Maple Leafs Show Signs of Life at Halfway Point
The halfway point in the 2015-2016 NHL season has finally arrived and it is now time to assess the Maple Leafs. I know that there are other teams from Canada in the league but I grew up with the Leafs and still follow them despite having left ice for humidity.
Benefit of Low Expectations
When the season opened, no one expected the Leafs to reach the playoffs. They traded Phil Kessel who scored 30 or so goals every year but never was able to make the players around him better. The Kessel trade brought prospects.
This trade signaled the dedication to a complete rebuilding project. They traded away their best offensive player, by far, for prospects. This indicated that they would accept a period of fewer wins in order to get better long-term.
Step Two: Mike Babcock
Much more importantly, the team brought in Mike Babcock with a huge 8-year contract. It was obvious from the start that Babcock's role for at least the first two years of his contract was to implement his system, develop players already at the NHL level, and instill a winning attitude in a team that sorely lacked it. A winning attitude is no less important for a losing team than it is for a winning team.
Once Rebuilt the Chicago Blackhawks Never Need to Rebuild
To digress slightly, Coach Joel Quenneville of the Blackhawks began the season with many new parts that needed to be blended into a formidable team if possible. The one very important thing that Coach Quenneville did not have to instill in the Hawks was a winning attitude. After a slow start for a Stanly Cup Championship team, the Hawks are again one of the elite teams in the league.
Hard Work Pays Off Only in the Long Term
A winning attitude means working hard at all times. Every player has within him a better player that can only come out through hard work and confidence in his teammates. Working hard means improving during every practice and fighting for position and the puck on every shift.
From the First Game
The Leafs went through a very trying time in their first ten games this season. But no opponent said that they looked like the Leafs of old. Anyone who watches the Leafs can see the increased energy level in most games. I would especially like to point out the play of Leo Karmarov. He's far from the most talented player in the NHL but he is the type of player who any team with championship thoughts must have. He's the eternal sparkplug, the guy everyone hates to play against. He makes his teammates better by being the sparkplug, by his energy and willingness to make the hustle play again and again.
Scrappy play is really all that most of this year's Leafs can offer. But scrappy play will keep games close and the Leafs are winning many games that would have been lost by the second period a year ago.
The Mike Babcock Effect
Once again, no one expects the Leafs to make the playoffs this year. But we can see that the players are learning Mike Babcock's way of doing things on the ice. Shots against are lower than last year and time of possession is higher. This is typical Babcock hockey. When Babcock coached Detroit, every player knew his role on the ice in every situation. Fighting for position and possession should be givens in this league but aren't. Last year's Leafs are a perfect case in point.
Until Mike Babcock has stud offensive players that he can give more on ice freedom to, he wants his players to play a defensive game. More Stanley Cups are won by teams playing a defensive style than a wide open style. I need only point to last year's Stanley Cup Champions who played most of the playoffs with only four reliable defensemen yet were able to squeeze out just enough offence to win the Cup.
Great teams know how to squeeze out just enough offence to win games. The Leafs are in the early process of learning this vital skill.
Breaking Out on Offence
Defensive play must be balanced by quick turnaround into offensive play when the opportunity arises. How to handle odd man rushes when on offence is not an inborn skill for most players. To my admittedly untrained eye, it seems that the Leafs have internalized the lessons they get during practice in converting odd man rushes. Most rushes lead nowhere but you only get results by repetition.
One change in the Leafs' turnaround philosophy is the breakout pass in the centre of the ice. When this pass is executed well, the centre has many options as he skates toward his offensive zone. In past seasons, the Leafs tried to escape their defensive end via the boards. This has less risk but far less offensive potential. On a team without skilled offensive players it led to many games where the Leafs were outshot by wide margins.
The Leafs will not make the playoffs this year. Most of their best players are playing in the AHL. But with the renewed effort and team ethos, and the long term future with Mike Babcock at the helm, the future is bright for the franchise. Maple Leafs fans always look toward the future. The team last won a Stanley Cup in the 1960's. The fans are now looking forward to the future with renewed confidence.
One thing is certain: if the Leafs fail once again in this rebuilding process it won't be because of incompetence behind the bench.