The Chicago Blackhawks take on the soon to be rising Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
We’re now in year two of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto as the organization slowly but surely rebuilds itself towards contention. Last year, with not much depth defensively or any semblance of quality goaltending, they were among one of the best possession teams the Leafs have had in a long time.
A lot of the credit has to go to Babcock while the Leafs retool and build their launch pad with talent. This is a moderately long rebuild with clear direction and it hasn’t been derailed. With top pick Auston Matthews and a bunch of other talented youngsters like William Nylander in the fold, it seems like it’ll only be a matter of time before Toronto is back as a serious championship contender.
On that note, we’ve brought in Fifty Mission Cap from Pension Plan Puppets to ask him some questions and help us get a better understanding of these rising Leafs.
1. Hey so this Auston Matthews guy, he's pretty good, right? Four goals in a debut is okay, I guess. Give context as to how important he is for Toronto hockey.
Auston Matthews is the sun, the moon, the stars. I would gladly give him my first born. Since I don't have kids, I would actually have to convince my lady-friend to make a first born and then give it to him. If Matthews asked me to do that, I would.
The thing that has stunned us all about Matthews is just how easy he's made it look. Granted, he did spend last year playing against grown men in the Swiss league, and has made appearances in the World Championship and World Cup where he didn't look out of place. He's already 20 percent of the way to tying the highest-scoring Leaf last year, so that's neat.
I cannot understate his importance to Toronto hockey. The Leafs, until recently, have not been great at building from within. The last face of the franchise that the Leafs drafted was Wendel Clark in 1985, and he wasn't really an elite guy and was fairly limited by injuries. They've had elite talent since then, but have had to acquire it from other teams. While you can never speak in absolutes, he has all the potential in the world to be an elite player and first-line centre, something Toronto has sorely been lacking.
Finally, Matthews has a good persona for this market (read: boring and well-spoken); he's the kind of guy that admits he blew his defensive coverage on the game-winner in a game he scored four goals. That's not particularly important, but it's nice knowing the Toronto media won't run him out of town because we can't have nice things.
2. How happy are you so far with the Mike Babcock rebuild? What's went well and what could be better?
I can't complain at all with how Mike Babcock has run this team. In year one, they were a bad team that had questionable defense and goaltending, but were among the best puck possession teams the Leafs had iced in a while. In Year two, they're....well, they're still a bad team, but their puck possession is strong and they're going to score more goals to cover the defensive stenches. In a nutshell, Babcock has flourished in the areas he can control (systems/puck possession).
There are some Leaf fans most notable to Hawks fans for overzealously criticizing Babcock's usage of players to the point of Mark Arcobello (now in the Swiss League) becoming his own meme. There is *some* truth to it; Babcock definitely overused Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak last year, and made Byron Froese a thing for some reason.
He's turned a corner this season; Hunwick is now on the third pair, where he's still bad but at least more sheltered. Polak woke up from a crazy dream where he was playing for the San Jose Sharks and getting torched by Evgeni Malkin in the Stanley Cup Final only to find he was still a Leaf, but is now primarily on pressbox duty. Right now, my only real gripe with his lineup is that Nazem Kadri could use some better wingers, but it's a minor one at that.
Any flaws in his usage are easily counterbalanced by how much better he's made holdovers from previous regimes look. Tyler Bozak sucked as a first center, but hasn't looked all that out of place on the second line. Jake Gardiner (who I am informed only three people in the universe appreciate) looks a lot better when he isn't being yelled at every time he makes a minor mistake. Babcock was also singlehandedly responsible for making Dion Phaneuf look presentable enough to unload him to the Senators, so thanks!
Having said all that, the biggest plus for Babcock is that he is showing a real tendency to adapt and change where many said he wouldn't. Many people thought the kids wouldn't get a fair shake because he likes veteran depth players. Many people were wrong; Colin Greening and Brooks Laich were demoted to give way to Zach Hyman and Connor Brown.
3. Lost in all the Matthews mania, is the Leafs' overall talent movement. Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Tyler Bozak, etc. all look like fantastic building blocks. Who's the guy to be most excited about of that group?
Young Bozak, baby! Looks good to hit 50 points this year, and at only 30 years old!
On an individual level, I'd have to say Marner. It's early, but he's shown flashes (thankfully on the ice only) of being reminiscent of a young Patrick Kane. After putting up what can only be described as video game numbers in the OHL last year, there were still doubts of his readiness because of his size. His speed and natural goal-scoring ability should put that to rest. Lost in the Matthews four-goal game was that Marner might have actually played better, but just didn't get rewarded. Such is hockey.
Collectively, I'm a huge fan of the Leafs' "kid line," consisting of Nylander, Matthews, and Hyman. Nylander and Matthews have a great chemistry together, and Zach Hyman is a guy who does all the little things right to give those guys the time and space to do their thing. It's certainly a far superior third line to last year, when they had That Guy, Whoozits, and Whatshisface.
4. Realistically, how far away are the Leafs from being a Cup contender? (The patience is worth it, no?) What else do they have to do?
The patience is worth it. The way I see it, they've been horrible for most of my adult life (PDO-laden playoff appearance notwithstanding). I can probably wait a few years to do this thing the right way.
It's hard to guess exactly how many years it will take, because rebuilding never follows a strict timeline. The Penguins and Capitals pretty much just flipped a switch overnight from bad team to contender. The Kings got out of the basement, but still spent a couple of years as first round cannon fodder before becoming legitimate. The Blackhawks transformed in two years. While, the Oilers are still the Oilers. If I had to guess, the goal is to be a playoff team by 2018 and a Cup contender by 2019 or 2020.
The main priority for the Leafs going forward should be defense and goaltending. They've got a core of good young defensemen- Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick, and Nikita Zaitsev- but I think they're one top pairing guy away from taking a major step forward on the blue line. Frederik Andersen is here until 2022, with the Leafs hoping he can reliably be the goalie or find someone who can pick up the slack.
5. Finally, what are your expectations for Toronto this season?
It's a mixed bag this year. The most optimistic of fans think the Leafs will make the playoffs. Many sportswriters have them finishing near last because the standard for NHL predictions is to basically just copy and paste last year's standings with some minor tinkering here and there.
I'm somewhere in between. I think the Leafs take a major step forward, but not enough of one to be a playoff team. I'd put them somewhere in the mid-80s for points; still well out of a playoff berth, but a major improvement from last season. I think they could- could!- have a shot at the postseason, but that would require just about everything to go right for them and everything to go wrong for at least one or two better teams. I don't see it happening.
My main expectation for this year is fun. Last year's team consisted of transient journeymen who were later siphoned off to contenders for spare parts. This left some glaring holes that, to aid the tank, remained fairly vacant in the latter stages of the season. I can't confirm it, but I'm pretty sure we iced a fourth line consisting of a garden gnome and a ficus plant for one game. Nothing fun about that.
This year, though? Goals galore! We have a trio of amazing prospects, but also a healthy James van Riemsdyk, who was close to a 30-goal pace but didn't play after January last season. I expect the offense to shoot up the charts, and from guys that are part of this team's long-term plan. The Leafs will still lose a bunch this year, but at least it'll be fun.
BONUS question: Asked for no particular reason: How great is it not to have Randy Carlyle as the Leafs coach?
Going from Carlyle to Babcock is honestly like eating a filet mignon at a Michelin restaurant when your last meal was airline food served on the lid of a trash can behind a darkened back alley. I haven't followed the Ducks too intently, but I did see a game (their loss to Pittsburgh) where Jonathan Bernier had to make 42 saves and thought "yeah, that looks familiar."
Having said that, I wish the Ducks all the best, because I am now confident that the days of losing game seven on home ice with a 3-2 series lead are probably over. If I have advice for the people of Orange County, it's that I've been there before and you just need to invest in more fruitful endeavors. As for the team, I just hope the team staff at least had the foresight to invest in a toaster oven.