TORONTO — There are some around the NHL still adjusting to a Toronto Maple Leafs team that plays with structure.
Not Ken Hitchcock.
When the St. Louis Blues coach has watched Toronto play this season he’s been reminded of the last NHL team Mike Babcock was in charge of.
“They wear blue and white, but they all play like they’re wearing red and white,” Hitchcock said before Saturday’s game at Air Canada Centre. “It looks the same to me. The same way they exit (the zone), the same way they enter, the same way they check. …
“They just make it hard on you and that’s what good teams do.”
After struggling in their first month under Babcock, the Leafs have gone 13-8-5 since. They’ve enjoyed a surprising amount of success against strong Western Conference teams, including a 4-1 win over the Blues on Dec. 5, while playing a much better possession game than in years past.
In fact, Toronto is currently enjoying a positive shot differential — averaging 31 shots for and 30.4 against — for the first time since 2009-10 under Ron Wilson.
Despite the improvements, the Leafs sit seventh in the Atlantic Division due in large part to their rough October. That’s allowed Babcock to downplay the team’s turnaround — although Hitchcock isn’t buying it.
“I think the coach over there sucks everybody in,” said Hitchcock. “He’s pretty sharp. They’ve got all NHL players, they’re experienced, they play with a real edge and if you’re not prepared to match their edge you get beat. If you look at what you hope they would be and what they are, you’re going to get sucked into that vortex of not being prepared with the edge they play with. …
“He’s plays that angle really well, he does a good job with them.”
Hitchcock and Babcock go way back — coaching Team Canada to gold at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, but also matching up against one another in the NHL for more than a decade.
The Leafs coach believes his team enjoyed a big advantage in the last meeting because the Blues were playing back-to-back. He was already in bed in a St. Louis hotel room when the Blues dropped a 2-1 shootout loss to the Islanders in Brooklyn.
“I was out for dinner, watched two periods out for dinner, crawled into bed, watched the third period and … they went into overtime,” said Babcock. “I was loving it, I thought it was perfect. We couldn’t get that arranged this time.”
Even still, the Blues arrived here with a healthy respect for their opponent — “They are much more structured than they have been in the past,” said captain David Backes — and pointed to the Leafs victory over the Penguins on Wednesday as further proof that they can’t be taken lightly.
“Mike can say what he wants, but they did the same thing to Pittsburgh,” said Hitchcock. “They got after Pittsburgh’s top players and they made it hard on them. When you’re a team like he’s got there right now you’ve got a lot of honest players there, and when they play an honest game, if you’re not willing to match it you’re going to lose. …
“They’re going to make it hard on everybody.”