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What We Learned: Leafs have chance to seize future, if they want it

The Leafs are in a good position for the playoffs, but it could arguably be better. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

A lot was made this week over how badly the Maple Leafs throttled the Islanders and Rangers. They won by a combined score of 9-0 and outshot their opponents by 29 in just two games.

The reason why seemed obvious to a lot of observers: Mike Babcock had his toys taken away from him. It’s no secret that despite probably being the best coach in hockey with a lot of great ideas for how to succeed in the modern NHL, he also has a total inability to get over his old-school commitment to the need for defense-first hockey.

A lot of people thought the reason the Leafs won so convincingly in those two games — relatively low quality of the opponents notwithstanding — is that Roman Polak couldn’t play and Matt Martin was at long last scratched. Even Leo Komarov played fewer than 15 minutes after having cleared 17 on multiple occasions (and once, 24!) less than a month ago.

So the Leafs suddenly looked like last year’s Leafs, fast and getting through the neutral zone as if the opponent hadn’t been there at all. Nine goals for and none against almost seemed like a light sentence for the Rangers and Islanders, so devastating was Toronto in all three phases of the game. The reason why is clear: Babcock let go of the reins. There was no longer some sort of edict to play things safe, and as we’ve seen plenty of times in recent years, when you let your horses run wild and free, beautiful things can happen.

Babcock mostly stuck with the “ideal” lineup on Saturday night against Boston. Ron Hainsey was back from an illness but otherwise all of Babcock’s “guys” remained little seen. Komarov only played 14:01. No Roman Polak (still sick). No Matt Martin (coach’s decision). That Justin Holl — who is stepping up his game in the AHL from the Marlies blue line — got sent down is a consequence of the Leafs having perhaps too many good, young puck movers combined with the fact that they had to demote someone, and it sure as hell wasn’t gonna be Travis Dermott.

I was talking to a college coach earlier this year and asked him what his ideal blue line looked like. He said something to the effect of “give me six guys who are 6-foot-1 and can skate, every time.” The Leafs have a chance to go that route, and they should because it’s the future of the sport. Stay-at-home guys are a dying breed, and seemingly the only people who don’t know it are NHL coaches and GMs.

But even without this season’s traditional anchors in the lineup, Toronto ran into a buzzsaw on Saturday. The Bruins very clearly are what they appear to be at this point in the season; Bruce Cassidy has them running at a level unthinkable prior to the season. The ability to deploy players Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak (even with arguable team MVP Brad Marchand still suspended) against any high-end forward group is a luxury few teams have had in the history of hockey. That Auston Matthews and Co. got humiliated by their betters in that head-to-head matchup wasn’t inevitable, but it was certainly unsurprising.

This game presented a number of serious problems for the Leafs and, especially, their coach. First, the loss put Toronto in deep trouble when it comes to keeping pace with Boston for home ice in the divisional playoff round; they’re five points back and that molten Bruins team is sitting on four games in hand. The Leafs are in no danger of missing the playoffs or anything — they’re 15 points up on the Panthers in the Atlantic — but not having home ice against this Bruins team seems like a death sentence. And hell, the Bruins might be playing so well that they end up overtaking Tampa for first, meaning it would be a Bolts/Leafs first-round matchup, and that’s something Toronto absolutely doesn’t want either.

You can argue, with efficacy, that the Leafs would probably be doing a lot better, standings-wise, if they were in the Metro or Pacific. But old-timey rivalries and geography being what they are, this is the way the league is aligned and Toronto has the misfortune of being in a division with two of the four best teams (if we’re being conservative) in the league.

Another serious problem is that, well, Roman Polak isn’t going to be sick forever. And when he does come back to full health, Babcock can either scratch him or not-scratch him. The former would be a good idea since he is, y’know, bad at hockey and cannot play at the kind of pace the Maple Leafs need to be successful.

Babcock could see the Bruins steamrolling effort on Saturday as an excuse to say that an all-skill lineup doesn’t work against truly elite teams, and you need a steady defensive hand etc. etc. etc. Using that loss as an excuse to get back to featuring more Komarov, Polak, and Martin would be a very bad idea. But given how many chances he gave Martin before finally scratching him, and how Polak can seemingly do no wrong, one wonders how things proceed here.

Again, the Leafs are more likely than not to get shredded in the first round of the playoffs regardless of how they proceed this season, and how optimal their lineup is for any given game. That is, unfortunately for them, probably going to be the case for the next few years because of how Tampa and Boston have positioned themselves.

Which brings them to their third big problem: We don’t know how management will react to any of this. The good news is that a lot of their non-ideal guys are UFAs after this season. Polak, Komarov, Dominic Moore, and Tyler Bozak (the latter two are both fine, I guess) are all up for new deals. The Leafs have the option of not bringing back any of them, and should probably take that option. Especially because they still have to re-sign Willie Nylander (this summer), Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews (both next summer) among other RFAs. They’ll have plenty of money to spend, but how they spend it will dictate their ability to meaningfully compete for a Cup.

All of this goes without saying that you probably don’t want to draw too many conclusions from two, three, four, five games. But if we saw what the Leafs did last year with a free and easy approach to the sport, then we can understand clearly what Babcock’s attempts to keep things more conservative and traditional so far this year have mostly returned. The Leafs are in a good position for the playoffs, but it could arguably be better. That it’s not really isn’t their fault, fully, but this should be about maximizing potential while a good young core approaches its prime en masse.

That anyone should have to tell them this, or show them only when multiple old, slow, ineffective guys are physically incapable of playing is an organizational failing.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The thing about that third-place spot in the Pacific is someone has to take it even if it seems like no one wants to.

Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes getting “embarrassed seems about right at this point.

Boston Bruins: Lots of college guys on the Bruins. No wonder they’re having so much success.

Buffalo Sabres: Yeah you can totally see Eichel being one of those “TOM BRADY GOAT THE PATS AHHHH” guys.

Calgary Flames: It’s almost impossible to believe it took a game against Chicago for this Flames team to snap a six-game losing streak but here we are. They should be so much better than this. It’s perplexing.

Carolina Hurricanes: I don’t think we’re ever gonna figure out what Jeff Skinner’s deal is offensively.

Chicago Blackhawks: This team just really isn’t that good.

Colorado Avalanche: Remember when this team won 10 in a row and got back into the thick of the Central’s playoff race? Yeah they’ve lost four of the last five, and their only win was in overtime.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Speaking of which, Columbus is reeling. Two regulation wins since Dec. 21. That seems impossible.

Dallas Stars: This, well, it was ugly.

Detroit Red Wings: I guess this is like in baseball where a manager gets himself thrown out arguing balls and strikes over a clear backwards-K just to fire up the boys. But Jeff Blashill doing it in a loss to the Panthers is seriously the who-cares-est thing in the world. The Red Wings are a 61-101 baseball team. Take it easy.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers love Brandon Davidson, whom they traded for David Desharnais less than a year ago.

Florida Panthers: It’s a three-game winning streak for the Panthers. All they need to do now is win like 14 more in a row and I think they have a good shot at the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings: It’s been a year of weird shutout streaks. Darcy Kuemper hasn’t allowed a goal in the last 170:30. I dunno.

Minnesota Wild: It’s crazy how not-healthy the Wild have been this year.

Montreal Canadiens: I love that we still don’t know what Marc Bergevin is gonna do at the deadline. That’s incredible. This team is about two games away from being eliminated.

Nashville Predators: Sometimes you see Bob McKenzie say the Predators may be looking to add a significant piece at the deadline and you go, “Ah that’s smart.” And then you watch them crumple an okay Rangers team like it’s the easiest thing in the world and you go, “Ah that’s scary.”

New Jersey Devils: The Devils have won three in a row after dressing 11 forwards and seven defensemen for all of them. This, too, might be the future of the NHL. Few are paying attention to it yet.

New York Islanders: I guess “pays off” is one way to put it since they won, but they also gave up 49 shots on goal, so…

New York Rangers: Two Rangers got head-shotted against the Preds but only one resulted in a call with DOPS. No one knows what’s a suspension-worthy hit and no one knows what goaltender interference is. Great league.

Ottawa Senators: Ah, snatching victory from the jaws of…. victory?

Philadelphia Flyers: Okay, alright. You try figuring this team out, because I’m all set. Let the chips fall where they may, baby!!!

Pittsburgh Penguins: Zach Aston-Reese! I love him!

San Jose Sharks: Pete DeBoer says the power play has been a big key for success for San Jose since the middle of November. How about this one, Pete: San Jose’s power play has been a big key for its success for about a decade.

St. Louis Blues: Okay, I’ll say it: Carter Hutton for Hart. Harter… Hartton??

Tampa Bay Lightning: Columns like this should be illegal. Morally wrong.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The loss on Saturday was the first time Freddie Andersen ever lost to Boston. That’s wild.

Vancouver Canucks: Just trade the Sedins!

Vegas Golden Knights: Barry Trotz being extremely bitter about how good the Vegas roster is? That’s very funny.

Washington Capitals: Sometimes in a loss there’s not a lot to discuss. You just get run out of the building. It happens.

Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck should be quietly sliding into a lot of Vezina conversations at this point.

Play of the Weekend

This kid, man.

Gold Star Award

Sean Monahan ran Chicago out of the building on Saturday: the OT game-winner, sure, but also 11 shot attempts, eight of which were on net, a plus-6 CF despite playing against the Kane line. Pretty good.

Minus of the Weekend

Ryan Miller gave up three goals on seven shots in 10:13 to Montreal!!!!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “InDucheWeTrust” is playing 9-dimensional chess.

1 for 1

Karlsson for Tavares

The first reply is perfect.

Signoff

Oh, no. I said “steamed hams.” That’s what I call hamburgers.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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