“They like their guy, and we like our guy.” — Mike Babcock
How do you properly begin to construct a contender?
We needn’t remind Toronto that its Maple Leafs have hockey’s longest Stanley Cup drought (48 seasons and running) just as we needn’t remind Carolina that its Hurricanes own the longest playoff drought of any American team (seven seasons and yawning).
The two woebegone, captainless franchises have assumed near-opposite paths in snuffing out the sadness.
Offence vs. defence. Power play vs. penalty kill. Selling tickets vs. winning boring.
Toronto selected a forward with its first pick in each of the four most recent drafts. You must track back to the Brian Burke era and the surprise but wise choice of Morgan Rielly fifth overall in 2012 for the last time the Leafs thought blue line with their showtime pick. Last spring, Toronto waited until its fifth selection to grab a defenceman (James Greenway at 72 overall).
Carolina, conversely, has chosen a defenceman with its initial first-rounder for three years straight.
“[Defence] is a tough position to find good players in, especially good young players that can contribute. For the organization to have picked up as many contributing, young D-men as it has, it’s only going to work for the best in the future. And it’s working out right now—they’re all making contributions,” Jeff Skinner, Carolina’s leading scorer, tells Sportsnet.
“As last season went along, all of them got better. That’s segued into this season. They’ve continued that growth. As a forward, it’s nice to play in front of.”
Only once over in the last eight drafts did the Hurricanes not take a defenceman in either Round 1 or 2 or both. Toronto has passed on Round 1 or 2 defencemen four years in the same span.
That draft-table approach was crystalized in 2014, when Toronto’s chief scout, Mark Hunter, pushed for scoring-chance creator Mitch Marner at fourth overall, and Carolina giddily scooped up the No. 1–rated defenceman Noah Hanifin with the fifth pick.
“I knew there was the possibility it could go either way,” says Hanifin, whose family met with Babcock before the draft. “The result that did happen, I’m extremely happy. We have a young group in Carolina and a great coaching staff.”
They like their guy, and we like our guy.
Marner was fantastic again Tuesday, leading Toronto with eight shot attempts. Hanifin looked solid but boring. Safe. Babcock likes safe (see: Canada, Team).
That Carolina won Tuesday doesn’t mean the Leafs made the wrong the choice; that Marner is a Calder candidate and the type of guy whose name your kid wants stitched on the back of his or her Christmas present doesn’t mean the Leafs made the right one.
“Marner’s a good player. Hanifin’s a good player,” says Hurricanes coach Bill Peters. “Have the confidence to play ’em.”
Oh, they do. Hanifin has been paired with Carolina’s top defenceman, Justin Faulk, and sees action on the No. 1 power-play unit. Marner is the engine that drives Toronto’s first line, and gets thrown out in those dying, desperate minutes of action.
“Marner might be one of the more dynamic players in the league. It’s pretty fun to watch him play out there,” says game-winning goal-getter Viktor Stalberg, a former Leaf.
“They’ve got a ton of talent. I was just saying to [fellow ex-Leaf Lee] Stempniak at the end of the game: ‘It’s 6-on-5 and they’ve got four rookies out there!’ They got a bright future ahead of them.”
Who was the better choice: Marner or Hanifin? Only time will tell.
A cliché, yes. Here’s another: Offence sells tickets; defence wins games.
Toronto ranks top-five in shots per game, goals per game, and attendance per game.
Carolina wields the NHL’s best penalty kill, surrenders the seventh-fewest shots per game, and has the worst attendance in the league.
“We’ve won more open games than we’ve won tight games,” said Babcock, whose team fell to 3-7 in one-goal contests. “The reality is, it’s not all skill.”
Surely not. It’s puck possession and special teams and patience and clutch saves and battles in the corners and takeaways. Carolina won out in all those areas, relying little on even-strength rush offence—the young Leafs’ specialty.
“They’ve got a lot of skill,” Peters says. “You don’t want to play with fire when you’re at the ACC.”
Peters opened his pre-game media address by pointing to a sheet listing Toronto’s last four home wins — six-goal explosions over Vancouver, Philadelphia, Nashville and Florida.
“Who’s the Leafs’ placekicker?” the coach quizzed, with a grin. “He keeps missing the extra point.”
When opponents tighten gaps, clog the neutral zone and limit the Leafs’ speed, Toronto struggles. Scoring ugly and winning tight is critical to sustained success.
Carolina, enjoying a five-game winning streak, has scored four goals in a victory just twice all season. Toronto has accomplished the same feat five times, yet is worse off in the standings.
Not unlike Edmonton, at some point Toronto will need to sacrifice some of its high-flying scoring for defensive talent.
Is keeping the puck out of your net really more important than putting it in theirs?
Consider this: Only eight of the NHL’s top 12 offensive teams sit in playoff position, while 11 of the top 13 defensive clubs hold a playoff spot.
Toronto’s next three opponents — New Jersey, Washington and Edmonton — all fall into that second category. Goals should be scarce.
The Leafs have now lost consecutive 2-1 games. No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, a forward, has failed to convert on his last 45 shots. Irritation is mounting.
“When things start going your way and you’re young and hungry and running off adrenaline, it’s pretty easy to play. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t,” Stalberg says.
“That’s what they’re going to learn—how to play better when things are bad.”