Mike Babcock knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on for eight years to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Babcock’s famous, “there will be pain,” comment about the journey he was setting out on has come true. But with the pain has come promise. On some nights you really have to scratch the surface to see it, but make no mistake about it, it is there.
You wouldn’t know it with a quick glance at the standings. Following a lopsided 6-0 win in Colorado Thursday – a victory that says more about the ineptness of the Avalanche than the prowess of the Maple Leafs – Toronto was 13-12-7 in 32 games with one fewer goal scored at 93 than it has allowed, 94. With more than half a season yet to be played, the Maple Leafs are nine points out of a wild card into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On special teams, Toronto ranks ninth in penalty-killing at 83 per cent and 14th on the power play with a success rate of 18.8 per cent.
So while the numbers don’t necessarily paint a pretty picture, there are reasons to be optimistic.
One, says Captain Obvious, is the addition of Arizona-born Austin Matthews, 19, who made a dazzling NHL debut with four goals on Oct. 12 and through games played Dec. 22, has 10 goals in Toronto’s past 13 games. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft has 16 goals in 32 games, the fifth highest goal total in the league. Debate amongst yourselves if the Maple Leafs should have selected sharp-shooting right winger Patrick Laine, who went second overall to the Winnipeg Jets and has 19 goals in 36 games, but it’s hard to argue against picking a 6-foot-3 and 216 pound center when you haven’t had a true No. 1 pivot since Mats Sundin skipped town in 2008.
Suffice it to say the addition of Matthews alone has given long-suffering Maple Leafs fans hope for the future.
It doesn’t stop there, though.
To appreciate the skill and contribution of Mitch Marner, who leads Toronto with 26 points, you really need to see him in action. The statistics would suggest Marner has been in something of an offensive funk of late, although he did have three assists against Colorado. The 5-foot-11, 162-pound right winger has just one goal in his past 15 games, but a strong case could be made that he has been his team’s most thrilling and creative forward in that time span. Seriously. Marner’s work ethic shift to shift is second to none. It seems like only a matter of time until Marner, 19, starts to light it up on a more consistent basis.
William Nylander, who is 20, is a project for Babcock. There is no denying Nylander’s offensive potential, but there is merit to Babcock’s constant harping on the young Swede’s lack of urgency when playing without the puck. That can be taught. With six goals and 21 points in 31 games, Nylander is serving notice he’ll be a solid producer in the very near future.
If the Maple Leafs had just three rookies – Mathews, Marner and Nylander – the future would be bright. But the reality is Toronto currently employs eight freshmen. It’s no wonder then that Maple Leafs rookies have accumulated 111 points, the most in the NHL and more than twice as many as the Winnipeg Jets (43) who rank second.
Zach Hyman, Nikita Zaitsev, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown and Frederk Gauthier have all given indication they will develop into impact NHLers, as have youngsters such as Connor Carrick, Josh Leivo, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. Also, the Maple Leafs are grooming a number of future NHLers with the AHL Toronto Marlies.
Which brings us back to Babcock’s eight-year contract. Considered by many to be the best coach in the NHL, Babcock took a hard look at the Toronto organization before he signed on and came to the realization that it was going to take a lot of work and a long time to turn the corner.
Getting Matthews was certainly a bonus from an offensive standpoint, but to win in the NHL teams must play solid defence. Learning the defensive side of the game takes time.
Babcock can push and prod and move players up and down and in and out of the lineup, but until the young players gain an appreciation for consistent and dependable defensive play, the Maple Leafs will continue to struggle to simply make the playoffs. That is their current reality.
It’s going to take time and nobody knows that better than Babcock.