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Damien Cox: Bountiful harvest on the farm paying dividends for Maple Leafs

Damien Cox: Bountiful harvest on the farm paying dividends for Maple Leafs
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Until this season, Nazem Kadri was the poster boy for how the Maple Leafs finally realized a good farm system mattered about a decade ago.

He was drafted seventh overall by the Leafs in 2009, but it wasn’t until the 2013-14 season that Kadri, by then a 23-year-old centre with 120 games of minor-league work with the Marlies under his belt, graduated to the NHL to stay.

People complained about how long it took. They were used to Leaf first-rounders being in the NHL by their 19th birthday, whether they were ready or not. Every Saturday night on Coach’s Corner it seemed Don Cherry campaigned for Kadri to be called up.

But after years operating its farm team as an afterthought, Toronto learned with Kadri that patience pays off. Once he made it for good, he scored 119 goals over the next five NHL seasons and became the team’s most reliable two-way centre. By the time , Kadri had been in the Leafs organization for a full 10 years and had demonstrated the kind of hockey asset a logical minor-league apprenticeship program could produce for Toronto’s NHL entry.

Now, however, you could argue the Kadri example has been surpassed.

By Justin Holl.

The 27-year-old signed a three-year contract extension with the Leafs this week worth an average of $2 million (U.S.) per season. The signing was an important symbol of how much this NHL franchise has changed over the past decade.

If the Leafs are to end their Stanley Cup drought in the foreseeable future, it will obviously be primarily because of the massively talented core of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. But because it costs so much of the payroll to keep high-end youngsters like those three, if the Leafs ever do get to the top of the mountain the organization’s ability to get bargains along the way from a variety of sources and to develop useful talent through the Marlies will be nearly as important.

By the end of October, he was up over 20 minutes a game. After Keefe completed his own four seasons-long AHL apprenticeship and was hired to replace Babcock, Holl continued to get between 22 and 28 shifts per game. Suddenly, the fact he could walk at the end of the season as an unrestricted free agent loomed as a major issue, and general manager Kyle Dubas — formerly GM of the Marlies — addressed that this week by getting Holl signed.

In essence, the Leafs took a player who wasn’t a significant prospect for another organization, acquired him for free and gradually sculpted him into an NHL player over the course of five years. Good teams do that kind of thing.

Now, the Leafs have a valuable right-handed shot blueline asset under contract for less than the NHL average salary. That contract creates flexibility if they want to re-sign Tyson Barrie and/or Jake Muzzin. It also gives them a very useful, affordable player to use in a trade if they want.

Holl represents a major success story for the Toronto’s AHL operation. You could argue, in fact, that a Leafs season seemingly on the rocks in November, with the team struggling along at 9-10-4, has been salvaged largely because of the strength of the Marlies.

When things were ugly and the roster seemed weighed down by salaries to high-end players, the Leafs didn’t make a big trade. They didn’t get desperate and . They looked inside the organization for answers, starting with Keefe taking over for Babcock.

Thursday night in Winnipeg, Holl was one of 11 former Marlies in the Leafs’ lineup against the Jets. Eight of those players make less than $1 million per season, critical for a cap-challenged team like Toronto. Not since the days when Rochester was the AHL feeder team for the Leafs in the 1960s has the farm system been this productive.

As good a story as Holl may be, Pierre Engvall could turn out to be an even better one. At 23, the former seventh-round pick has now worked his way into the Leafs’ top nine forwards after playing 128 regular-season and minor-league games for the team’s AHL affiliate. He makes $975,000 per season, and as a restricted free agent next summer the Leafs should be able to get him re-signed at a very favourable figure.

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Holl, Keefe and Engvall demonstrate how over the past decade the Leafs have slowly become a club that uses its AHL team as the foundation of its entire operation. It continued this week with the NHL debuts of Marlies callups Adam Brooks and Mason Marchment.

Even with their big-name stars, the Leafs could have been in major trouble earlier this season without a strong farm club. Instead, largely because of the Marlies, the Leafs are one of the hottest teams in hockey and back in the NHL’s top 10.
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