TORONTO – At its deep dark core, this is a team driven by offensive dynamos and coached by a man with an aversion to chance.
It’s little wonder why the Toronto Maple Leafs are still trying to sort out what exactly they are.
Mike Babcock, like many coaches, loathes the idea of trading chances and hoping things work out in his favour. Hope doesn’t put food on the table, he once said. The Leafs coach yearns for sound defensive decisions and players who recognize when the time is right to let their offensive instincts take over.
Leading 1-0 with a minute to play in a big game, he wants certainty.
So you can imagine how he felt on Tuesday night after watching his team turn that very situation into a 2-1 overtime loss against the St. Louis Blues.
“What you learn from good teams is you don’t cheat,” said Babcock. “You just keep doing things good and you stay patient and take your opportunities. When you cheat for offence you lose.”
The Leafs have lost six of their last eight games.
They haven’t won in regulation since visiting the last-place Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 28.
As the players returned to work following their league-mandated bye week, there was much discussion about where they might improve down the stretch. It wasn’t a surprise to hear Auston Matthews – he of the 19 goals in 36 games – point immediately to defensive details.
“We’re still a ways away from where we think we can be and where we want to be,” said Matthews. “I think just structure-wise we can be better and a lot smarter, making sure that we’ve got guys above the puck, above their guys, and not giving up too many odd-man rushes.”
There was no lack of intent, in other words, as they played late into a tight game with the Blues.
Connor Brown worked some magic to put Toronto ahead 1-0 – creating a short-handed breakaway with great stick positioning before beating Carter Hutton high glove at 10:10 of the third period. That should have been enough to secure the win.
Babcock got his favourite shutdown unit on the ice with two minutes left in regulation – Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau and Leo Komarov up front, with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey on the blue line – and they remained there through a St. Louis timeout and Hutton being pulled for an extra attacker.
However, the Leafs found themselves hemmed in their own end with three lost faceoffs in quick succession, and Alexander Steen sprung free for a rebound tying goal with 58 seconds to play after Komarov wandered out of position while the Blues worked the puck around.
“One of the forwards came across instead of holding on their side,” said Babcock. “Then they ended up having an outnumbered situation on that side. All you’ve got to do is be patient and hold and stay underneath. We don’t want to get outnumbered at our net, there’s no sense doing that.
“Just settle down and play. We’ve done it lots and done it well. We know how to do it. You’ve got to execute. That’s the bottom line.”
In overtime, William Nylander was denied on a clear breakaway and Matthews got stopped after collecting the rebound. Hutton froze the puck.
Vince Dunn’s overtime winner came soon after when the rookie Blues defenceman crossed up Mitch Marner in his own zone, raced down the ice on a 2-on-1 and beat Frederik Andersen. It was a play where Babcock expected Marner to be on the defensive side of the puck, rather than getting beat on the boards 150 feet from his own net.
“I was just trying to take away a reverse to [Vladimir] Tarasenko and kind of slowed up – kind of read it wrong,” said Marner. “They got an odd-man rush and it obviously didn’t go in our favour.”
An optimist would argue that the Leafs are in great position to endure some growing pains, what with their 11-point cushion on Detroit for third seed in the Atlantic Division. Barring something unforeseen, they can take the remaining 36 games to focus on themselves rather than worrying about the standings or out-of-town scoreboard.
Offensive skills be damned, Babcock has pushed his players towards a risk-free game with the stretch drive and playoffs in mind. It’s what he knows best, and it’s brought him success on every stage the sport has to offer.
The on-ice results are a work in progress in Toronto. While the losses pile up, players are fighting to break old habits and see the game more like their coach.
“I don’t know if it’s really like a learning experience,” Matthews said of the fumbled effort against St. Louis. “We had enough of that last year. Obviously, the other day before our break [against Ottawa] and then tonight, we’ve just got to find a way to win because this game should have definitely been our two points and we obviously let it slip away.”