How the Maple Leafs lost, then found, their offence

Leafs coach Mike Babcock tells the media he does not talk playoffs with the team and reiterates the organization will follow the plan.

The recent resurgence of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ winning ways (7-2-2 in their last 11 games with their win against the St. Louis Blues last Saturday) has also seen a rediscovery of the Leafs’ offensive flair. They scored 42 goals over that same 11-game period, averaging 3.82 goals per game.

In looking at a year of an overall team rebuild and in moving forward, the Leafs have actually moved a bit backwards to almost three years ago — though in this case, it isn’t considered a step backwards at all.

The abbreviated post-lockout season began a 48-game schedule in January 2012. Then-Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had been a coach with a strong emphasis on team defence and had tried to instill that in his team for the few games that he had coached the previous season after taking over from Ron Wilson. But Carlyle would never get that first full pre-season training camp to work his system, like Mike Babcock had the benefit of this past September.

The 2013 Leafs team hit the ice as an exciting squad with an offensive flair and a bit of a fight, thanks to heavyweights Colton Orr and/or Frazer McLaren almost every game. Goals had become an increasingly valued part of an NHL game as they became more and more difficult to score with tight defensive schemes and constantly-improving goaltending.

With the likes of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri leading the way, the Leafs scored 145 goals in 48 games, averaging just slightly over 3.00 goals per game. It was also a Leafs team that scored 12 more goals than they gave up that season (145 versus 133).

The legal expression “let the defence rest” was what Carlyle reluctantly allowed — and he was never able to get it back.

The 2012-13 season had a goal differential back in the minus department with a minus–25 (231 goals for and 256 against) and, unlike their exciting seven-game series against Boston in 2013, they saw no playoff action in 2014.

Last season was more of the same. The big scorers had been rewarded with long-term contracts. Carlyle was stuck riding his almost one-dimensional squad, and they finished the 2013 calendar year and entered 2014 in relatively fine fashion. They had a 20-14-4 record in 38 games as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2015. They were holding down a playoff position. They were averaging the highest goals per game in the NHL with 129 goals in 38 games (an average of 3.40 goals per game).

After two losses to start 2015, Carlyle was fired and replaced by interim coach Peter Horacek.

Horacek’s credo was to bring back the defensive team structure that had “rested” for two years. He talked — as did Leafs fans for a week or two — of the 5-5-5 system that would demand that all five players on the ice be in all three zones wherever the puck might be.

After two games behind the bench, Horacek’s Leafs headed for a four-game road trip against four of arguably the top five or six teams in the NHL: St. Louis, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

They tried their best to play the 5-5-5. The lost all four games and were outscored 12-1. Unfortunately, while the defence continued to rest, the league-leading offence was a surprising casualty.

After leading the NHL at the end of December in goals scored, the month of January would be a team record for offensive futility for the Leafs, with just 16 goals in 13 games (an average of 1.23 goals per game). Take away a 5-2 victory against Columbus on Jan. 9, and the Leafs scored just 11 goals in the other 12 games in January (an average of .091 goals per game).

The rest of the season didn’t get appreciably better, going 10-30-4 in their final 44 games.

Enter Mike Babcock. ‘You are going to play my way or you don’t play.’

Unlike Horacek’s 5-5-5, no defensive system will be discarded at the whim of the players. The start of Babcock’s rein as Leafs coach was eerily similar to Horacek’s. A 1-7-2 record in his first 10 games with 20 goals scored (2.00 goals per game). Subtract a 6-3 win over Columbus on Oct. 16, and it is 14 goals in the other nine games (1.55 goals per game).

But this time around, it was easier for Toronto fans to endure, given the playoff exploits of the Blue Jays and the belief in Babcock as a long-term fix.

The defence no longer rested. Though their record wasn’t great, the system was visibly being implemented. There was an overall team buy-in — they had no choice.

The offence shouldn’t be such a shock to fans. It has really always been there. These are the same players (except for Kessel) that earned the big money, long-term contracts based on their offence. Babcock has created a system that has allowed the defence to no longer rest, and has encouraged the rebirth of the offence.

The Leafs will have a shot at Auston Matthews but they won’t have the best lottery odds. This team was never nearly as bad as the one that limped to the end of last regular season. The rebuild should and will continue. They just have a few more valuable and a few less spare parts on the current roster for the present and short-term future.

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