TORONTO – To be the voice of the Maple Leafs at times when relative prosperity comes around is to constantly be tapping the brakes.
It is on this issue – and this issue alone – where Mike Babcock sings from the same songbook as Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson, the two men who preceded him here as head coach on a full-time basis.
Wilson once chided reporters for wanting to “build a statue” whenever a young player showed a hint of promise. Carlyle would routinely talk down the performance of his teams during win streaks.
And now we have Babcock, guiding a squad that carried an average age of 24.8 for Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Buffalo, cautioning against reading too much into their level of competitiveness these last few weeks.
“One of the things you’re going to have be real careful of at this time of the year when you’re a non-playoff team is over-evaluating what you have because the team playing against you some nights isn’t prepared to play,” said Babcock. “When you’re a really good team, the teams prepare to play against you every night. They’re excited to play you, you’re a benchmark for them.
“When you’re not sometimes you catch them off-guard.”
The 30th-place Leafs are basically undefeated this season when it comes to managing expectations. It’s smart business for Babcock to get ahead of any burgeoning hype, especially since the coach believes there’s a chance his team is even worse next season than it has been this year.
A little bit of real talk now should help mitigate the reaction if that ends up being the case.
For you can understand why fans would come away from the victory over the Sabres feeling enthusiastic, with the Leafs basically dominating from start to finish and 19-year-old William Nylander delivering a first-star performance with a goal and an assist.
Nylander beat Chad Johnson cleanly from the top of the circle with a damaging wrist shot, and said the feeling of scoring a NHL goal is getting “better and better” each time.
“It was a laser; an absolute rocket,” said linemate P.A. Parenteau, who set up the play with a nice pass. “He’s got a great shot. He’s got a great set of skills and he showed it on that play definitely. It’s not an easy shot coming across the body like that and it was a nice goal for him.”
There was another goal from young defenceman Connor Carrick – he went 894 days between the first NHL goal of his career and the second, and four days between Nos. 2 and 3 – and the first in a Leafs uniform for Martin Marincin and Milan Michalek.
Even goaltender Garret Sparks turned in an encouraging performance by closing the door after getting beat on one of the first shots he faced.
Suddenly the Leafs are 4-2-2 dating back to a visit by the Sabres on March 7 despite dressing an AHL-quality lineup. To prepare for these matchups Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma made some calls to his own affiliate in Rochester for scouting reports – lending credence to Babcock’s theory.
“We’re going to see some (unfamiliar players) for the first time tonight, again, as we did last time,” Bylsma said hours before the game. “I know going back to last game it’s a game where those new faces outworked and outcompeted us for big portions.”
History repeated itself, with a little help from a Sabres team that was playing back-to-back.
Nylander had been tabbed for a head-to-head matchup with fellow rookie Jack Eichel – “You’ve got to play against really good players if you’re a good player,” said Babcock. “You’ve got to be able to defend and produce against them” – but wound up avoiding that when Eichel was scratched because of the flu.
The Leafs centre is putting a lot of focus on his play away from the puck and seems to be gaining more confidence with it.
“I think it’s coming every game,” said Nylander. “You start to find areas of the ice where you can make certain plays. It’s coming, and it’s getting there.”
“It’s not only his skillset, but the way he thinks the game that got him here too,” added Parenteau. “I’m not worried about him. He’s going to learn the right way with Babs, too.”
No one will be getting too comfortable – not around a team that was officially eliminated from playoff contention with more than three weeks remaining in the regular season.
That’s tough to do.
With 11 games remaining, the Leafs players are looking to build on the current momentum and finish strong heading into the summer. The coaching staff is more focused on the way they play than the results.
“We all know we’re going to have a long off-season and a chance to get better in the meantime,” said Babcock. “We have a chance to watch these players and we have a chance to get an evaluation.”
They’re just being marked on a different scale than usual.