Yesterday, the Toronto Marlies played host to the Rochester Americans in a 4-3 Marlies win. The Marlies are now 6 points clear of the Americans for first in their division and are playing some really good hockey for coach Dallas Eakins.
In the win, both Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin scored goals and Korbinian Holzer added a pair of assists.
It's unfamiliar territory for a lot of Leaf fans, but we now find ourselves in a position where our farm team has developed some talent that needs to move beyond the AHL and start getting NHL minutes for the sake of their development.
Last week, we had a look at Nazem Kadri and how his stats compared against other forwards from his draft class and the draft class that preceded his. Our conclusion was that, so far, Kadri is right on track in his development however that same track also makes him a fulltime NHLer no later than the beginning of next season. If he's going to develop, the time is fast approaching where he'll need to get serious, fulltime NHL minutes.
Matt Frattin didn't look out of place during his time with the Maple Leafs, though he seemed to have been afflicted with whatever snake-bite-disease that has kept Nikolai Kulemin from scoring this season. Frattin has re-found his scoring touch with the Marlies, potting 9 goals in 15 games (and has been firing at an even more prolific rate lately).
Joe Colborne is also getting awfully close to being a fulltime NHL player. His scoring pace has slowed with a nagging injury and the loss of Joey Crabb, a forward with whom he'd developed some solid chemistry, but he's been a better player of late and he's the type of big bodied center that Leaf fans have been pleading for since Antropov was shipped to the Rangers.
The problem for each of these forwards is the number of fulltime NHL forwards that the Leafs have under contract for next year. The Leafs have six wingers under contract for next season and of those 6, only Mike Brown could be reasonably expected to skate on the team's fourth line. Add to the mix Nikolai Kulemin as a restricted free agent and it would seem that there are no spots up for grabs on the Leafs' top three lines.
At center, there's not much more flexibility. The Leafs have three centers under contract and Grabovski is an unrestricted free agent that the Leafs can ill afford to lose.
The forward situation is made even more complicated by the pending arrival of Brad Ross and Greg McKegg, two players who have put in very strong performances in the CHL this year and will be looking to play prominent roles on the Marlies next season in order to continue their development.
The Maple Leafs' defense, from an organizational standpoint, is an absolute logjam. The Leafs have six NHL defensemen under contract and Cody Franson as a pending RFA who they would undoubtedly like to retain. In the AHL, Korbinian Holzer has little left to prove and seems poised to make the jump to the NHL while Jesse Blacker and Keith Aulie are both getting close and would make perfectly adequate injury call-ups should the need arise.
That brings the Leafs' total of NHL-ready or nearly ready defensemen to 10.
While Burke will say that this is a good problem to have and that you need 10 NHL-calibre defensemen to win in the playoffs and that he loves competition throughout the system, there can be little doubt that there's some pressure on the Leafs' GM to find a balance between developing these kids to their peak potential and winning at the NHL level.
If I've said it once, I've said it a dozen times; Burke has done a fantastic job at building the Leafs' asset base but that's the easy part. The challenge for Burke moving forward will be determining what pieces are part of the Leafs' longterm core and where he can package players together to both upgrade the roster and create space for the young talent in the Leafs' system.