TORONTO - Ben Ondrus is feeling a little older than he'd like to.
The Toronto Marlies captain is still only 27 but, surrounded by so many young teammates, he can't help but feel like the years are starting to blur.
"I don't like to think about it, but I'm almost one of the older guys on the team now," said Ondrus, now entering his seventh season with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
The Marlies open their American Hockey League season at home on Sunday afternoon versus their provincial rivals, the Hamilton Bulldogs. While the lineup is still anchored by veteran AHLers like Ondrus, Alex Foster and goalie Joey MacDonald, the trickle-down effect from sweeping changes throughout the organization means many new faces will be in the mix.
That includes one behind the bench, as Dallas Eakins, a former assistant with the Leafs and Marlies, takes his first head coaching gig. Eakins clearly outlined the Marlies' big-picture priority to mould the next wave of NHL players, but stressed nobody will gain automatic entry into the lineup.
"We are trying to develop players for our NHL team and that's our goal, first and foremost," said Eakins, who played 120 NHL games as a defenceman over a 15-year pro career. "Now does that mean these young players will be handed playing time? No it doesn't. They will have to earn it and they will have to play better than some of the veteran guys we've had who are very good players.
"We do have spots available for them to play and their ice time will be dictated by their play."
Some of those players, like Jiri Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin, have over 70 games of NHL experience and are looking to prove they belong back in the big league. Others, like Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Dale Mitchell, represent a group of draft picks and college free agent signees in the infant stages of their pro careers.
Mitchell, a key right-winger on the Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires last spring, knows nothing comes easy at this level.
"It's not like junior where you can take a night off and get a goal or an assist," he said. "Here, you're competing every single night to keep your job in the lineup. It's something that, guys have families and they have to support their families. As a young guy, I can't take it easy at all."
The Marlies grabbed the North Division's final playoff berth last year before losing in the first round to the Manitoba Moose. A return to the post-season will depend on a solid forward crew, quality goaltending from MacDonald and ECHL grad James Reimer, and contributions from a blue-line that will feature Jonas Frogren, who spent all of last season with the Leafs.
According to Eakins, there will be a lot of organizational continuity in terms of the Marlies' game plan relative to the Leafs' approach.
"The great thing is I see the game very much the same way (Leafs GM) Brian Burke sees it," Eakins said. "Between (Leafs coach Ron Wilson) and I, we have a great, great relationship where, everything that the Leafs do, that's what we're going to be doing. We're just going to integrate things; as Ron does things and as Ron changes things, then we will change it right away as well."