By Robin Short
Sports Editor/St. John’s Telegram
ST. JOHN’S, NFLD –When Kyle Dubas was handed the keys to the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager’s office in May, 2018, one of the first orders of business for the youthful NHL executive was to lay the groundwork that would appear quite similar to Major League Baseball’s minor league system.
It was Dubas’s vision to see his organization aligned in the same fashion as minor pro ball, with players breaking into AA (ECHL), before climbing to AAA (American Hockey League) and perhaps, down the road, the big leagues (NHL).
“We,” said Dubas in 2019, the first year of operation for the Newfoundland Growlers, the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate, “want to use it for everybody entering the organization … players, coaches, trainers and medical people.
“We want a close connection throughout the entire organization. We want it all aligned.
“We’ve hammered home the organizational ethos of what we want in terms of our playing style, and they’ve (Growlers coaches) stuck with it when it would have been easy to get away from it against different teams, to put different players in to play a different style.
“The staff here (under Growlers’ head coach John Snowden) has done a great job to ready the players night in and night out.”
Under Dubas’s concept, it’s possible young players destined for the minors could be signed to AHL-ECHL contracts.
“Considering our salary cap situation in the coming years,” he said, “we need to have player development through the system. With this scenario, we feel it gives them a better chance at becoming Leafs.
“Our plan for the organization in terms of the Growlers has been to have this team be a starting point for our prospects when they enter pro hockey, and graduate up to the Marlies and one day maybe the Maple Leafs.”
The Leafs have made several cagey findings whilst stocking their minor league system. Among the hidden gems uncovered with a bit of polish from last year’s championship Growlers team are Kristians Rubins, Hudson Elynuik and Scott Pooley, who have moved up to play regular minutes for the AHL’s Marlies this season.
A number of others – Michael Kapla, Zach O’Brien, Giorgio Estephan, Matt Bradley, Brady Ferguson and Garrett Johnston – have all seen playing time with the Marlies this season. Likewise, from this year’s Growlers’ team, Joe Duszak, an NCAA Hobey Baker finalist last season, Mac Hollowell and goalie Parker Gahagen.
And we can’t forget Colt Conrad, from the tiny farming hamlet of Saint Alphonse, Man., between Brandon and Winnipeg.
“We’ve got some guys the Leafs did a great job finding, putting them here and trusting our staff and our process to ensure that we develop them the right way to be quality players at this level, and later be effective in the American league and hopefully one day NHL players,” Snowden said.
“You never know how a guy is going to react when he makes the jump to pro hockey, but (Conrad is) a buzzer, a little waterbug who can get around the ice. You give him the puck with space, and he’ll make plays.”
Conrad rose more than a few eyebrows in his brief time with the Growlers this year. Of course, Newfoundland’s season – and the entire ECHL 2019-20 campaign – was cut short in mid-March because of the Coronavirus crisis.
At the time when ECHLers were told to hang up the skates, the 22-year-old Conrad, a year removed from U.S. college hockey’s Western Michigan University, was seventh on the Growlers in scoring with six goals and 38 points in 42 games, good for 15th overall in scoring amongst first-year ECHL players.
“He’s slippery, so he can get himself out of trouble. He finds a way. He has that unique ability, kind of like (Zach) O’Brien, to create offence out of nothing. They’re very similar players,” said Snowden, comparing Conrad to last year’s playoff MVP and St. John’s native.
“He does all the little things that you want. He’s another player that you want to get more ice time, and develop his game away from the puck and continue to grow.”
Conrad was the recipient of similar coaching at Western Michigan from Andy Murray, he of the 20 years of experience as an NHL head or assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. Conrad led the Broncos in scoring as a senior, and in 2018 was named to Canada’s squad for the annual Spengler Cup tournament in Switzerland.
Though hailing from Saint Alphonse, Conrad played organized minor hockey in nearby Swan Lake, Man. Murray grew up in Souris. Man., and would often scout players in the area.
Conrad was actually drafted into the Western Hockey League by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2012, the same year Estephan went fourth overall to the Hurricanes.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Andy Murray, I would have taken the major junior route,” Conrad said. “Coach Murray opened my eyes to college hockey, and I stayed on that path. He opened doors for me. Coming from a town where I grew up, people don’t really get the opportunity to move away, so I was fortunate enough that he reached out to me.”
Before heading off to NCAA hockey, Conrad spent time at Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s, one of the finest prep school programs in America.
He got his first taste of pro hockey last season with seven regular-season AHL games with the Marlies and another Calder Cup playoff start.
Because of the Coronavirus, there won’t be any playoff hockey in 2019-20, which, of course, is disappointing to the Growlers and their fans, who watched their team post a 42-17-0-1 record, good for fourth overall in the ECHL when the plug was pulled on the remainder of the season.
Conrad, perhaps seeking a sliver of hope out of a terribly disappointing situation, struggles to remember there is always next year.
Given how things have been working out so far for this Manitoba farm boy, there may even be a chance that bigger and better things await Conrad in 2021 and beyond.
His career trajectory certainly suggests it’s not out of the question.