Under Babcock, Leafs turn up the compete level

As a veteran Maple Leafs watcher (going on 45 years or so), I’ve seen some good teams in Toronto, but mostly I’ve seen a lot of mediocrity. This season looked to be yet another disappointment as a major rebuilding project begins under the direction of team President Brendan Shanahan. Mike Babcock was brought in from Detroit to be the bench boss with a massive contract and a lot of expectations, but I don’t think anybody thought there would be much to cheer about anyway. And after going 1-7-2 in October, things were really looking bleak. Even though they were somewhat competitive in most of those games, the offense was sputtering and the goaltending provided by Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer was unreliable at best and absolutely horrendous at worst.

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But in November, it has been a different story for the Leafs. Reimer has stepped up his game while Bernier has struggled, and the hard work has begun to pay off. The Leafs started the month off with a decisive 4-1 win over the streaking Dallas Stars before dropping a game to Winnipeg and losing in OT to Detroit and in a shootout to Washington. Last week, they reeled off three straight wins over Dallas, Nashville and Vancouver, backstopped by outstanding work from Reimer, who was named the NHL’s third star of the week. On Sunday night against the Rangers, Bernier returned after missing four games with a lower-body injury and gave up one of the worst goals you’ll ever see, a squeaker from center ice thrown at the net by Derek Stepan that somehow found its way through his pads.

Bernier was signed as a free agent two years ago after a few years backing up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles and has primarily been the number one goalie in Toronto the last two seasons, but he’s mired in a slump that dates back to last season. He’s 0-7-1 this season and has just one win in his last 17 decisions, and only seven wins in his last 40 games. Part of that is due to the team in front of him, but this season especially he’s just struggled badly.

Nevertheless, after Stepan’s goal Sunday made the score 2-1 Rangers, you could have expected Toronto to fold against a team with one of the best records in the NHL. Instead, they tied it up a few minutes later and kept battling. Indeed, with a minute left in regulation, it appeared the game would go into overtime until Bernier kicked out a huge rebound on a soft shot directly to Mats Zuccarello, who turned him inside out and scored the eventual game winner.

Still, the Leafs have played well in this last stretch and now sit at 5-9-4 with 14 points. While they’re still in last place in the Atlantic division, Toronto is now only three points behind the Bruins and Sabres, they’re also only five behind Detroit, Tampa and Florida with a lot of games to play. I’m not saying they won’t finish in last place, but I’ve been impressed with the work ethic they’ve displayed so far under Babcock. The offense is still a work in progress, but the top line of Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Uncle Leo Komarov has consistently generated shots and offensive pressure, if not a ton of goals. Kadri is finally playing a good two-way game and even though he only has 1 goal on 74 shots, they’re going to come. Joffrey Lupul has rediscovered his scoring touch while playing on a checking line, and P.A. Parenteau, Tyler Bozak and Daniel Winnik have also chipped in.

But the real area of improvement for Toronto so far is on defense. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs’ young strong skating d-men, have both excelled at both ends of the ice. Rielly is a future star whose future may actually be now. On the top D pairing with former Ranger and Bruin Matt Hunwick, Rielly is proving himself worthy of playing against the opposition’s top line every night. Not only is he displaying the blazing speed and offensive touch he did in his first two years in the league, but now his defensive game is catching up. Captain Dion Phaneuf has been rejuvenated playing on the second pairing, freed from the burden of having to play close to 30 minutes a night. As a result, he’s been more effective on D and has also rediscovered his offensive touch; he and Rielly lead the team in scoring right now.

Another difference for the Leafs is the forwards no longer abandon their defensive counterparts and wait for the puck to be cleared. They’re active in breaking up passes and providing support, and the d-men aren’t just firing up the puck up the boards only to find them kept in by the opposing point men. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t seen the Leafs play defense this solidly and smartly since the days when Pat Burns coached the team in the early ‘90s. Even when Toronto was a semi-contender under Pat Quinn from the late ‘90s to mid-‘00s, defense was not the team’s strong point. The main defensive strategy then was to get bailed out by Curtis Joseph or Eddie Belfour in net. Under recent coaches Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle (and Carlyle’s interim replacement Peter Horachek), the D got even worse. Seasoned defensemen like Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek would arrive in Toronto and suddenly flounder in the Leafs’ system-less D.

Now, there’s something different afoot. The talent level may not match up with a lot of teams in the league, but the Leafs are working harder than I’ve ever seen them. The irony of it all is that former coach Randy Carlyle used to pooh-pooh the advanced stats crowd and constantly talk about the importance of “compete level” while the team languished in its own end. Under Babcock, the compete level of the Leafs is off the charts. Even when they were losing regularly in October, the Leafs were giving a maximum effort. Whether that continues to translate into wins and points is another question. It wouldn’t be shocking if they went into a slide at some point. But it would be shocking if the team stopped trying. Hopefully, that’s a thing of the past.

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