Leafs must win ugly before bright future arrives

Jordan Staal scored the lone goal of the game and Eddie Lack shutout the Maple Leafs as the Hurricanes won 1-0 in overtime.

TORONTO – When you are part of a rebuilding organization, there are times when the ugly present dwarfs the theoretically bright future.

After 45 games, that appears to be where Mike Babcock finds himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I like winning,” said Babcock. “That’s how I measure my enjoyment.”

There hasn’t been very much to smile about during a January slide that has dropped his team to 29th in the NHL standings. Yes, that’s good news in the big picture, but to watch the Leafs slog through a 1-0 overtime loss to Carolina on Thursday night was not to experience anything resembling joy.

We all knew days like this one would arrive – Babcock famously predicted “pain” upon his arrival here in May – but that doesn’t make it any more bearable for the players in uniform or the well-paid coach patrolling the bench.

Toronto has won just 17 games. A league-low 13 of those have come in regulation or overtime.

The Leafs have employed a much sounder brand of hockey, sure, but they’ve only managed to score eight times while dropping six of the last seven games. And with James van Riemsdyk sidelined for the next month or more, there isn’t much promise of an offensive explosion to come.

“What are you expecting?” said Babcock. “I think these forwards are doing what they do. How many guys really score? You know what I mean? Let’s grind, let’s play.”

In other words, he’ll gladly live through dull 1-0 games as long as his team starts finding a way to come out on top. In fact, that’s basically how he thinks the Leafs need to play at this stage.

“James (van Riemsdyk) scored, right?” said Babcock. “James and (Nazem Kadri) scored, who else? So let’s go to work, let’s just find ways to win games. Let’s get people to the net and pucks to the net. It’s not going to be pretty, but I don’t think that surprises anybody.”

If nothing else, there is a refreshing amount of honesty pumping through the corridors at Air Canada Centre these days. A key aspect of the culture Babcock is looking to build here centres on accountability, and there isn’t anyone hiding from what the Leafs are at this stage.

Against the Hurricanes, they fought hard and had some chances, especially during a 12-shot second period. That included a Michael Grabner short-handed breakaway from his own end that Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack calmly gloved.

Grabner acknowledged afterwards that he had enough time to think back to a scouting report the players had been given on Lack.

“We just have some kind of notes where the goals are going in,” said Grabner.

He was thinking high glove but failed to get enough lift on the puck.

“I shoot there a lot, so maybe he pre-scouted me too because there’s not much there,” said Grabner.

Offensively, there’s not much there for the Leafs. It’s been two weeks since the team connected on the power play and its talent base will likely be eroded further as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches.

It will likely get worse before it gets better.

In the meantime, the gameplan will be to muck and grind and try to score ugly. Before the future arrives that will essentially be the mantra of Leafs hockey.

“We need to produce more goals and more chances off the cycles,” said defenceman Roman Polak. “I don’t think we’re going to be scoring off the rush, so I think we just need to spend more time in their zone.”

Beyond that, they need to hope that James Reimer’s goaltending is good enough to carry them – which it certainly was on Thursday and really has been throughout a season where he’s posted an NHL-best .937 save percentage.

If you’re looking for bright spots, no team has played worse than the Montreal Canadiens over the last six weeks and they visit Toronto on Saturday. Alas, the Leafs know they aren’t in a position to feel superior to any opponent.

They walked away from a loss to Carolina praising the Hurricanes – “They skate better than we do,” said Babcock. “I thought their kids were really good on (defence). You’ve got to be excited if you’re them; they’ve got four kids there that look like they can play.” – and generally lamenting another tough night at the office.

“I’d like to win (the game),” said Babcock. “If we both got five shots on net and we won I’d be pumped. It doesn’t much matter to me. I think our team worked hard and I think we’re trying to maximize our group with what we’re doing.

“We’re trying to make it as hard as we can, we’re trying to check as well as we can.”

There are still 37 games to go. On nights like this one, the brighter future appears somewhere beyond the horizon.