Plenty of gain and so little pain with young Leafs


It turns out Mike Babcock isn’t infallible after all.

On Wednesday, the Maple Leaf head coach inadvertently extended a Columbus power play from five to almost seven minutes. On Thursday, he contested a New Jersey goal via replay review that had absolutely no chance of succeeding, pointlessly sacrificing a timeout in a tight game.

When Babcock was hired in May, 2015, meanwhile, he famously predicted “pain” for the Maple Leafs in the years ahead.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said at his inaugural press conference.

Wrong again.

Obviously, we kid, although Paul Maurice is apparently kicking himself he didn’t think of the “pain” line first. But 22 months after Babcock spoke those words, there really has been relatively little pain for the Leafs. There was some last year, sure, and a 30th-place finish. But if you recall, the club was pleasingly competitive for much of the season, losing a lot of close games while winning just 29. Finishing dead last was, let’s face it, achieved by design.

The two seasons prior to Babcock’s arrival were all a great deal more painful than his first behind the Leafs bench. Those were the seasons that followed the first-round, Game 7 collapse in Boston, and during those 164 games loyal fans of the hockey club were robbed of almost all hope and left in utter despair. The team was capped-out and unlikeable, the future was cloudy at best, Salute-gate on Nov. 20, 2014 was an expression of the players disdain for their paying supporters, and the team suspension of Nazem Kadri in March, 2015 seemed to symbolize the pointlessness of it all.

By comparison, last year was, well, unhappy at times, but it was generally accepted by Leaf fans as necessary.

This year, meanwhile, has turned into an entertaining success. The “pain” that Babcock predicted, when you put it within the context of Leafs history, turned out to be akin to a nasty paper cut. It was sore as hell for a while and bothered you every time you put your gloves on to walk the dog, but now you barely remember it.

Instead, Babcock’s second season has produced a campaign that may produce a playoff berth, and possibly an all-Canadian matchup against either Ottawa or even Montreal. Moreover, this Leaf team is in the process of completing a season that, statistically, has turned into one of the most significant in team and even NHL history.

No NHL club in the past 76 years, ladies and gentleman, has iced a rookie group that has had a greater offensive impact. You would have to go back to the 1940-41 Montreal Canadiens, a team that featured Calder Trophy winner John Quilty and fellow rookies like Joe Benoit, Elmer Lach and Ken Reardon to find an NHL club that owed so much of its offence to first-year players than this year’s Leaf club, led by future captain Auston Matthews.

Montreal got 44.7 per cent of its offence from rookies that year. Those were unusual times, the war years, with NHLers coming and going, and the talent level of the league was watered down.

So far this season, meanwhile, Leafs rookies have accounted for 46.3 per cent of the team’s offence, a greater share than those Canadiens of long ago. Matthews is poised to break Wendel Clark’s 31-year-old record for goals (34) by a Leafs rookie, Mitch Marner has tied Gus Bodnar’s 74-year-old record for assists (40) by a Toronto freshman (Bodnar’s efforts came in the first year of the new forward pass) and William Nylander has already set a rookie record for successive games (10) with at least a point.

If this is pain, sado-masochistic Leaf fans would like more, please.

After 73 games, it has truly been a blast, although no Leafs fan or observer worth his or her salt would bet the farm on this team locking down a post-season berth before it actually happens. Eighteen-wheelers have gone off the cliff before, 4-1 third period playoff leads have been frittered away, Martin Gerber has shown up to win at the worst possible time and hockey watchers in these parts know nothing is done until it is completely nailed down.

Heck, Leafs fans are still in a state of disbelief that last year’s drive for 30th actually resulted in the No. 1 pick and the right to pick Matthews. Most thought that only happened to the Edmonton Oilers.

So the most ambitious Leaf rebuilding program since Gerry McNamara’s efforts in the early- to mid-1980s has actually produced a great deal more pleasure than pain. The offensive exploits of Messrs. Matthews, Marner and Nylander have overshadowed three pretty good first seasons from Connor Brown (16 goals), defenceman Nikita Zaitsev (a team-leading 22:19 per game) and Zach Hyman, Matthews’ industrious linemate and one of the team’s best penalty killers.

In other years, the play of Brown, Zaitsev and Hyman alone would have been enough to encourage Leafs fans. But with this team, they’re like the warm-up band, except not like that time Bruce Springsteen opened up for Anne Murray in New York’s Central Park.

We’ll see where all this goes. In 1987, the L.A. Kings placed centre Jimmy Carson, winger Luc Robitaille and defenceman Steve Duchesne on the NHL all-rookie team. The Kings were in the Stanley Cup final six years later, although Duchesne was gone, Carson had been traded and reacquired, and only Robitaille was a key contributor.

Initial impressions and statistical references are great, but they don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Still, when it comes to this year’s Leafs, they have meant anything but pain.

Damien Cox, Toronto Star

Dusty Fields

I like baseball, camping and being out on the lake in my boat. My dog Sparky loves it too! Make sure you follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest by clicking on the tabs.

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