TORONTO – The Mike Babcock who steps to the podium fresh off a win over a bad team barely resembles the Mike Babcock who emerges after a tough loss to a good one.
When his Toronto Maple Leafs dismantled a tired .500 Vancouver Canucks squad Saturday, one trying to hang in a lopsided affair without their most dynamic player, Babcock was subdued and curt. He was complimentary, sure, but far from effusive about his roster’s dominance and downplayed his brand-new goalie’s shutout on account of a lack of Grade-A stops.
Following defeats to a pair of tested, edgy Western Conference squads with elite goalies and deep defences, Minnesota on Thursday and Nashville on Monday, a more verbose Babcock struck a different tone, inspired by a chance to dish out lessons.
The teacher/preacher described last week’s 4-3 home loss to Minny, one in which Toronto blew two leads, as “a great game for our team because it’s what we’re susceptible to.”
Few can praise the enemy like Babcock, happy to Xerox and hand out copies of the A+ paper to remind the B+ students what excellence looks like.
“They jumped harder, they worked harder, they had checked the puck back, they spent lots of time [in the offensive zone] and put miles on our D. They got to the net on us. I thought they did a really good job,” Babcock said.
He was similarly gushy about Nashville, minutes after getting thumped 4-0 by the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.
“I thought we got a lesson from a veteran team here today,” Babcock said. “They just stayed patient and were right. They were heavy on the puck, heavy on their sticks, detailed, blocked shots, competed. I liked their game.”
For all of the positive numbers we could spit out regarding a Maple Leafs club that is on track to break a franchise record for its most productive regular season — again — there is this:
Ignore for a minute the Vancouvers and Floridas and New Jerseys — i.e., the teams a talent-flush group with Stanley Cup dreams should beat — and over the past month, Toronto has played six teams currently in a playoff position.
The Leafs are just 1-5 in those tests and have been outscored 28-11. Half of those contests, including two in which Toronto was shutout 4-zip, were at home.
“This was a real hockey game. That’s a real team over there,” Mitch Marner said in the wake of Monday’s loss to the Preds. “It’s something that, going forward, we’re going to need to be ready for these games and be ready to beat those teams.”
Alarming? Maybe not quite.
Stud starting goalie Frederik Andersen was either toiling through a minor groin ailment or sidelined for these games, top-six staple Zach Hyman (ankle) has also been absent for a stretch, and William Nylander apparently needs more warm-up time.
Cause for pause? Definitely.
Toronto will be favoured Thursday in New Jersey, especially with Taylor Hall banged up. More telling will be how the Leafs measure up against Boston Saturday and divisional leaders Tampa and Washington later this month.
Those around this dressing room and others are convinced hockey’s thermostat gets cranked in deep winter, after the last of the Christmas turkey leftovers are devoured. Screws tighten. Space evaporates. Offence dries.
Until we see evidence to the contrary, we’re not convinced this style suits these Leafs as currently constructed.
“At the halfway mark, teams are looking at the standings and seeing where they’re at. Teams are trying to solidify their spot and trying to get in,” Patrick Marleau says.
“That makes every game more intense.”
The return of Andersen and club hit leader Hyman, who are both now practising with the club and may dress as early as Thursday, should help.
“We’re not as good a hockey team without [Hyman],” Babcock says. “We’re not as heavy. We don’t forecheck as good. We don’t hang on to the puck in the O-zone. We’re not as good on the penalty kill.”
Yes, the coach can be critical. That’s because he, like the hordes of patient fans, sees what might be if the Leafs can dig deeper, discover another gear.
“I like lots of things about us. I like our people. I like how bad we want to be good. I like our leadership. I like our depth,” Babcock says. “I think we’ve got to be a way heavier team.
“We still think there’s lots of growth from within because we’re a young group.”
Please, don’t misconstrue the need for heavy as a desire to trade for a crash-and-bang forward or a sudden urge to climb into the top 10 in hits per game or a reason to bench-press Holsteins and chug raw eggs.
“Being heavy isn’t getting on a scale and measuring yourself; it’s a state of mind. I think we can do a better job there. And I think we can get better defensively so we can spend more time offensively and have the puck more. We got a lot of work to do,” Babcock says.
“It’s heavy on offence. It’s having the puck. It’s getting the puck back all the time. It’s checking it back. It’s putting your work in front of your skill. It’s being determined offensively, not coming down, having a rush and being one-and-done. It’s multiple-shot shifts.
“It’s having some jam.”