Leafs finally have right environment for the kids

Connor Brown and William Nylander discuss how seeing so many familiar faces makes the transition to the big club easier, and coach Babcock admires Brown’s skills and respect for the game.

TORONTO – At first it was thought the Toronto Maple Leafs were officially eliminated from playoff contention with Thursday’s loss to Florida and then, upon further review, it was discovered they’re actually one more regulation defeat away.

No matter. It doesn’t matter – and that in itself is notable.

There has been no tragic number countdown during the first season of the Mike Babcock makeover. Instead, the Leafs are up to 10 NHL debuts after Connor Brown took his turn against the Panthers, and the infusion of youth has been accompanied with a shot of enthusiasm.

We’ve come a long way in 12 months, when Olli Jokinen was acquired by the Leafs in a late-season trade and remarked “the one thing I notice being here two days is a lot of negative energy around here.”

No more.

In the 10 games since the kids were called up, Toronto has three wins, five one-goal losses, one no-show defeat in Ottawa and a 4-1 loss on Thursday that included two empty-net goals by Florida.

Not bad. Certainly nothing to hang your head about, especially when you’re icing a lineup nearly half comprised of guys that spent the majority of the season in the American Hockey League.

“It’s been positive,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “I mean we have reason to have a positive attitude right now. We’ve been playing some good hockey, we’ve been in games, the young guys are playing well – they’re enjoying it – and I think the older guys are enjoying the role that they’re in with a little bit of leadership and showing them the way.

“I think that each day we’re coming in with a good attitude and a chance to win a hockey game. That makes the environment good to be around.”

It’s the only environment, really, to which you’d want to bring in young players.

Though the Leafs sit 30th in the standings and are plenty realistic about where they’re at as an organization, there isn’t a country club feel to the dressing room. Not on Babcock’s watch, and not with so many prospects viewing these games as an early audition for next season.

We’ve all heard plenty of teams say that over the years, but in this case you can actually see it.

It has been 23-year-old Zach Hyman and 22-year-old Nikita Soshnikov that have looked most ready to make an impression these last few weeks, and teenager William Nylander has certainly had his moments, too.

Nylander finished with nine shot attempts against the Panthers – five stopped by Roberto Luongo, one by his post – and didn’t shy away from the action even after getting pushed around by some bigger opponents. The clock on his entry-level contract is officially ticking after his 10th NHL game and he’s encouraged with the way things have gone overall.

“I think we have created chances,” he said. “It’s tough when pucks aren’t going in but it would be different if you weren’t creating chances. You’ve just got to stay positive.”

The game against Florida was basically lost by two own goals that involved plenty of bad luck. Ben Smith was trying to break up a Jussi Jokinen pass in the slot early in the second period when he inadvertently deflected the puck past goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Then Jokinen got another break nine minutes later when Connor Carrick challenged him in the corner and the puck ramped up the Toronto player’s stick, off Bernier’s shoulder and into the net.

“(It was) a 2-1 game against a very good team and I thought we deserved better,” said Bernier.

“To lose on a couple fluke goals like that, it’s part of the game,” said Carrick. “If you’re on the good side, the coach says that’s a great way of finding ways to win. If you lose that one, it’s hard to look back and think what you wanted to do better.

“I thought we had a pretty good effort.”

The only small quibble Babcock offered was seeing a little more compete in the 1-on-1 battles for the puck. He hoped a few of his younger players, in particular, took some notes on the way the Atlantic Division-leading Panthers conducted business.

“When you’re a young guy and you arrive in this league and you figure out you’re playing against men [you learn]: If you want to have the puck you better compete,” Carrick said.

Tough, but fair. That’s the mindset here now.

It’s been a long, long time since a Leafs team had the chance to play with so few external expectations, but at least this group seems to be making something from that unique opportunity.

“It’s just experience for this year, and I’m just learning,” said Nylander. “It’s just helping me for next year to get ready – that’s the way I look at it.”

He’s not alone.