Maple Leafs resembling Bruins? ‘They’re going to shock people’

Jonathan Bernier discusses staying fit and James Reimer’s success after Leafs practice on Tuesday.

TORONTO — The way the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing caused the voice of the Boston Bruins to laugh out loud on-air.

No. Not in the way you’re thinking.

For play-by-play man Jack Edwards, who called both ends of the Bruins-Leafs miniseries Saturday and Monday, the Toronto team isn’t ha-ha funny but rather deja vu funny.

Edwards, who has been calling the Bruins for 10 years now, has seen this style of hockey before—just never dressed in blue and white.

“Can you remember the last time the Leafs played with this kind of structure? I can’t. Honest. I cannot,” says Edwards, as animated in a one-on-one conversation as he is sitting before a hot microphone.

Interestingly, the 58-year-old sees the 2015-16 Leafs under head coach Mike Babcock tracing a similar on-ice development to the 2007-08 Bruins under Claude Julien, then a new presence on the bench.

Sure, the Leafs lost their last two contests to Boston, but both were tight affairs essentially decided by a single goal (the B’s added and empty-netter Saturday). The problem — a typical one for this edition of the Leafs — was a lack of scoring. Thin on finishers, Toronto mustered just three goals total in the two games, and the lack of red lights has caused many a cynic to charge the rebuilding Leafs with playing a dull game.

“This is not boring hockey,” Edwards argues.

“This is what Claude Julien did with the Boston Bruins in 2008, when he said, ‘Defend the house. This is how you play in your own zone.'”

In Julien’s first season with the Bruins, the coach overhauled a defensively porous club that had whiffed on the post-season for two years. The new-look B’s chopped their goals allowed from 3.48 per game to 2.62, allowed 246 fewer shots than they did under the previous regime, and surprisingly made it to the playoffs, where they pushed Montreal to seven games. The feat was all the more remarkable when you realize Patrice Bergeron, one of the best defensive forwards to play the game, missed 72 games due to injury.

“They were playing one zone out of three,” Edwards, 58, recalls. “Really, that whole season Julien only coached inside his own blue line. And the next season he only coached inside his own blue-line and the neutral zone. It wasn’t until the third year that Julien was with the Bruins that he finally said, ‘OK, now we’re going to play 200 feet because you’ve shown me that I can trust you in the back two-thirds of the ice.'”

Julien’s zone-by-zone rebuild of an Original Six squad resulted in deeper playoff runs culminating with Boston’s Stanley Cup championship in 2011. Babcock coached alongside Julien at the 2014 Olympics with Team Canada, another defence-first outfit that found success.

Edwards predicts Toronto’s road to improvement following a similar path to that of the Bruins in their prime. Under Babcock, Toronto’s team defence is the best it’s been in 12 years (small sample size alert). Not since 2002-03 have the Leafs surrendered as few as the 2.64 goals per game they’re allowing now.

By 2017-18, right around the time skilled forward prospects William Nylander and Mitch Marner are NHL-ready, Toronto will be ready to deploy some offence to complement that discipline in their own zone.

“That’s exactly what Babcock is doing in Toronto,” Edwards says. “And in the third year, I’m telling you, they’re going to shock people who haven’t been watching.

“You can see the elements of structure there, and anyone new who comes into that team is going to have and a black-and-white, clear idea of what they have to do in the D zone. It’s really exciting, actually, if you love the X’s and O’s of hockey.”

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