Kyle Dubas seemingly taking over the Marlies GM duties for recently departed Dave Poulin, there appears to be some evidence to support this theory.
The signings themselves appear to show a new willingness on the Marlies part to take on longer shot prospects by signing them to minor league only deals that (from what I understand) would not count against the 50 player contract cap, a definite change in their mindset. This would essentially allow the club to increase the size of their prospect pool while, if necessary, send a variety of players down to the Solar Bears if they cannot find space for them on the roster (I really would have to look at the league rules more closely but at first glance it seems like they really could sign a higher than average number of young players to minor league only deals).
If the Marlies were indeed doing this on purpose I would whole heart-idly applaud them for the forward thinking; by exploring all available options to the organization such as further increasing the size of their prospect pool or at minimum having players they are interested in much closer to the organization allowing them to evaluate their progress/potential up close, management are showing a shift in their approach to prospects that a lot of people felt was becoming somewhat necessary. Are these prospect further away from making an impact in terms of their skill? potentially yes, however if you have the funds necessary to take on larger risk prospects as the Maple Leafs most certainly do, then this change in thought is a good one given the old adage ‘you just never know’ when it comes to a young players development curve who could still very well develop into an impact player down the road.
These announcements also appear to coincide with the possible adjustment and realignment of the AHL that will see a number of new teams appear in the league on the West coast next season, signalling that things could become a lot more interesting on the prospect development front. If you have not yet already heard, a number of NHL clubs are having more and more difficulties with their prospects playing in markets that are significant distances away from the parent club. With travel and general lack of availability e.g. to place emergency callup’s, teams like the Edmonton Oilers for example who’s AHL affiliate team is located in Oklahoma, are pushing the AHL to establish ‘farm’ teams on the West coast and it appears the minor league is listening. What the AHL has proposed is to have a number of teams from the western portion of the ECHL join the AHL, like the Bakersfield Condors (who funnily enough were already purchased by the Oilers; forward thinking or perhaps a strategic acquisition). The vacuum of departed teams in the ECHL would then be filled by teams absorbed from the Central Hockey League (CHL) which is rumored to be struggling financially. This CHL shift could also further benefit the Maple Leafs as the nearby Brampton Beast, a current CHL team, would then become an ECHL team and the location couldn’t be more convenient; it will be interesting to see what happens when the Solar Bears agreement comes up for renewal in two years time if the above actually takes place.
Well, with all that being said and the possible impact it will have on the pool of Maple Leafs prospects what do Mr. Manderson, Mr. Findlay and Mr. Watling potentially bring to the Marlies other than depth? well I asked myself the same question in all honesty not being overly familiar with the players and here is what I found out.
Denver Manderson is a 25 year old center hailing from Fergus, Ontario who last season spent time with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers (where he was better than a point per game player) ending the season with the Wilkes-Barres Scranton Penguins of the AHL where he put up a modest 11 points in 36 games. Possibly a little behind his peers of the same age in terms of development, the 5’10” 175lbs Manderson was forced to sit out the entire previous season after suffering a substantial shoulder injury.
“A goal-scoring machine for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, a Tier-II Junior A League in Canada, Manderson has turned himself into a player capable of playing in all situations during his time in the United States. He’ll be the quarterback of the power play this season for the Nailers, will center the No. 1 line, be the team’s top penalty killer, and is in charge of shutting down the opponent’s top unit.” The Intelligencer Wheeling News-Register.
Manderson is known to be more of a defensive and faceoff specialist but any guy with a history as a pretty solid goal scorer once he becomes more comfortable with the AHL game could potentially provide some timely goals.
Brett Findlay is a 21 year old left winger who split time in his first full professional season between the San Francisco Bulls (who unfortunately folded) and the Alaska Aces of the ECHL where before winning the Kelly Cup, he managed a combined 54 points in 69 games, of which 22 were goals ending the season a +8 (in some cases surpassing his junior stats). The Echo Bay, Ontario native stands at a modest 6’0″ and 189lbs but what I find most intriguing is his age, at 21 he is only recently removed from junior playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Peterborough Pete’s (hey wait, didn’t Kyle Dubas work with the Greyhounds?) and the stats from his Overage (OA) year with the Pete’s although somewhat underwhelming did not properly reflect the player given the Pete’s year and the fact that Findlay was their leading scorer. More information on his season with Peterborough can be found in the below:
So what does Findlay potentially bring the Marlies? a versatile winger who can also play center who has already shown a penchant for scoring and general point production at the professional level. A deft skater in large part due to family influence (his mother Sandra Findlay is a power skating coach with the Greyhounds), it is noted that he has high end level vision but needed at the junior level to work on his consistency. As with any prospect Findlay will need guidance at the AHL level but with his apparent ability to learn quickly (just looking at his rookie production in the ECHL) and high end skating/vision he provides the Marlies with another upside prospect with little to no risk.
Patrick Watling is a 21 year old center and another Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound product with more obvious ties to the new Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas and just recently wrapped up his junior career putting up 54 points in 65 games this past season. Watling went undrafted in the 2012 draft, with a final ranking of 155 but had one of his most productive seasons with the Greyhounds a year later. At 6’0″ the Soo native has been working hard this summer to be in a better position to play against men, managing to pack on almost 20 pounds according to reports, bringing him much closer to 195lbs, which is an impressive feat in itself and if anything further demonstrates the determination of the player to make an impact at the next level.
From comments made online it sounds like Watling is being penciled in as a potential two way player with upside. Some useful statistics from ExtraSkater.com had Watling as 2nd on the team in terms of even strength assists and third on the team in even strength points overall. He did not appear to receive much power play time but according to the stats was counted upon immensely to bolster the Soo’s plenty kill. Sounds like he most likely be groomed as a two way third or fourth line center adding depth down the middle.
Well perhaps next time I blow by Mr. Dubas in Union Station in his snazzy grey suit I’ll finally work up the courage to stop him and ask some questions about his new direction on depth signings for the Marlies and overall prospect focus. However until then I can only but continue to speculate, as always puck for thought.