TORONTO — It feels like light years ago when Mike Babcock was appointed head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and prophetically announced “There’s pain coming.” After drafting Auston Matthews and seeing Mitch Marner and William Nylander enjoy early-season breakouts, it was almost easy to forget that this young, speedy core is just that: still young and without a ton of NHL experience.
The Los Angeles Kings came into Toronto and reminded the Maple Leafs just what pain feels like, beating up on them in a resounding 7–0 win. Under Babcock, the Maple Leafs had become an alarmingly strong possession team, going from one of the worst in the league immediately before Babcock’s hire to one of the better possession outfits in the NHL this season.
But on Tuesday night, the masters of puck possession, the Kings, showed the young Leafs that it will take quite a while for the students to overtake the masters.
It was over four minutes from the puck drop until the first whistle with end-to-end play and the Maple Leafs utilizing their speed to find lanes. That was about as close as the Leafs got. By the end of the second period, with the Leafs being outshot 31–11, a Bronx cheer emerged from the crowd when the last minute of the second period announced. A crowd of 18,976 was announced, but throughout the third period, it looked like only a fraction remained.
Those that stayed saw a clinical performance from the Kings. Parity may still be one of those buzzwords tossed around in today’s NHL but the gap between the young Maple Leafs and the veteran Kings was ocean-sized.
“We didn’t turn the puck over,” said Kings goalie Peter Budaj, who recorded his second shut out in a row after Saturday night’s 5–0 win over the Calgary Flames. “They didn’t have any odd-man rushes. That’s huge. If you eliminate the turnovers and the odd man rushes against that’s going to help your team.”
That 70’s Line, all 647 pounds of them, led the charge as Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Dwight King combined for four goals and six points. What’s more, all four Kings lines scored, including two goals from Jeff Carter and markers from Kyle Clifford, Dustin Brown, Tanner Pearson, Toffoli and King.
So much of the excitement surrounding the young Maple Leafs revolves around their three young rookies, two of whom (Nylander and Matthews) have featured on the same line for most of the season.
To get to the level that the Kings currently sit at, the Maple Leafs may have to take a page out of their book. If all four lines can find contribute offensively, it will be difficult for any team with just one or two dedicated scoring lines to keep up.
“We stuck to our game plan all game and it worked out for us,” said Pearson.
“The last two games, not taking it for granted, but we’re doing the right things,” he added. “It’s helping us put pucks in the net.”
For all the talk of the NHL skewing younger, the Kings have shown in a three-game winning streak that size and experience still play an important role in the league. Both the Maple Leafs and the Flames have highly-touted young cores that are expected to contend for years to come.
Perhaps the breaks deserve a bit of a pump, however, as the Flames have lost four of their last five against quality opponents and the Maple Leafs were on the opposing end of a touchdown put up by the Kings on Tuesday.
“When I started my coaching career I always used to say experience was overrated and I thought that because I had none,” said Babcock. “So there’s no sense worrying about that, right? This is our team. This is what we’ve got. Let’s find a way to win games. I don’t care about the experience.”
After a three-game winning streak in which the Maple Leafs executed thanks to their speed and playmaking abilities, they were quickly brought back to Earth. As the ever-changing world raged on outside the Air Canada Centre, it was clear that some things never change. The Los Angeles Kings are still the big-bodied masters of possession and they can still leave young, up-and-coming teams in their wake.