TORONTO – Mike Babcock isn’t asking for much.
Amid an extended run of home games in this grey, slushy metropolis, he knows his Toronto Maple Leafs are already casting their eyes towards the sun and surf that awaits during their impending five-day break.
But the coach is requesting that everyone take care of their plans before game day. There’s no excuse not to be ready for Wednesday’s extremely winnable visit from the Ottawa Senators – an NHL bottom-feeder that arrives at Air Canada Centre on the second half of a back-to-back.
“The first message we try to do is make sure everybody’s got their trip organized today,” Babcock said after a short practice Tuesday. “If you don’t have it done, [do it]. So that when the game’s on [Wednesday], you haven’t left, you’re focused on getting the points.
“We need the points. It’s a huge priority for us.”
This is what the dog days of the season look and feel like. The coaches are paid to squeeze whatever life they can out of their group at a time when no real urgency exists.
That’s especially true in the case of the Maple Leafs thanks to a bottom-heavy Atlantic Division, where no one is applying pressure from beneath them.
At times like these, Babcock can lean heavily on his system of breaking the season into five-game segments – with the goal to earn at least six points in each. That translates to a 98-point season. In speaking about the challenge of facing the Senators, Auston Matthews referenced the point still needed to meet the objective of this ninth segment.
When you couple that with the fact Ottawa has given the Leafs fits in recent meetings by squeezing off the neutral zone, he believes the level of focus will be strong.
“They bait you into going to the open area and then they just kind of close in on you,” Matthews said of the Sens. “So we definitely don’t want to be turning pucks over because they’re really good at transitioning and coming back to our end with the puck. They’ve got a lot of skill and a lot of speed, and their defence jump into the rush as well.
“That’s going to be a big point of emphasis for us – taking care of the puck and making sure we get in their zone.”
There is a tacit acknowledgement around the organization that this team needs to be better, although the details are somewhat fuzzy about how it’s focused on getting there. The Leafs certainly haven’t dominated too many opponents – at least since an 8-1 win over Carolina on Dec. 19.
One of their better performances in this recent stretch arguably came Monday against Columbus, when the Leafs built a 2-0 lead and kept the Blue Jackets to one shot in the opening 15 minutes of the third period. That they had to settle for a 3-2 overtime loss didn’t taint the overall performance.
“The hockey gods got a way of getting you,” said Babcock. “You work hard every night and you get results. When you cheat the system once they get you back. How’s that?”
Matthews pointed to possession as an area where the Leafs have room to grow. He reasons that a roster with as much offensive skill as this one should be able to do a better overall job of controlling the puck and wearing opponents down.
There is no lack of belief around this group – “We’ve got all the potential in the world in this dressing room and I think everybody knows that,” said veteran centre Nazem Kadri – but there’s a sense that it’ll still take some time for the potential to be realized.
After returning from mini-vacations to a rare late afternoon practice next Monday, Toronto has six games to play before the all-star break arrives. This is a pretty good stretch of schedule for rest and relaxation.
“A break’s a break,” said Kadri. “Hopefully go away and enjoy some positive energy, end on a positive note hopefully with a win tomorrow, and catch some sun because there hasn’t been too much here in Toronto.
“You know, it’s something you can really feel energized about your season once you come back.”
Deep down, Babcock loathes the idea of all this time off. He believes players need to be on the ice for even a short amount of time each day to remain sharp.
But he’s also been around long enough to take a realistic view of what’s to come.
“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” said Babcock. “You and I both know that’s not happening.
“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there.”