As the NHL lockout continues, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs can take comfort in the fact that many of their team's top minor and junior hockey league prospects are playing well during the work stoppage.
The lockout has given many of the Leafs' best young players an opportunity to impress general manager Brian Burke so they can be considered for the opening day NHL roster if the 2012-13 season is not lost.
Let's take a look at the recent progress made by the Toronto Marlies and the Leafs' top prospects playing in the minor and junior leagues.
The Marlies are 12-8-1 this season, which is a very respectable record after the team started the year with three wins in its first eight games.
Toronto is in second place in the North Division and has the third-most points in the Western Conference. The team has played very well of late, with three straight wins and six victories in the last 10 games. The Marlies have scored an average of four goals per game during their current winning streak.
With six of the Marlies' next 10 games at home, December is the perfect month for the team to continue its climb up the Western Conference standings.
The Marlies should continue to play well while NHLers are still on the roster. When the lockout ends, the team's depth will be tested, but head coach Dallas Eakins does have enough talent to make another deep playoff run.
Top AHL and Junior Prospects
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Kadri has played 20 games for the Marlies this season and has scored five goals with 13 assists. He is the Marlies' second-leading scorer, along with Mike Kostka, who also has 18 points.
The former first-round pick hasn't scored the amount of goals that fans expected from him in the AHL this year, but he did score the game-winner in overtime versus the Rochester Americans over the weekend.
Kadri has shown flashes of brilliance, but his consistency, especially from a goal-scoring standpoint, hasn't been good enough. His defense is still average, and there are too many stretches in games where Kadri fails to make an impact at either end of the ice.
Kadri was chosen as an AHL player of the week (week ending Nov. 18) last month when he scored eight points in just four games, so he is certainly capable of playing at a high level in the AHL.
The key for Kadri is being more consistent, and after a strong finish to the month of November, fans can expect the young winger to have a fantastic December for the Marlies.
Morgan Rielly, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
Rielly has excelled this season on defense for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. And depending how long the NHL lockout lasts, Burke should consider bringing the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft to the pros this year.
He has scored six goals with 20 assists in 30 games for Moose Jaw thus far and is playing well at both ends of the ice on a consistent basis. Rielly's improvement defensively has been a positive sign in his development this season, and it's clear that he won't be in junior hockey much longer.
If there is a shortened 2012-13 season, the Leafs would be wise to add Rielly to the NHL roster, because he won't have to go through a grueling 82-game schedule.
Getting anywhere from 40-60 games of NHL experience would be beneficial, and if he gets called up and proves he's not ready yet, the Leafs can have him begin the 2013-14 season in the WHL or AHL.
Toronto cannot rush Rielly to the NHL because he is too valuable to the team's future. But he should be given an opportunity to prove himself against the top competition if the lockout ends soon.
Jake Gardiner, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Gardiner has played well for the Toronto Marlies during the lockout and is tied for the team lead with seven goals scored. He also has seven assists for 14 points in 21 games played.
The Marlies defeated the Lake Erie Monsters in an exciting 5-4 game on Sunday, with Gardiner scoring two important goals.
Gardiner has also done a nice job playing aggressive defensively and not taking penalties. He has just four PIM through 21 games, which is impressive.
The 22-year-old defenseman will certainly be called up to the NHL when the lockout ends, but it's encouraging to see him doing well in the AHL.
Ben Scrivens, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Scrivens has started 13 of the Marlies' 21 games this season with a record of 7-6. He has a 2.39 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
The 26-year-old goaltender has underperformed thus far, which was unexpected following his fantastic 2011-12 season in the AHL when he had the top GAA.
His chances of being with the Leafs full-time during a possible 2012-13 season have taken a hit due to his recent struggles.
Scrivens needs a great month of December to prove to Burke that he deserves a spot on the Leafs roster this year.
Statistics for Top Prospects (Among skaters, as of 12/3/12)
|Jake Gardiner||Toronto Marlies (AHL)||21||7||7||14|
|Joe Colborne||Toronto Marlies (AHL)||18||1||5||6|
|Nazem Kadri||Toronto Marlies (AHL)||20||5||13||18|
|Matt Finn||Guelph Storm (OHL)||23||8||10||18|
|Tyler Biggs||Oshawa Generals (OHL)||30||15||16||31|