Training camp is into its third week and the final cuts are mere days away. Some intriguing philosophical decisions hang over the Maple Leafs, but for a change they’re not being discussed ad nauseam.
In fact, they’re barely being talked about at all.
Outside of Mike Babcock’s instruction-heavy practices, this is an eerily quiet time in the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe.
A city’s sporting focus is trained entirely on the Blue Jays — and their division-clinching, champagne-spraying ways — which has left the Maple Leafs in an unusual position: playing second fiddle, while cheering right along with the rest of the populace.
“Obviously it’s exciting,” Babcock said Thursday. “I was in Detroit a number of years when (the Tigers) had great runs in the playoffs and what it does, it keeps the heat off the Red Wings until you got playing good. And I’m hoping the same here.
“I want them to have a long run so that we can get playing good before people start watching us.”
At the outset of an uncertain season, with a new coaching staff and incongruent lineup, the timing couldn’t be better. Babcock is essentially trying to create an orchestra out of a cellist, two trombonists and 18 backup musicians on recorder. Working in the shadows beats centre stage at a concert hall right now.
This arguably hasn’t happened for the Leafs since October 1993, when they reeled off a 9th straight victory to start the season on the same night Joe Carter hit a walk-off homer to win the World Series. That was the height of Toronto as a baseball town.
Toronto, the hockey town, would normally be in the midst of a referendum on the Leafs lineup choices right now — especially after Babcock seemingly opened a door GM Lou Lamoriello had previously dead-bolted shut by saying “I like these kids” when asked about what was holding up the opening night roster decisions.
“Are we going to have them here or are they going to play for the Marlies? I don’t know,” said Babcock.
It’s a conversation he essentially raised himself, since it had been everyone’s expectation that William Nylander and Connor Brown would start the season in the American Hockey League no matter how much praise they earned in training camp.
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Assuming that’s still the case, the decision up front appears to come down to a choice between Richard Panik and Mark Arcobello as the 13th forward. Remember: this is a team completely free of expectations.
What Babcock’s comment reflected more than anything is a dissatisfaction with the returning group of veteran players, many of whom he singled out following a loss in Buffalo earlier this week.
He isn’t giving them much rope.
“When you’ve been nine or 10 years in one spot, you know who those veterans are (and) you’re not worried about them (in exhibition games),” he said. “But when you come to a new place you don’t know who they are. You’re worried about them. Does that make sense to you?
“So they’ve got to get going. That’s up to them and up to me.”
Absent the normal level of external discussion around the Leafs, Babcock has been free to shape the conversation about his team. It’s also a reflection of his unmatched level of authority. He runs a tight ship on the ice and is clear about his expectations.
“He’s real intense,” said veteran Tyler Bozak. “He’s a fast-paced guy. It’s nice — we don’t spend a lot of time at the board or going over drills — he kind of just explains it and he’s ready to go. You’ve definitely got to be ready in the morning to practice or you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.”
What Babcock claims he’s trying to do is break bad habits. When he stops drills and harps on specific details again and again, the goal is to get to the point where his practices become second nature for the group.
“I spend half my time explaining the drill instead of teaching,” he lamented.
A month from now that shouldn’t be the case.
It just so happens that it’s shaping up to be a month when the Leafs fly below the radar, with the Blue Jays scheduled to open the ALDS next Thursday — one day after the puck is dropped on the NHL’s regular season.
With plenty of tinkering still to do, the Leafs will happily hang back in the shadows.