When Mike Babcock was coaching the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs a couple years back, he’d often say the goal was to reach a point where you showed up to the rink each night knowing you were going to win.
He wasn’t chasing an undefeated season so much as he yearned for the team’s baseline performance to reach a level where it guaranteed a playoff berth each year. As long as you’re in, you’ve always got a chance to win the big one.
This is where the Leafs find themselves today.
They are among the NHL’s very best teams at 14-6-0 through the first quarter despite playing all 20 games without William Nylander and the last nine and a half without Auston Matthews.
Those are two of the players most responsible for dragging this organization out of the abyss under Babcock’s watch. Don’t forget they formed two-thirds of the No. 1 line last year. That Toronto has been able to continue scoring among the league’s best without them — while drastically reducing the goals against — is a sign of resilience and growth.
Coming off consecutive playoff appearances and a franchise-best 105 points last season, the Leafs have set their sights even higher. So what constitutes a step forward now?
“You would say ‘win a championship’ but I think if you break it down from there you’d say ‘win a playoff series,’” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Then if you break it down from there you’d say ‘win the division’ and then if you break it down from there you say ‘improve your record.’”
It’s all possible.
The Leafs still need to resolve the Nylander situation, and will obviously deal with more twists and turns along the way, but they can hang their hat on one important thing: No matter whom they’re playing, no matter the circumstances, when the puck drops each night they expect to win.
Most encouraging development
When John Tavares chose to come home and play for the Leafs on July 1, expectations shot through the roof. Even his peers talked about the guts it took to willingly put that kind of weight on your own shoulders.
And yet No. 91 has managed to look comfortable right from his first day in blue and white, tearing through exhibition before scoring 12 goals in the first 20 games of the regular season.
He’s found instant chemistry playing with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman — the linemates Toronto promised him during free agency — and helped ease the burden with Matthews out injured.
The success of the Tavares signing will be measured over a long period of time, but his immediate impact has to make general manager Kyle Dubas smile. So far he’s been exactly what the Leafs thought they were buying, if not more.
“He’s just what the doctor ordered here,” said Babcock. “He’s perfect for our guys.”
Most concerning development
Nylander’s absence has become impossible to ignore.
Even if you anticipated the Leafs having a difficult time signing the 22-year-old winger, you probably didn’t see the impasse stretching to Nov. 19 (and likely beyond).
Negotiations now resemble a Cold War, with the possibility of Nylander sitting out the entire season growing more real. That’s the nuclear option here. He needs to have a new contract in hand by 5 p.m. ET on Dec. 1 to be eligible to play this year.
Against that backdrop, the Leafs are entertaining trade discussions while holding out hope they’ll be able to keep the Swede. That is still their prefered outcome.
No matter what happens next, the ramifications will likely be felt by the organization for years to come. A poor trade could haunt them, as could a bad contract for Nylander.
The stakes are extremely high for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations and two other young stars in Matthews and Marner still to sign.
Most surprising development
Kasperi Kapanen’s speed and offensive ability helped make him a first-round pick, but it was his growth on the defensive side of the puck that earned him a NHL job.
The Leafs turned the 22-year-old Finn into a penalty-killer in the American Hockey League and essentially groomed him to fill a bottom-six role.
But an opportunity arrived when Nylander’s contract saga dragged into the regular season and Kapanen seized it. He had a goal and an assist after three shifts of playing with Matthews, and scored his eighth goal in Game 19 — matching the total from his first 55 as a NHLer.
Quite understandably, the Leafs now view him as an offensive threat.
“In the American League he didn’t look this good. He just didn’t. I saw him lots,” said Babcock. “He’s a much bigger guy, he’s worked on his body over a three-year period and I don’t think he got to the NHL too soon. When you get to the NHL too soon you don’t score.”
The most surprising part of Kapanen’s growth has been his ability to finish. He’ll warrant more offensive minutes even if Nylander returns.
MVP of first quarter
If you were to pick Marner, Tavares or Rielly as team MVP, it wouldn’t be difficult to build the case. But no one has had more to do with the Leafs’ early success than Frederik Andersen.
Remember that the big Dane was coming off two tough Octobers in Toronto and a difficult performance in the playoff loss to Boston last spring. Afterwards, Babcock challenged him to become more of a leader for the team.
Andersen has answered the call with numbers that should place him prominently in the Vezina Trophy conversation: A league-best 11 wins, plus a .934 save percentage, through 16 games.
He’s been a steady, stabilizing force from the get-go. The player the Leafs can least afford to lose.
What to watch for in second quarter
Matthews will soon return from his injured left shoulder and Nylander may join him. How they are incorporated into the lineup, and who gets knocked out, bears watching.
The next 20-game segment takes the Leafs into the dog days of the schedule and includes a five-game road swing through Boston, Carolina, Tampa, Florida and New Jersey before Christmas.
This is where the grind starts to kick in.
The Leafs will also look to improve their play at Scotiabank Arena after opening with a pedestrian 5-5-0 record on home ice. Beyond that, they’re looking for more of the same.
“I like the amount of points we have,” said Babcock. “You put ‘em in the bank, they collect interest and let’s go get some more.”