TORONTO — Mike Babcock is getting promising results out of the youngest NHL roster he has ever coached.
Babcock’s Maple Leafs dressed 11 players aged 23 and under against the Buffalo Sabres over the weekend and came away with a thorough 4-1 victory, the club’s third in the past four games and fourth in the past six.
The Leafs were led by 19-year-old William Nylander, who registered the first multi-point game of his NHL career.
Toronto (61 points), despite its youth and obvious attempts at a roster rebuild, could soon escape the NHL’s basement, nearing the likes of Winnipeg (64 points), Edmonton (65), Vancouver (66) and Columbus (66) with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Babcock's efforts behind the bench have moved the Leafs near the top of the league in puck possession since the trade deadline, when Toronto dealt a number of veteran players for draft picks and promoted young players.
"My favourite coaches have always made the game easier to play, but challenged you personally to do more," said 22-year-old Connor Carrick, who joined the club late last month. "I feel like that's what he does so well. He helps make the game easier for you in having an identity, having a plan. He doesn't handcuff you or anything like that as a player."
"He challenges you to be at close to your 100 per cent," Carrick added. "Anything less than that in his eyes isn't acceptable."
Babcock has found some mild success with a Leafs roster that isn't only young, but shifting constantly with 43 different players suiting up this season.
Most of those added recently have little to no NHL experience, including 20-year-old Frederik Gauthier who became the ninth Leaf in a span of three weeks to make his NHL debut, doing so against the Sabres on Saturday.
"Obviously three years from now we don't want to be doing this, but right now this is what we're doing and it's a lot of fun," Babcock said.
The head coach of veteran playoff teams in Detroit for a decade, Babcock hasn't coached a team this young since 2000 when he steered the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. His approach with such a youthful group requires extensive explanation and communication. Babcock said players, especially young ones, crave feedback, good or bad.
"He's always talking and always letting you know what he thinks and what you've got to work on and stuff like that," Nylander said.
On the bench, Babcock's experience was more chaotic than usual.
"They're not quite as calm, you're not quite as calm, so then everything's more erratic off the bench for sure," he said.
Toronto traded six veterans ahead of the trade deadline, the club's need for bodies compounded by a slew of injuries, the latest of which has seen Peter Holland, Leo Komarov and rookie Nikita Soshnikov hurt.
And yet the Leafs have managed to win games or come close. Five of their last seven losses have been by a goal, including a string of five straight.
Babcock stressed caution when evaluating his team's recent performance. Meetings between non-playoff teams aren't always a good barometer, he said after the win over the Sabres.
"I think you've got to be real careful about over-evaluating anybody at this time of the year when you're in the situation we are," Babcock said.