The AHL has been used for years by teams as a development league for their players and prospects. By giving them time to mature in the minors, they enhance their game until the moment they are ready for NHL duty. For some odd reason, it looked like the Leafs were the last NHL team to figure out how to use their AHL affiliate to develop their prospects. Over the years, Toronto has rushed young players and either ruined their development or ended up trading them too early (Anton Stralman comes to mind). Under the new Shanahan regime, it now seems that the Toronto Marlies (Leafs AHL affiliate) will finally be put to good use and house the future of this organization next season.
Toronto's Assistant GM Kyle Dubas has stated numerous times that this new management will be using the Marlies as the road to the Leafs. Just like Detroit has done (seemingly since time began), Toronto will give their draft picks and players the necessary time to become NHL ready. Next season, players such as William Nylander, Connor Brown, Bryan Froese, Zack Hyman, Casey Bailey, Frederik Gauthier, Brendan Leipsic, and possibly Scott Harrington, Stuart Percy and Josh Leivo are all but guaranteed to start in the minors. These are all names that have high(ish) ceilings as hockey players (most notably Nylander), and Leafs management will refuse to rush them into full NHL duty. As a fan, it's great to see that this organization is taking the proper steps to grow their prospects into complete players; even though it means that the on ice product for the Leafs next season will be near the bottom of the league.
At the head of their new system is drafting guru Mark Hunter, who values high upside and skill over brawn and strength. Even though this was his first run at leading the Leafs at the 2015 draft this year, he brought in a number of young kids who have high ceilings as players if they are able to develop. Forget the obvious in Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, and Jeremy Bracco, but instead look at 7th round pick Dmytro Timashov. Maple Leafs Hot Stove has an amazing read on Timashov, as this article sheds light on the kind of player he just might become.
In order to grow a prospect, a solid coaching staff is needed, and the Leafs went out and hired an up-and-coming hockey bench boss in Sheldon Keefe to lead the Toronto Marlies. Along with assistants Gord Dineen and A.J. MacLean, the Marlies will have the right minds and the right leadership to give their prospects a chance to slowly grow into the NHL players they can become. Shanahan and company have already demonstrated that players will not be called up unless they can handle the speed of the big league; as evident last season with Nylander. At the beginning of Toronto's mid-season collapse, fans were calling for Nylander to be brought up to the Leafs, but management didn't budge. Even though he has tremendous skill, the 18 year old simply wasn't ready and Dubas re-iterated numerous times that Nylander's best option was to continue his development with the Marlies and not be pushed too hard by playing up.
Below the Marlies on Toronto's development depth chart is their ECHL affiliate Orlando Solar Bears. Probably one of those teams that nobody knows about, but still housed some of the Leafs good young prospects last season. Goaltenders Garret Sparks and Chris Gibson both had starting duty in Orlando for some periods of time, and joining them were more notably Tyler Biggs (now with Pittsburgh) and defenceman Matt Finn. Many more spent time in the ECHL this season fixing certain aspects to their game before playing more in the AHL.
The new system sends prospects between the Solar Bears and Marlies to give themselves and other players bigger or lesser roles. For Example, Matt Finn had a tough season in his first year as a pro, so Dubas sent him from the 6th defenceman on the Marlies down to the Solar Bears to be the #1 defenceman. What this did was allow Finn to play a larger role, have more ice time, and boost his confidence. When this is done over numerous players, the on ice product reflects it.
This organization has finally implemented a system that allows players to grow, season, and spend time in the minors to become the most complete player they can. Even though the Leafs surely won't be stacked next season, let alone good, the Marlies will ice a roster that will be one of the best in their league. From and NHL perspective, it just means that Leafs fans can have the comfort of knowing that the future players of the Toronto Maple Leafs are becoming as fully developed as possible before they play for the big club.