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Dave Feschuk: From the president to the players, everyone with the Maple Leafs — OK, most everyone — is talking tough

Dave Feschuk: From the president to the players, everyone with the Maple Leafs — OK, most everyone — is talking tough
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But most of nine months since Babcock was fired, his influence still looms large. At least, you could have been convinced of as much this week, when key members of the organization were asked to explain the gist of Toronto’s latest hockey disappointment. It was striking that more than one Maple Leaf chose words that Babcock might as well have put in their mouths.

Babcock, if he’s remembered for anything beyond two Olympic gold medals and a single Stanley Cup, will be remembered for his collection of catchphrases. “Do it right.” “Start on time.” “Dig in.” You pick the one that ought to adorn his gravestone. Babcock always pushed a simple view of the game. Sustainable wins only come with hard work. And if hard work fails, work harder.

By the end of his tenure, it was clear the Leafs had tuned out those incessant refrains. The idea that the key to success was as simple as 60 minutes and 82 games of faithful effort and unfailing commitment —Babcock never sold it to important corners of a talent-blessed Toronto dressing room.

When Sheldon Keefe took the reins, the players spoke as though they had been emancipated from a sweat shop. They beamed about finally being allowed to “play free,” to let their “skill come out,” to unleash their creativity. They exploded into the highest-scoring team in the league.

For all that, they managed three five-on-five goals in a five-game play-in loss to Columbus. And now that it has come time to explain another post-season failure — why the Shanaplan is more than six years old and its only significant victory has come in the draft lottery — various Maple Leafs are singing from the hymn book of hard labour.

Captain John Tavares spoke of the need to “dig in our heels” for a brighter future. Jake Muzzin, one of two members of the Leafs roster who has hoisted the Stanley Cup, did an even more credible Babcock impersonation.

“This group needs to dig in more,” he said. “Yeah, we have lots of skill and talent and speed. But when it comes to playoff hockey, the will to win has to burn a little hotter, you know what I mean?”

Babcock would have nodded approvingly.

“I hope guys understand that we ve got to dig into the next level and that ll bring this team further along,” Muzzin said.

Even more significantly, team president Brendan Shanahan, for his part, spent part of Wednesday speaking of the need to inject more “compete level and grit” into the lineup, both by developing it internally and by changing personnel.

You’ll excuse fans for throwing up their hands at Shanahan’s assertion. It was around this time last year, of course, that the Leafs decided Nazem Kadri was expendable, trading him to Colorado in the deal that brought back one dismal year of Tyson Barrie and innocuous third-line centre Alex Kerfoot. Kadri, of course, combines top-six skill with the greasy unpredictability Toronto has sorely lacked since his departure. To no one’s surprise, Kadri is currently starring for the Avalanche, scoring what turned out to be the winning goal in Wednesday’s Game 1 win over Arizona, after which Colorado coach Jared Bednar called the former Leaf “our best forward, by far.”

“He plays at a high compete level all the time,” Avalanche right winger Mikko Rantanen said of Kadri. “He has the skill to play on the first power-play unit but still has the grit to his game. He’s a big part of our team. We want to play gritty like that.”

After another playoff loss, suddenly the Leafs want to play gritty like that, too — although you’ll be excused if you’re confused. Last summer, after all, they were moving off grit (and grit’s occasionally unflattering side effects, specifically Kadri’s back-to-back post-season suspensions). This summer they’re back on it. Back in November they were fed up with Babcock’s nose-to-the-grindstone refrains. Now they’re being heard reaffirming their fundamental truth.

It can give you the idea Shanahan, who was influential in keeping Babcock around when there was a move to fire him last off-season, is finally asserting more control over the operation. And maybe it helps explain why Dubas came off as so unappealingly petulant and overly defensive on Wednesday. While Shanahan was doing exactly what’s required in a post-loss media session — acknowledging the need to “face the music” while suggesting his club has “taken a step back in the past couple of years” — Dubas engaged in petty asides when anyone so much as hinted at questioning his top-heavy roster construction. The GM bizarrely went to bat in defence of Cody Ceci (Dubas condescendingly insisted he has data that indicates Ceci is better than the rest of us believe). He went on an unhinged tangent about the allegedly unwarranted criticism directed at Mitch Marner. Considering Marner had just admitted he “wasn’t engaged” in Game 1 against Columbus, Dubas calling the player’s critics “idiotic” was ineloquent at best.

If he sounds touchy, understand that Dubas is having his core beliefs questioned here. And while he hinted that this season’s acquisition of the undeniably sandpapery Kyle Clifford was evidence he is not finesse-obsessed to a fault, the fact Clifford played an average of eight minutes a game against the Blue Jackets didn’t exactly solidify the case. Muzzin’s Cup-ring-wearing presence stands as the only solid argument.

Playoff hockey can be a chess game. It’s often a goaltender’s game. But it’s always, always, a grinding effort-based game. Kids learn the mantra in tyke: Work beats talent if talent doesn’t work. But you don’t need to be inside the Maple Leafs locker room to know there are players within it who spent the past handful of years mostly rolling their eyes at such clichés. These gifted Leafs have often played as though they’ve believed they’re talented enough to loaf through vast swaths of a season and flip a switch when it counts (never mind that they’ve always failed to rise to the occasion when the stakes get higher and the competition gets more ruthless).

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Pattern repeated sufficiently, it was fascinating to hear this week’s management-based acknowledgment of various Babcock-ian truths. Habits matter. The regular season sets the stage for the important games. As tiresome as it was to hear Babcock prattle on about the need to “do it right every day,” it’s hard to argue Babcock wasn’t right, every day. And as much as Keefe introduced himself as the anti-Babcock — insisting he’d focus on what the Leafs are more than what they are not — suddenly there’s an organizational realization that it’s what the Leafs are not that’s the problem.

“I do believe you can develop grit,” Shanahan said. “I do think players can change how they are perceived. But I also think we recognize that compete level and grit are areas we might have to help our team a little bit with.”

Let’s assume the “we” includes Dubas, even though Dubas said no such thing, even though about a year ago the GM made a major trade that flew directly in the face of that notion. Whatever the case, nine months after Babcock was shipped out, and after having unleashed their shackled skill and still been shut out twice in three playoff losses, it says something that the Maple Leafs are replaying Babcock’s greatest hits. It’s time to dig in, indeed. Somewhere, the ex-coach must be smiling.
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