Positives, not pain, define Maple Leafs’ start to season

Chris Johnston and Shawn Mckenzie discuss James Reimer’s emergence as the biggest surprise and best feel-good story for the Maple Leafs so far in 2015-16.

TORONTO — Pain was losing 6-2 to the sad-sack Buffalo Sabres last November and 9-2 on home ice to Nashville three days later. Pain was the avalanche of criticism that arrived at the dressing room door after choosing to skip the customary post-game salute to fans.

Pain was a 9-28-5 finish to the season, and shooting yourselves in the skates again and again and again.

This? This is not pain.

We’re seven weeks into the Toronto Maple Leafs season and Mike Babcock’s mantra for the 2015-16 campaign hasn’t been prescient. Losses, there have certainly been more than a few, but this is still as upbeat as things have felt around this team in years.

"As a group, you can see our game is growing," captain Dion Phaneuf said after Tuesday's practice. "We've still got lots of room to continue to grow, but there's been lots of positives."

The Leafs clearly benefit from being in a race that can't be measured by the standings. They've actually taken a step back from where they were a year ago -- with a 7-10-5 record compared to 11-8-3 through 22 games in 2014-15 -- but see gains because they're much more interested in process than results.

Babcock's emphasis on structure has led to significant improvements in puck possession from where the team was at under Randy Carlyle. They've also been among the NHL's best on the power play and penalty kill over the last month.

A 6-3-3 run through November has even included a couple plucky comebacks, including erasing a 2-0 deficit against Boston on Monday to salvage a point in a shootout loss.

"I think we're more confident," said defenceman Roman Polak, never one to sugarcoat a situation. "We're staying on the same page no matter what, no matter if we're losing, no matter if it's a tight game, we're still playing to the end. I think that's the biggest difference compared to last year, that we're actually playing for the full 60 minutes.

"Even if the first period didn't go well, we're going into the second period as a different team and just trying to be better every shift."

This group is, in many ways, a referendum on a much-debated point in these parts over the years: Will long-suffering Leafs fans endure a full rebuild?

That is what president Brendan Shanahan promised and general manager Lou Lamoriello has so far delivered, choosing to keep 19-year-old William Nylander with the Marlies even while he leads the American Hockey League in scoring.

It's telling how little clamouring there has been to get the 2014 first-rounder in a Leafs sweater right away. The same goes for Marlies teammates Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapanen.

Patience has seemingly always been in short supply in the Leafs front office -- which explains, in part, why there's been one playoff appearance in 11 years and zero Stanley Cup parades here in nearly half a century -- but now appears to be an organizational pillar.

"The better our team plays the more time it buys us, which I think is important for those (AHLers)," said Babcock. "There's nothing wrong with them winning every night and scoring. I think that's an important part of development. We're fortunate, we think we have some kids that are coming, and by the time this draft's over we'll have more.

"But they're just kids, and this is a man's league, and you've got to grow up first."

As the old saying goes: You have to learn to walk before you can run.

In the meantime, the Leafs are a team taking baby steps and enjoying the challenge that comes with it.

Joffrey Lupul leads the way with eight goals and says he's enjoying hockey again. Tyler Bozak has shown there's life after Phil Kessel and currently has a team-best 14 points. James Reimer is enjoying a career renaissance and reclaimed the No. 1 goaltending job in the process.

All around the room there are smiles even though many of the players aren't likely to be here when the brighter future arrives. After a tumultuous couple seasons, the clouds have been lifted -- with a new coach and a clear direction and a competitive gameplan.

The whole thing runs counter to the message the organization itself has pushed, most recently as part of its own "Leaf: Blueprint" behind-the-scenes documentary that was released this week.

"I don't have to close my eyes and think about what it would be like for the Maple Leafs to win," Shanahan said at the conclusion of the episode. "I know it in my bones. It's not something I started thinking about in 2014, I started thinking about that when I was about three or four years old.

"But at the same time I completely understand how much patience will be required to get there, especially in the first few months of this season. It's going to be hard."

Little did he know that the hard part would simply be committing to a slow build.

Since then, everything has been far better than most who report to work at Air Canada Centre would have imagined.