“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
Forty-two years after Paul Simon penned those rueful lyrics, the words to Mrs. Robinson have a new spin. With the big club’s playoff hopes crippled by a disastrous February and early March, Leafs Nation is turning its gaze to the AHL Marlies.
The Marlies have won 31 of 62 games and taken points in seven shootout or overtime losses. Their 75 points puts them first in the American League’s North Division with a five-point advantage over Grand Rapids. They sit second overall in the Eastern Conference.
Assuming the Leafs do not advance, the Marlies will be gifted with NHLers Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Carter Ashton and Jay Rosehill in time for the post-season. Returning those players to a team that is second in the American League in goals against positions the Marlies for a promising spring.
“God forbid the Leafs miss the playoffs but if they do people have a chance to see good hockey being played,” said Brad Lynn, the Marlies Manager of Hockey Operations.
While guided by veterans such as Mike Zigomanis and Ryan Hamilton, the team is buoyed by 21-year-old one-time first-rounders Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri. In his second year with the team 24-year-old Korbinian Holzer has emerged as a 25-minute a night shutdown defender. Goalie Ben Scrivens, 24, owns 2.12 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. There’s lots to like and if you like them now, you may love them later.
It is particularly true in the minors but the truth about pro sports is unwavering: what is good for the team is invariably good for the individual. A playoff offers hope for a big finish that for better or worse will obliterate the memory of the regular season. It’s a double-edged proposition that if the Leafs fall short the farmhands will perform under more scrutiny than ever.
“For me, the playoffs are huge. They’re everything,” said Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins. “The NHL season is over and all the people who will decide your future are watching you closely.”
The same could be said for the fan base which has swelled to an average of around 5,000 a night, 30 per cent higher than last year.
“The last couple of games we are seeing more people in the building,” said Holzer. “It kind of pumps everyone up. With the management watching it’s a big motivation boost. Everyone wants to show well.”
Holzer has skated for Germany in two World Championships but he relishes the chance to compete in the hothouse of a playoff.
“I’m happy with my development this season but I think you can improve even more in the playoffs. For me it would be nice experience and a big step.”
Look no further than Colborne for evidence of the feast or famine of life in the minors. Colborne rambled through October with eight goals and eight assists in nine games. In the 42 games he has played after, he has eight goals and 21 points.
“Naz and Joe are getting better,” Eakins said. “They just need to feel out and get stronger and that will take time.”
“The last while hasn’t been fun I’ll tell you that,” Colborne said, “but when I look back at where I was before I got traded here, there’s a lot of positives to go on. I had a great start to the year. The points haven’t come the way I wanted them to but I’ve been focusing on different parts of my game. Now I’m looking to getting back to producing the way I was.”
“You look at any team that’s won a championship or made a deep playoff run and the individuals who make up that team are rewarded for that,” said Scrivens. “Everybody wants a guy who knows how to be on a team that wins. “