Mike Babcock. (Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs' leading scorer is hurt and they are waffling near the bottom of the standings -- and things couldn't be better.
Apparently the hockey gods take notice when you start doing things the right way.
They have certainly been smiling down on the Maple Leafs since Toronto did an about face and started heading in a completely different direction. The right direction.
When Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan fired coaches Randy Carlyle and his interim replacement Peter Horachek and replaced them with Mike Babcock, widely regarded by many to be the best coach in hockey, it was obvious Shanny was serious about shutting down the country club in Toronto and making it a place of hockey business.
To emphasize that point, Shanahan gave Babcock an ironclad eight-year, $50 million contract with more clout than any NHL coach has ever had.
Next Shanahan shocked the hockey world by naming Lou Lamoriello as the team’s GM replacing Dave Nonis. At 73 some may think Lamoriello is a little long in the tooth to tackle a rebuilding project, but the truth is his no-nonsense approach is exactly what this franchise needed. The Maple Leafs were in deep need of discipline.
Last year’s team was the most entitled bunch of non-committed, undisciplined hockey players (not all of them, obviously, but too many) one could ever imagine representing an NHL organization, and Lamoriello’s assignment is to bridge the gap between entitlement and dedication.
Babcock wisely warned everyone on the day he was hired, there would be pain before the team got good. There is no formula for overnight success. This organization, henceforth, would draft and develop prospects and any players that don’t want to play the game “the right way” can hit the road.
Oh, and because he knew it would never be a good fit between player and coach, Shanahan orchestrated the trade of the team’s top scorer for six seasons running, Phil Kessel. Probably at Babcock’s request.
So the season begins and indeed there is pain. The Maple Leafs open the 2015-16 campaign 1-8-1. This Babcock guy knows what he’s talking about.
Funny thing is, though, the Maple Leafs – true to Babcock’s promise – are beginning to play the game “the right way.” There is a noticeable difference in the team’s compete level, despite the losses, compared to the past few years when the team played a more run-and-gun style with little regard for defence.
As the season progressed, Babcock has not always been overjoyed following a win and not always pissed off after a loss. Win or lose his message remains the same: Come prepared to work, come prepared to start on time, do your job the right way.
Oh, about the hockey gods.
It is a little weird how this season is playing out. The Maple Leafs are performing well enough, for the most part, to be competitive and yet they remain near the bottom of the league and among the lottery teams.
That, for the record, is a good thing.
Jonathan Bernier was handed the No. 1 job in goal, but he didn’t take the ball and run with it. Rather, he fumbled. Babcock ran out of patience with him and tapped James Reimer on the shoulder. Reimer played superbly, but then got hurt. So did Bernier. Turns out that wasn’t a bad thing, either.
The Maple Leafs call up Garret Sparks from the AHL Marlies and the kid tosses a shutout in his NHL debut – first goalie in team history to do so. Sparks, in fact, pieces together a nifty little 3-1-0 record before he too is injured.
Can you say hockey gods? Injuries are keeping the Maple Leafs in the draft lottery.
Meanwhile down on the farm, the kids the Maple Leafs are developing for the future are coming through brilliantly. They have the best record in the AHL and 19-year-old William Nylander was tops in the league in scoring until he left for the world juniors.
Things are looking pretty good.
Nylander, of course, was injured at the World Junior Championship, but it was apparent before he was concussed that he has the potential to be an impact player in the NHL, sooner if not later.
In one recent stretch the Maple Leafs went on a 6-2-0 run and suddenly people start whispering the ‘P’ word…playoffs. That’s the thing about today’s NHL; a team can be sitting in 27th place and still be within spitting distance of a playoff spot. It keeps fans interested.
So the hockey gods step in again. Playoffs huh? Well try getting there without your top scorer!
Boom! Just like that James van Riemsdyk goes down for 6-8 weeks with a fractured foot. In another season, van Riemsdyk’s departure might have been a disaster. But when his injury means you may stay in contention for a top-five draft pick – and possibly a legitimate No. 1 center in Auston Matthews – it’s not the worst thing in the world.
Most Maple Leafs fans are happy with the way the team is playing and with the direction the organization is going. Shanahan, Babcock and Lamoriello deserve credit.
And let’s not forget the hockey gods.