TORONTO – Mike Babcock has a saying.
Well, truth be told, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach has about 67 sayings, but here’s the one he summoned after Wednesday’s practice, and it perfectly suits our purpose.
Live scared every day.
The way Babcock has handled Dominic Moore in his 14th pro season, you couldn’t blame the free agent acquisition for feeling just a touch on edge regarding the security of his role on the team he turned down other offers to join in the summer.
After sitting out six consecutive games as a healthy scratch, watching 22-year-old call-up Frederik Gauthier skate in his place and the Leafs play mediocre 2-2-2 hockey, Moore returned to the 4C spot in Wednesday’s practice.
The veteran appears to be drawing back into the lineup between Matt Martin and Connor Brown Thursday in Philadelphia, although Babcock did not confirm.
“It’s obviously tough to watch. I’ve been scratched in my career probably three times before this year, so it’s not something I’m used to. I’m just focused on preparing to do my job well, as I always have throughout my career,” said Moore, who has already been sat 15 times this season.
“I can’t control things out of my control. I want to do my job to help the team win. That’s why I was excited to join this group.”
In training camp, it was 24-year-old Finnish prospect Miro Altonen, who’s having a nice AHL rookie campaign for the Marlies. Through October, it was 32-year-old Eric Fehr, now lighting it up for the AHL San Diego Gulls. And fresh for 2018, it’s Gauthier, whose six-game stat line (zero points, minus-3 rating) hasn’t exactly overwhelmed.
Just when Moore may think he’s cleared another hurdle, resurfaced on the happy side of an internal roster battle, another obstacle is plopped in his path.
Moore had a perfect 82-game attendance when he killed penalties and scored 11 goals for the Boston Bruins last season.
This season, Moore has found himself embroiled a never-ending tryout for a job he believed was his when, acting as his own agent, he signed a one-year, $1-million pact with GM Lou Lamoriello.
Did Moore have any expectation that he’d to be clawing for ice time halfway through his deal?
“No. Obviously, no,” he said. “The past is the past. I’m focused on the present.”
On paper and to the eye, Moore hasn’t been an ill fit for Toronto.
“Faceoffs, I think I had a bit of a slow start, trying to calibrate to the rule changes. Traditionally, I have been a bit of slow starter faceoff-wise and I pick up as the season goes on,” Moore explained. “I wasn’t taking many, to be honest. Sometimes I took two, maybe three a game. That means it takes longer to find that rhythm.”
Among regular centres, Moore’s 54.3 per cent faceoff win rate was only recently eclipsed by all-star Auston Matthews, and Moore’s chipped in with four goals, five assists and a plus-1 rating. The Leafs have a winning 17-13-1 record when they do dress Moore.
So why, Coach, has it been so difficult for Moore to stick in the lineup?
“That’s a good question,” Babcock said. “Every night, watching your team play, you’re looking for [it] to be as good as it can be. The fourth-line centre, what I’m looking for is you dominate the faceoff circle, you play well without the puck so I don’t get nervous every time you’re on the ice, and you’re a good penalty killer.
“I make it real clear what I’m looking for, and then someone has to have it. It’s an area we just want to keep improving.”
Read: Don’t rule out Toronto seeking out a depth-centre rental as the Feb. 26 trade deadline creeps closer.
Moore, 37, may have another hurdle to hop yet, but dismisses the notion that age may be a factor.
“I don’t think about my age at all,” he said. “It’s about whether you can play, and I feel great.”
Babcock has openly gushed about the centre depth in Tampa and Anaheim. And to hear the coach talk is to believe 2013 Leafs first-rounder Gauthier has the upper hand on the 4C gig.
“I’ve liked Freddy better in the NHL than I’ve liked him in the American League the whole time he’s been here. He’s been good for us when he’s been here,” Babcock said upon sitting Moore after Christmas.
“We had to do things in the summer because [Gauthier] got injured and we always planned on, ideally, he’d have an opportunity to play on this team. It’s real simple for him – he’s got to play well defensively, he’s got to penalty kill, he’s got to win faceoffs and he’s got to be abusive. If he can do all those things, he can play every day.”
For reasons unclear, Moore is still looking to establish trust and optimism from the bench.
One particularly telling moment occurred during a pre-game scrum on Dec. 20 in Columbus. Babcock was asked specifically about Moore’s contributions to the Leafs and responded instead with praise for Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey. Curiously, Moore was not named.
So, what can the player with 99 playoff games do to instill confidence heading into post-season that he’s the most trustworthy fourth-line centre in Toronto?
What, specifically, is Babcock’s message of improvement to Moore?
“Not much,” Moore said. “For me, it’s just a matter of trying to prepare and being ready to do my job and play my game. That’s all you can do. That’s all I’m focused on.”