TORONTO – The jumping in Mike Babcock’s living room began when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly flipped over the No. 4 card during the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery and that one, too, like all those previous, did not feature a Maple Leaf logo.
When the No. 1 card turned and the head coach saw the thing splashed with the blue symbol of his new team, the one he’d committed to help rebuild less than a year prior, well, by that point he was in tears.
The bottoming out to 30th place was on purpose. The luck that landed the Babcock-era Leafs an Auston Matthews to go with the Mitch Marner and William Nylander they had coming? That was pure, happy accident. Enough to make a grown man cry.
“We got Auston. So, what if we don’t?” Babcock said Saturday, recounting one of his favourite dog-eared stories.
“People don’t understand — you need real players. You can do everything you want and put them in the right spots, but you need real players and you need lots of real players if you’re going to be good in the end. If you’re going to put your name on the silver thing, you need a real group of players.”
Matthews, Marner, Nylander and the rest of Toronto’s real players all showed up for Saturday’s 6-3 victory, their seventh in eight outings. In smashing the woebegone Ottawa Senators — a provincial rival that once had Toronto’s number but is now like, “new phone who dis?” — the Leafs registered consecutive Battle of Ontario wins for just the first time since March 2015.
As we approach the NHL’s Feb. 26 trade deadline, the Leafs are looking to add — Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Lou Lamoriello told callers interested in UFA sniper James van Riemsdyk not to bother — while the Senators and Montreal Canadiens, contenders not so long ago, are selling prime pieces and searching for the type of youth movement that has essentially secured Toronto another playoff berth with two months of hockey to be played.
The Habs, Sens, Rangers, Canucks, Sabres … look around. The weak must get even weaker before they can move forward in a meaningful way.
“It’s just the reality in today’s hockey,” Senators coach Guy Boucher said. “If you look at how Pittsburgh was built and how Chicago was built and how Washington was built and how Toronto went from a last-place team a little while ago to the next year, the first pick comes in and then Nylander’s ready and Marner’s ready to come in, and you get a goalie and all of a sudden they’re a top-end team.”
In handing Thomas Chabot and Colin White, Matthews’ old U.S. national teammate and text buddy, plenty of ice time at age 21, Ottawa is already plotting for to 2019 and beyond.
“The horses are the ones who win the race,” Boucher said. “We’re making sure that we continue to groom those guys because we know that’s the future — and sometimes the future is pretty quick.”
Twenty-two months after Babcock’s eyes got wet and his feet got airborne in that living room, Toronto’s future has arrived.
Sophomore jinx? Baloney.
Matthews (44 points), Nylander (42) and Marner (42) now rank 1-2-2 in Maple Leafs scoring, easy, and all three lengthened their highlight reels in this one.
None more so than Marner. As the club’s resident movie junkie had a Hockey Night in Canada towel draped over his shoulders, actor Will Arnett made a point to congratulate Marner on his first-ever five-point night.
“That was so rad, man,” Arnett said. “Big fan.” Gob well done.
The dogged Marner opened his points bonanza by swiping the puck from Johnny Oduya and sniping it by Craig Anderson before the game’s first whistle.
Matthews lasered one of his patented quick-pull-toward-the-body-and-trigger shots through a defender Chris DiDomenico and into the top-right corner off a blind, behind-the-numbers backhand pass from Nylander.
“It’s hard for the D-men and even the goalies to read where he’s going to release the puck,” Patrick Marleau said. “It’s something you see him working on in practice all the time.”
Marner scored again, notching his 100th career point off a beautiful 180-foot breakout executed by ideal linemates Marleau and Nazem Kadri.
“He’s got speed, he’s got skill, he’s got the whole package,” Kadri said. “Game by game, it seems like he’s getting more responsible. He’s a guy that we’re going to rely on.”
Anderson, whose nightmares should feature Marner’s face pasted on the It clown, got chased by the kids after surrendering three goals on 10 shots over a humbling 11-and-a-half minutes.
“We lost the game in the first period and because of the first period,” Boucher said. “We deserved what we got, plain and simple.”
Anderson’s replacement, Mike Condon, fared a little better, but the puck kept funnelling toward the visitors’ crease. Mostly due to the Marleau-Kadri-Marner trio.
“I wouldn’t say our focus was on Matthews,” said Boucher, unraveling one reporter’s theory. “If you focus on one line, you know the other line is gonna do you.
“Marner’s hurt us because he’s so fast. The minute you lose sight of him, he’s gone. It doesn’t matter who’s on D.”
Van Riemsdyk, Kadri and Marleau each scored off feeds from Mitchy Slick, who burgled pucks but turned generous once he got them — despite the opportunity to strive for his first career hat trick.
“It’s always a pass mentality in my head,” Marner said. “It’s still a mentality I’m trying to change.”
Sure, all those lucky high-first-round forwards helped turn Toronto’s tide faster than life is coming at Ottawa fans, but it’s what you do with your luck that matters.
One goal away from one series away from that silver thing in June, Ottawa is now following the Toronto model. Get worse, get younger, get faster.
“With our situation here, it was very apparent we were a long way away from being any good and we had to make lots of changes. I think then you’re up front as much as you possibly can,” Babcock said. “In the end, you’ve still got to do the job.
“It’s not the court of popular opinion. You hire some people, and they make decisions. And if you make enough good decisions over a long enough period of time, you end up with a good hockey club.”