Mike Babcock blames himself for Brad Marchand’s superstar transformation

Mike Babcock joked about being the reason behind Brad Marchand's great season, as Babcock put him on the same line as Sidney Crosby at the World Cup.

TORONTO – If Mike Babcock could turn back time, he’d do things differently.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs coach may have inadvertently created a roadblock for his team while wearing another hat with Team Canada. The decision to put Brad Marchand on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron helped him win September’s World Cup, but it’s not looking so good now that Marchand is propelling Boston past Toronto in the Atlantic Division playoff race.

“I shouldn’t have,” Babcock said Sunday, when asked about creating the Marchand-Crosby-Bergeron unit. “I should have played him on the fifth line. Sucked a little life out of him.”

The veteran coach was kidding, of course.

But with Boston due to visit the Air Canada Centre on Monday night it has at least crossed his mind that Marchand’s fantastic season is flowing, in part, out of his strong showing in the best-on-best tournament.

It’s been a transformative stretch for the 28-year-old from Halifax. Once known almost exclusively as a shift-disturbing pest, Marchand scored 37 goals last season and is among the current NHL leaders with 37 goals and 79 points in 71 games this year.

Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for someone like Babcock to refer to Marchand as a “top-three player in the league.”

On Sunday afternoon? Hardly an eyebrow was raised when he did just that.

“No one’s driving his team harder,” Babcock reasoned. “Marchy’s a great guy and he’s a real good player, plays hard. He’s competitive. He’s all-in every day and he does a good job for his team.”

He’s quick to point out that Marchand earned the chance to play with Crosby and Bergeron at the World Cup. This was not a flier from the coach, as some may have first thought when that trio was formed during training camp.

Marchand wound up scoring the dramatic tournament-clinching goal against Team Europe and finishing second to Crosby in the points race.

In the eyes of Babcock, his is a story of perseverance. Marchand was a third-round pick by the Bruins that first had to make his way as a bottom-six forward before getting an opportunity to play up the lineup.

“He’s been a good player for a long time,” said Babcock. “He didn’t arrive in the league with the accolades of some other guys. He’s earned his way. He was a real good [expletive]-disturber, energy guy, penalty killer and then his offence has come.

“But it’s amazing [what happens] when you’ve got a real good drive train and have a lot of will and you love the game and you work hard at the game. You’ve got to have a skillset, obviously, but the guys with the determination and the extra drive, they find a way to elevate and get to the next level.”

That’s essentially what Marchand has been doing for the Bruins, who arrive in Toronto with a three-point edge in the standings and one extra game played.

A regulation win for either team would have a significant impact on the playoff race with three weeks remaining in the regular season.

The games have tightened up considerably of late – the scoring chances were 6-5 in regulation during Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss to Chicago, according to Babcock – so an emphasis is being placed on sound defensive structure.

The Leafs are poised to welcome defenceman Connor Carrick back into the lineup after he missed a month with an upper-body injury. He’ll be jumping straight into a playoff race.

“We wanted to be here,” said Carrick. “You wanted to come down the heavy part of the schedule, the dying days of the season [and] be fighting for a playoff spot. … I think we’ve got to be encouraged that we can put a streak together and earn it.”

There will be plenty of focus on Marchand in the pre-scouting for Monday’s game against Boston.

He’s amassed a league-leading 48 points since Jan. 1 – a stretch that has seen him produce six games with three points or more. Talk about being a difference-maker.

You can credit Babcock with a secondary assist for showing some early faith in Marchand by entrusting him to play alongside No. 87 on a team with much bigger names and reputations.

“I was thinking about that exactly the other day,” said Babcock, with a smile. “I was thinking ‘you shouldn’t have done that.’

“But that’s life.”