Take, for example, a defensive zone faceoff late in a tie game on Saturday night.
Maurice had young centre Matt Stajan handle the draw against Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and watched as his team survived the final 23 seconds of regulation to get to overtime.
“I know you’ve got to coach to win every shift, every situation, but we’ve got young players that have to be put in some roles,” Maurice said Saturday after Toronto’s 3-2 shootout loss to Montreal. “I just thought that (Stajan) was going pretty good and he deserved to feel like we had some confidence in him.”
It’s the sort of move that can easily get lost in the minutiae of a game, but that doesn’t make it any less significant for the player involved.
Stajan was a fitting recipient of his coach’s confidence. The 22-year-old came to training camp expecting to see his role increased this year, only to find himself on the fourth line during the pre-season because Maurice was concerned about his fitness level.
It was left to Stajan to step up his play and earn more ice time, which he has done with each game in the regular season. He played over 16 minutes on Saturday and scored his first goal of the year.
“Paul’s been great, he let’s us know (where we stand),” Stajan said. “He rewards hard work. If you’re working hard and your fitness is up and you’re making the right plays, you’re going to play.”
It’s no coincidence that Stajan found himself on the ice for a crucial play late in the game against Montreal. Maurice believes that kind of move motivates not just the player, but others on the team who are looking for more responsibility.
The overall result early this season has been a Leafs team that has consistently competed harder. Toronto has shown more speed and created more chances than a year ago, when it had trouble scoring at even strength and ultimately missed the playoffs.
When Maurice was preparing for his first season as Leafs coach, he knew he needed to get the most from his players.
“As a staff we have a very, very clear idea about how the game is played now and how you have to work to play that game,” he said.
It appears to be working so far.
Mats Sundin has gotten more ice time this season and has looked rejuvenated, scoring four points in three games while demonstrating flashes of dominance.
Just as importantly, the Leafs have also seen some spirited efforts from guys other than their steady captain. Kyle Wellwood (five assists) has been slick on Sundin’s wing, Darcy Tucker (three goals) and Chad Kilger (two goals) have shown some scoring touch and guys like Michael Peca and Stajan have played well at both ends of the ice.
Even though the team is just 1-1-1, there is a strong sense of optimism in the dressing room. Toronto is averaging 37.3 shots per game and looks like it won’t have trouble scoring.
“I don’t think we had three games where we had this many shots all year last year,” said Tucker. “As a hockey club, we’re much improved in skating and putting pucks in the net.”
Naturally, Maurice does have some concerns.
The Leafs missed the net with 25 shot attempts against the Canadiens and had another 16 blocked. That’s a ton of missed opportunities.
“We’ve asked these players to work as hard as they possibly can and it looks like they’re doing that with their shots,” Maurice said. “We’re blasting them over the net and trying to kill the goaltender.
“It’s the one area where I’d like to see us slightly ease up.”
The shootout also continues to haunt them. The Leafs were just 3-7 last year during the first season with the tiebreaking format and ended up missing the playoffs by two points.
That extra point can be huge and Toronto has trouble grabbing it. Sundin scored on the Leafs’ first attempt Saturday but Wellwood, Tucker and Alexei Ponikarovsky were all stopped by David Aebischer.
Maurice would eventually like to use the shootout as a “team-building exercise” by giving different guys a chance – even lumbering defenceman Hal Gill.
The Leafs could use an injection of confidence when it comes to taking shootouts.
“You’ve got to be prepared for it,” said Wellwood, who is 0-for-2 on shootout attempts in his NHL career. “You’ve got to end up making that a strong point, not something you dread going in to.”
Failing that, Maurice has an even better idea.
He hopes his team wins enough games in regulation that their shootout record is of little consequence at the end of the year.
“It’s only a factor if it’s allowed to be,” he said.