Damien Cox: The Leafs’ success depends on how quickly the team’s young stars become complete players

Damien Cox: The Leafs’ success depends on how quickly the team’s young stars become complete players
So the early-season Maple Leafs collapse that many local hockey observers predicted would happen — the one that would lead to the dismissal of head coach Mike Babcock — hasn’t happened. And it seems unlikely that it will happen.

Instead, Babcock’s steady hand guided the club through a tough October schedule and the absences of three key regulars, and the Leafs are demonstrating through a 4-1-1 streak that they will once again be a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

The Babcock-on-the-edge narrative always seemed a concocted business that started last spring when some media members decided to make a stink over the ice time accorded Auston Matthews in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round series loss to Boston.

Matthews played 18:48 that night, while Mitch Marner (20:53) and John Tavares (21:19) played more. Instead of perhaps wondering what qualities Babcock saw in the games of Marner and Tavares that caused him to prefer them in that game, some chose to zero in on Matthews and his minutes as the most important point. The fact Matthews didn’t play well that night — and that Boston forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand played less than Matthews — didn’t penetrate the analysis of those who wanted to make it a Babcock vs. Matthews thing.

GM Kyle Dubas, meanwhile, didn’t exactly help his coach by putting on the facade of a post-playoff evaluation for a few days before confirming that Babcock would return for the 2019-20 season. As if it was ever really in doubt. Dubas is learning on the job, but he’s not stupid.

His seeming hesitation, however, fuelled the speculation that, boy-oh-boy, if the Leafs struggled out of the gate this season, Babcock would surely be canned. Instead, here we are in early November and the Leafs are on a 101-point pace.

The Leafs have the most stable ownership they’ve had since Conn Smythe. They have a deep, strong management group headed by Brendan Shanahan. They have a head coach who picked up his 700th career victory on Thursday night, something only seven other NHL bench bosses have been able to accomplish.

We can debate where Babcock stands among current NHL coaches, but it’s indisputable that there’s nobody better available to coach the team right now. You may not love his demeanour or his style or whatever, but he’s the most detailed, driven and accomplished head coach the team has had in the post-expansion era.

It’s time to drop the Babcock-on-the-firing-line narrative and make this about the players. Everything else is in place. Top to bottom, Toronto has a talented, experienced hockey operation.

Now it should be about the players.

As we’ve seen the last two games, when Matthews and Marner decide to expend the same amount of energy defending as they do attacking, the Leafs have the ability to be a solid defensive unit that nicely augments an explosive offence. Babcock will play heck out of those two when they give him that type of game. Matthews played 22:39 against the Golden Knights on Thursday and Marner played 24:09.

They are huge talents, and have been positioned to succeed by this organization, given everything a player could need. And this team will get somewhere in the playoffs not when Babcock coaches better, but when Matthews and Marner mature and demonstrate they can truly be reliable, consistent 200-foot hockey players. Until that happens, this isn’t going to be as dangerous a team as it could be.

The same goes for Freddie Andersen. Until now, Andersen has been wildly praised when he plays as he should, like in a sturdy effort Thursday against Vegas. When he hasn’t played well, the defensive shield in front of him has usually been blamed.

It’s never Freddie’s fault. Except the last three playoff seasons the Leafs have gone out in the first round because the other team got better goaltending. When that stops happening, the Leafs will advance.

Beyond Matthews, Marner and Andersen, there’s very good talent, but still a great deal of inexperience. This season has to be about whipping this group to play at a higher level of intensity and grit next spring. Remember, the Leafs led the Bruins 3-2 with Game 6 on home ice last spring. They were almost there, and then Bergeron, Marchand and Tuukka Rask took over.

This Leafs team doesn’t have more talent than last year’s. It has young players with bigger contracts, less sandpaper and a lot of players competing for third- and fourth-line ice time. It’s not yet clear whether Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie are an upgrade on Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner.

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But when this team digs in, as it did in allowing two goals against the last two outings, it shows signs of becoming a more formidable and complete squad. That’s not because Babcock is coaching better, or Dubas is managing better, but because a very young team is applying the very hard lessons learned about what is required to reach the next level.

It doesn’t matter what Alex Ovechkin or Drew Doughty says about the Leafs and what they need to do. It matters what this group, led by some superb but very young players, can learn about what it takes to win, and how fast they can learn it.
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