Toronto Resartus

by | Mar 9, 2017

Toronto Resartus

by | Mar 9, 2017

Improbably but fascinatingly the Toronto Maple Leafs are competing for a playoff slot. After enduring a last place finish despite the onset of a new coaching and managerial regime the Toronto Maple Leafs are skating, fighting, and sweating their way through the final stretch of the season: defying odds and expectations; slowly grinding their way towards a playoff spot. It hasn’t been a pretty process at all; just pure hard work on top of work.

It’s questionable whether the Leafs will make it. They are presently the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, vying with the Islanders, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Florida for that elusive final wild card slot (with the Flyers, Lightning, and Islanders waxing hot in their last ten games while the Leafs have gone 3-4-3 during the same stretch). Toronto is riding the talents of Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Frederick Andersen to their fullest but with precious little depth in between to support them. Auston Matthews has met the expectations demanded of him when he was drafted number 1 in last year’s amateur draft. Thanks to him, Toronto which ranked among the bottom ten in the NHL in overall offense now ranks among the top ten in goals scored; the same goes for the Leafs power-play offense. Whereas in 2015/16 they ranked near the bottom this season they presently rank fifth in the NHL.

If there is an Achilles Heel with the Leafs it’s their overall defense. The Leafs rank 22nd in the league even they have a respectable penalty-killing unit. They have only one player (Jake Gardiner) who is in double-digits (+22) in the plus/minus factor. Toronto’s lack of blue-line depth and a lack of ensemble two-way effort from their forwards is telling; and if they fail to reach the playoffs this season it is that lack of defensive help that vitiates their efforts.

What’s even more surprising is the fact that Toronto ranks 11th in the NHL in team penalty minutes. If there has been a signature aspect in Leafs head coach Mike Babcock’s magnificent coaching career it is that his teams have always demonstrated superb on-ice discipline; always avoiding the penalty-box. But this season the Leafs are compensating for their lack of defense by trying to out-muscle their opponents (I suspect Conn Smythe is gazing down from Valhalla with an approving smile at this).

Toronto may get out-scored but they refuse to be out-beaten.

Although the fact that Toronto is competing for a playoff spot (when they were predicted not to) may surprise some people it’s no surprise to this writer. Throughout Babcock’s hockey coaching career his teams have always rebounded strongly after falling from grace. When he was coaching the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL, twice Babcock’s Chiefs rebounded strongly after suffering losing seasons in 1994/95 and 1998/99; both times Spokane won its divisional title and reached the WHL finals. In 2003/04 when Babcock was coaching the Anaheim Ducks the team suffered a losing season. In 2005/06 when Babcock was coaching the Detroit Red Wings the Wings won the President’s Trophy. Now, after suffering a losing season and last place finish in 2015/16 the Maple Leafs have become winners and potential playoff contenders.

If anything this comeback is a reaffirmation of Mike Babcock’s coaching genius. If there is a coach who can end Toronto’s 50 year Stanley Cup drought it is the man behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench. The drought may not (and probably will not) end this season. The Leafs need defensive depth in both their forward and defensive corps. That is something which needs to be addressed in the off-season either through the draft or by trades or by free-agency. And yet one remains confident that these voids will be filled and the hearts of Toronto Maple Leafs fans will be filled with joy when one day the Leafs will compete for the Stanley Cup.

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