The Leafs still have plenty to be excited about. But a horrible 7-0 loss on their own turf reminded everyone how far they have to go.
Hey, he promised pain. Let’s not forget.
It’s been more than a year since coach Mike Babcock made the much-quoted proclamation about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ future. The “pain” meant serious suffering in the standings for the rebuilding franchise that had just hired him. Babcock’s first season delivered on that promise, with Toronto plummeting to last overall, a necessary sacrifice to stuff the NHL draft lottery bowl with ping-pong balls. The pain led to the ultimate gain, with Toronto indeed winning the lottery.
But as Babcock bag skated his Leaf troops Wednesday through pitch black after a power failure at the MasterCard Centre, it was a sobering reminder: the pain wasn’t going to subside after one season. Yes, 2016-17 feels unlike any other Leaf season, well, ever. They’ve never rebuilt their team this way, with the youngest roster in the sport, relying on a brand-new generation of peach-fuzzed talent and trusting the fan base would be patient. Seeing Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, all top-10 draft picks, filling the net has felt surreal. The Leafs are suddenly something people can watch for entertainment – even fans of other teams.
But just because Toronto is infinitely more fun, just because it finally looks to be ascending as a franchise, just because it won three straight games before Tuesday’s tilt with the L.A. Kings, didn’t mean the suffering was over. This team has miles to go, and it was emphatically apparent on the scoresheet. The Kings marched into town, took a Toronto team that was 4-1 in its own building and had scored three or more goals in all five of those games…and utterly erased it. The final score was 7-0 and, honestly, that didn’t even do the game justice. The Kings didn’t win with a few good bounces. They outshot the Leafs 43-19. Factoring in attempts that got blocked and missed the net, a.k.a. Corsi: L.A. had a 5-on-5 edge of 58.62 percent to 41.38 percent.
“It was a humbling experience for our players and myself here in our building,” Babcock said. “We’ve got a lot of real good fans who come and support us and want to watch us play.
“When they competed, when they played heavy and they won battles, we didn’t win any battles,” Babcock said. “We didn’t play heavy. We didn’t finish any checks. We didn’t win any races. And they won them all. Give them credit. They were way better than us. Way more organized, way more prepared to compete at a high level.”
What really stood out was how the Kings won. Captain Anze Kopitar spoke earlier that day at the Kings’ morning skate about taking away Toronto’s time and space, and that’s exactly what L.A. did, rendering Toronto’s high-flying forwards useless. The Kings outmuscled the Leafs at every turn and killed scoring chances before they even crossed the blueline. Center Tyler Bozak marvelled at how clean L.A. was in the neutral zone and how many turnovers it forced.
It’s just one game, of course, and it’s already two days old. But instead of burning the game film, the Leafs can take something away from it. They’ve become adept at using their speed to overwhelm teams, but they don’t yet have an answer for a grinding, smothering “Western Conference” style of opponent. They’re not quite mature enough to adapt and simplify their game when the situation calls for it.
Amazingly, the Leafs lead the NHL in Corsi For per 60. No team does a better job generating shot attempts on the opposing goal – not even the Kings. But the Leafs sit 26th in Corsi Against per 60. They haven’t figured out how to manage their own end yet. On Tanner Pearson’s goal Tuesday night, Matthews got caught leaving the zone without the puck, allowing Kopitar to cruise in uncontested and thread a one-timer pass to Pearson. The Blue and White have shown the ability to put teams back on their heels – but not a mature, fundamentally sound team like the Kings. Not yet.
“They’ve been a good team for a long time,” said defenseman Morgan Rielly. “We’re a group that wants to get to that level. We want to be one of the best teams going in this league. They showed us that we have a long way to go.”
And that’s OK. Even with the glory of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the Leafs won’t transform into a contender overnight. The 7-0 humiliation was a reminder for everyone to turn the hype machine down a few notches. The Leafs are going places, but they have a lot of growing up to do. There will be plenty of highs this season and plenty more nights like Tuesday.
“Maybe we needed this to ground us a little bit,” said center Nazem Kadri. “But we’ve done a good job of staying humble. We know we have a lot of work to do. We’re going to get back to it and be ready for Friday.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin