TORONTO – Strange as it might sound, this is the pain Mike Babcock was referring to back when he was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The coach intended that much-quoted remark from 2015 to cover the period where the team was attempting to scale up as much as for the 30th-place season staring them directly in the face. That’s where we’ve found ourselves these last few months.
Toronto is at 61 points as it returns from the all-star break – three points ahead of the pace it established through 51 games last year, but seemingly having travelled a rockier road to reach this stage.
There have been teaching moments and stretches of reduced ice time for second-year players William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Babcock has been second-guessed about dressing veterans like Roman Polak and Matt Martin over, say, Connor Carrick and Kasperi Kapanen. Leo Komarov’s usage, Auston Matthews’ power-play time, who gets the call for three-on-three shifts in overtime … all of it has generated external discussion and debate.
Babcock kept a steady hand through the stormy periods before finally making some significant shifts in his roster deployment for games at Chicago and Dallas last week. Now he seems inclined to give his new-look lineup an extended run together.
"The lines – fine – but I like the work ethic," he said Tuesday. "I like the speed of the team, I like the way we got after it instead of standing around watching it. We’ve talked a lot about it here: Each year you have to find a way to play for your group to be successful. We think we know how you’re supposed to play, now we’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to do it every day."
This is an idea a few of the veteran players have floated recently: That every team needs to evolve and change. That the path to improvement comes through searching out a new mix.
Only the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Nylander top line currently remains untouched from the first-round series against Washington last spring.
"Every year is a little bit different so you’re just trying to find that right – I don’t know if chemistry is the right word – but just getting things all kind of firing on all cylinders," winger James van Riesmdyk said recently. "As the year goes on, usually that gets better and better."
With the Leafs set to host the New York Islanders on Wednesday night, here are a few thoughts on the ramifications of the recent changes:
1. The loyalty to Martin has run dry. Remember that he is just 18 months removed from being lured here on a $10-milllion, four-year contract. Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello hailed the winger’s leadership qualities and skating ability the day that free-agent deal was signed: "Our staff liked him, our coaching staff liked him and that’s the most important thing."
Now Martin is facing his third straight healthy scratch, and fourth this season, with his former team in town. He was visibly upset when first forced to sit out in November and spent more than 30 extra minutes on the ice after Tuesday’s practice.
While he’s been a more productive and effective player for the Leafs this season, Martin doesn’t offer as much versatility as his replacement. Kapanen is the fastest skater on the team and is being used to kill penalties.
2. The Komarov-Nazem Kadri partnership may have run its course. Incredibly, Komarov played nearly 89 per cent of even-strength minutes with his good buddy Kadri from the time Babcock arrived here until they were shuffled to different lines last week.
The coach said it was a change made just for the road games. It remains intact now that they’re back home.
Marner skated on the right side of Kadri and Patrick Marleau for the games in Chicago and Dallas, and brought a noticeable offensive spark. It helped Kadri snap out of a dry spell with three goals. In total, the trio generated 22 shots on goal in those games.
Komarov seems better-suited in his new role as a utility player – skating predominantly on the fourth line at even strength, but giving Babcock extra options for defensive zone starts because of his strong defensive awareness and ability to take faceoffs.
3. Tough decisions are looming on the blue line. Nikita Zaitsev’s anticipated return from a broken foot is going to bump Roman Polak from the lineup against the Islanders, and someone will need to be assigned to the AHL Marlies when Morgan Rielly is ready to go.
That choice will come between Andreas Borgman and Travis Dermott – neither of whom requires waivers. Borgman has skated with the big club for virtually the entire season but may have been passed by Dermott since his recall earlier this month.
For as much talk as there’s been about the Leafs defensive corps being weak, a healthy top-six of Rielly-Hainsey/Gardiner-Zaitsev/Dermott-Carrick doesn’t look too bad on paper.
4. This group still has an outside chance to match the franchise record of 103 points that was established by Pat Quinn’s 2003-04 Leafs team.
They’re currently playing at a 98-point pace, but have a favourable schedule down the stretch – with 18 home games compared to just 13 road games, and only four sets of back-to-backs remaining. Toronto only leaves the Eastern time zone once in the final 10 weeks of the regular season, and that’s for a game in Nashville, a 90-minute flight away.
It’s not inconceivable that they reel off a stretch of 20-9-2, or something similar.