Toronto Maple Leafs: View From The Blues

Leafs Nation are a passionate bunch! We wear our hearts on our sleeves and aren’t afraid to fight to make a point so it’s always an exciting time when a new trade rumour, free agent signing, or other Toronto Maple Leafs news hits the web. Every Tuesday morning, I’ll break down what’s “in the news” and give you my perspective. You know what they say about opinions- everybody has one, some just stink more than others! This is how I see it… in my VIEW FROM THE BLUES!


Babcock Speaks…


If you know me, or just read my bio here at Leafs Hub, then you’ll know that I have a background in coaching. I spent 12 years coaching minor hockey in the now defunct Scarborough Hockey Association (SHA) and the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League (MTHL) and for that reason, I look at the game differently than others. It’s the reason that I laugh when I hear people say Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner would make a great defence pair. It’s also the reason that I watched last year’s team and wondered why they had no interest in any kind of forecheck whatsoever. I also understand that the reason Phil Kessel had to leave Toronto had nothing to do with his stats.

 

Regardless of the age or skill level of their players, a coach’s duties involve a lot more than just creating the best line combinations and running practice drills that look great. A coach is supposed to “own the dressing room” and identify and repair problems before they become bigger ones. It’s called leadership and it’s something that our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs have been lacking for quite a while. While many are quick to jump on number three for the lack of leadership in this group, it all starts with the man who puts the lineup out on the ice in the first place.

For instance, let’s look at the “salute-gate” fiasco from November of last year and how it was handled. With a president who was quietly judging his team from a private box way up in the ACC, the team’s top scorer (at the time) decided to become a martyr and call an audible on the traditional post-win routine that the team had adopted. The captain had the chance to nix the decision but chose not to, instead allowing the childish protest to take place. A few nights later, the whole situation seemed to get brushed under the rug as the team returned back to the happy stick-raising that the fans loved and adored.

I know what you’re thinking, what was Carlyle supposed to do about it? Bench five or six guys and make a big deal about it in the media? Of course not. In fact, short of an apology by the captain himself, there really wasn’t any other way that the situation could have been handled. The thing is, it could have been avoided altogether had the coach taken control of the dressing room prior to the incident happening.

Randy Carlyle came to Toronto on March 2, 2012 and brought his reputation as a tough, short-tempered coach with him. However, as time went on, something began to happen. More often than not, we would see him smiling during his post-game press conferences and even joking with the media. During my coaching years, I’ll be honest, I didn’t have many losing seasons. I figured out early that there was a fine line when dealing with your players. If you stray too far on either side, it won’t end well. Being a “drill seargent” will only make your players hate you and it won’t be any fun for them. Being too much of a friend will turn you into a doormat and your results will also suffer.

I believe that Carlyle saw the need to move away from his “hardass” approach and become more likeable to his players but softened too much and “lost the room.” The team’s highest paid player was allowed to dog it and it had been said that he was the last player on the ice at practice and the first one off. Meanwhile, he would throw other players, James Reimer for example, under the bus by publicly criticizing them.

On May 20 of this year, after months of speculation, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally got their man in 52-year old Mike Babcock. If you haven’t checked out this great article by the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger than you truly are missing out on something special. I have no doubt that we now have the right man to lead this team back into the upper echelons of the NHL. A few of the highlights…

When asked about leaving the familar confines of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena and taking on the new challenge of coaching in Toronto, Babcock says he’s ready.

“New is exciting. It scares the crap out of you, to be honest with you. And so, that gets you on your toes and gets you dialed in.”

 

Have the Leafs lost the respect around the league that they once had?

“We’re an Original Six franchise that doesn’t hold our rightful place in the National Hockey league right now. We will.”

The Leafs have fallen out of grace lately and it’s been hard to attract players over the past few years but he says that will change.

“Maybe not now, but they are going to come. What was the line in that movie Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come. So, there ya go.”

Will he feel pressure? Of course but he says it won’t get to him.

“The reality is, I’m the coach of this team. I’m not carrying the weight of the world on my back. I’m going to go to work in the morning. I’m going to work as hard as I can. I’m going to go home to my family and then the next day I’m going to do it again. But if you think I’m carrying around the weight of the world, I didn’t do it when I coached Canada at the Olympics (and) I didn’t do it when I coached Detroit. If you think you can evaluate me harder than I evaluate myself, you are missing the boat. That isn’t happening.”

Not many believe that the Leafs are good enough to make the playoffs this season. So what’s the gameplan for this team?

“We want to be a team that comes to training camp well-prepared. We want to establish a structure and a strong work ethic. We’re going to build that through the exhibition schedule. We want to be a team that gets better every day. That’s my expectation. Are there going to be ups and downs? There always are. But to me, we are going to be very process-oriented and try to get better. As far as how we handle ourselves off the ice, it’s going to be about how we handle ourselves period. And to that end, we’re going to be pros.”

“What does a pro do? I think a lot of people on the outside think a pro is someone who gets a salary, gets paid. To me, that has nothing to do with it. To me, a pro is someone who lives it. You sleep it. You eat it. You train it. You lift it. You practise it. To me, when you do that, you don’t get in your own way and you give yourself the best chance to be the best you can be.”

“We need (Nazem) Kadri to be the best Kadri he can be. We need (Tyler) Bozak to be the best Bozak he can be. We need (Morgan) Rielly to be the best Rielly he can be. And the same we feel about the coaching staff, training staff, sports science staff … we need everyone to be the best they can be. And we’re going to hold everyone to be accountable to that.”

He will work with some strong personalities here in Toronto in Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello. Is this going to work?

“Kenny Holland is a strong personality. Bryan Murray is a strong personality. These are guys I’ve worked with successfully in the past. That’s why I’ve tried to hire people with an opinion who want to be difference-makers, who want to have an impact. I’m a big believer in no tip-toeing. It doesn’t matter what position you have in the company, you don’t tip-toe around people. You tell him the truth each and every day. It’s been great with Lou and Shanny.”

“We’ve had a lot of great discussions. And, for that matter, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, Brandon Pridham. They’re all excellent people. And we’ve hired a real good medical team/sports science team that works with our players. They all have an opinion on what’s best, too. So, we have lots of debate every day and then we come up with the best way.”

Some thoughts on players who have had some rough times recently here in Toronto..

Dion Phaneuf…

“He’s going to have the best year he’s had in a long time. He’s prepared hard all summer. Were going to help him with his game and he’s going to help us by being the player he’s capable of being. And we’re going to look after him. We’re not leaving him hung out to dry, either on the ice, with the media or in town. This is going to be a safe place for players to play.”

“When things go good in your life, you’re likely to see more positives. When things are going bad in your life, it’s hard. Guys are sticking microphones in your face and you’re supposed to have all the answers. I don’t think that’s fair. We are going to do is make sure Dion gets at least one day a week off from the media. You know, Nick Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Kris Draper … they had those guys out lots in front of the press too. It’s not supposed to be a grindfest.”

Nazem Kadri…

“I’ve talked to him a number of times both in person and on the phone. I think he’s had a real good summer, a journey in which he’s trying to get better and improve himself. You know, I’ve talked about being a pro. That goes for him and everyone else on the team. It affects how you conduct yourself off the ice, how you train, the kind of summer you have.”

“He moved back to London to be with his family. He has a great family. They care about him a lot. They want him to be the best Naz he can be and that’s what we’re going to try to do. My expectation for him is that he’s as prepared as he’s ever been when training camp starts and he gets better each and every day, It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a process.”

We’re all excited about the changes that have been made by Brendan Shanahan in the past 16 months but none will make more of an impact than the hiring of Mr. Babcock. Right now, he’s saying all the right things and there’s no reason to believe that his actions won’t mirror those words.

Personally, I am waiting to see what happens the first time that someone tests his patience. Will Tyler Bozak continue on the downward spiral that some say started last season? Will Nazem Kadri mature into the great player and quality person that the new regime seem to covet? Will any of the young players sulk or pout if sent back to the AHL? I hope all goes well but it seems inevitable that something will happen at some point that will force Mike’s hand. The question is..when?


The Rookie Tournament…


The Leafs hosted their annual Rookie Tournament at Budweiser Gardens in London, ON this past weekend. If you ever have the opportunity to catch a game at this top-notch facility then I advise you to do so because there is not a bad seat in the house.

The Leafs dressed a young team with little experience above the junior level and didn’t play anyone over 20 until goaltender Garret Sparks played the final game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night. In comparison, the Ottawa Senators chose to dress 22-year old Matt Puempel, who was playing in his fourth rookie tournament. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster included 21-year old Derrick Pouliot who split last season between the NHL and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL.

With that being said, the club was competitive in every contest and completely dominated the Penguins in a 6-2 victory in the final game of the tournament.

I had the opportunity to attend the game on Saturday night when the Leafs took on the Montreal Canadiens. It was a chippy and aggressive affair and just goes to show that no matter what the level of competition is, the bad blood between the Leafs and Habs is always there.

Tournament Notes…

  • The Leafs had two 20-year old OHL goaltenders on the roster as camp invites and it didn’t take long for the organization to make changes. After a weak performance from Lucas Peressini of the Kingston Frontenacs on Friday night, Garret Sparks was brought in Saturday morning to join the team in practice. Guelph Storm netminder Justin Nichols was better on Saturday night, but untimely goals again hurt the team who had outshot the Habs 51-36 in a 6-4 loss. Sparks made the start in the final game and was spectacular at times though the second goal was a bit weak. Both Peressini and Nichols were at the Prospects Camp in July, but were upstaged by NCAA goaltenders Collin Delia and Alex Lyon. Both were unable to play in this tournament due to college commitments.

 

  • Just seeing the Penguins Scott Wilson chase Mitch Marner around the ice on Sunday night was a prime example of why players like Justin Johnson and Rich Clune are needed with the Toronto Marlies this season. Later, when Derrick Pouliot viciously cross-checked young Mitch in the face, it became quite clear why both were signed to AHL contracts this summer. There will be plenty more where that came from and there has to be an answer when skilled young players like Nylander, Kapanen, and Brown are the subject of bully attempts by other teams. There was no answer on Sunday with Peterborough Petes defenceman Cam Lizotte not dressed.

 

  • Not Leafs-related but the best name in the tournament goes to Ottawa’s Buddy Robinson. He sounds like an 80’s pro wrestler. I’m going to call him the “Nature Boy” from now on. “Nature Boy” Buddy Robinson! It’s got a ring to it!

Player Notes…

William Nylander- What can you say about the kid? Was head and shoulders above everyone else in the two games he played. Something tells me he’s going to give Mike Babcock a very tough decision to make in the next few weeks.

Kasperi Kapanen- Showed some blazing speed sneaking past the Ottawa defense on a breakaway in the first game but rang it off the crossbar. Looked great on a line in with Nylander and Timashov.

Frederik Gauthier- Comes exactly as advertised. Great on faceoffs and very hard to move in front of the net on the power play. Needs to work on his skating but should be a big part of Sheldon Keefe’s Marlies this season.

Dmytro Timashov- Continued to show his slick skating and puckhandling this weekend. May be guilty of being too pretty and over-handling at times but he’s young. He should have a big year in the QMJHL this season.

Martins Dzierkals- The Latvian was drafted 68th overall in this year’s draft and will play with Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL next season. Considering not many people knew much about him, Dzierkals has looked pretty damn good so far. He followed up a great prospects camp in July with a decent performance in this tournament. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of numbers he puts up in North America this season.

Nikita Soshnikov- The 22-year-old Russian was supposed to attend the Leafs’ prospect camp in Collingwood back in July but ran into visa problems so this was our first look at him. He wore number 90 and it didn’t take long for him to be noticed in the opening game against the Sens. He’s quick, feisty, and aggressive on the forecheck. The type of player that any coach, including Babcock, can easily fall in love with. The question is: will that game continue against grown men who are regulars in the NHL?

Nikita Korostolev- There are many that rave about the 18-year-old Russian, even going so far as to rate him higher than Timashov. I’ve been to the prospects camp in Collingwood and have seen him play two rookie tournament games. I’m still waiting for the “wow!” Korostolev is the only player from the 2015 draft class that was sent back to junior without an invitation to main camp.

Rinat Valiev- Anyone who calls this kid a mediocre prospect quite simply doesn’t know their hockey. It’s hard to believe that I actually read that somewhere but if you look, you’ll find it. It’s out there. I’ve spoken to Todd Crocker and Jude MacDonald who in turn have spoken to a lot of people. Rinat Valiev is a top shelf prospect who is going to do some great things in the next little while. He showed that this weekend in games against the Senators and Penguins. He’s a good skater and a great puck mover and doesn’t avoid the rough stuff. Threw a big hit on a Penguin prospect and then wasn’t afraid to defend himself in a retaliatory scrap.

Travis Dermott- I remember how I initially felt back on June 26. I had been raving about Travis Konecny for weeks and was hoping that he would be available for the Buds at 24. After holding my breath through each pick, you can imagine my relief when the Ottawa 67’s forward was still available. Then the unthinkable happened. I just didn’t understand when they traded the pick to the Philadelphia Flyers, who of course took Konecny. The Leafs would eventually get three picks for the 24th and used them to take Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, and Martins Dzierkals. I get it now. Dermott is a total package kind of defenceman. Great skater? Check. Great passer? Check. Great shot? Check. He also has an aggressive side and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. I would have been fine with him at 24. The fact that we also got Bracco and Dzierkals is even better.

Michael Joly- On a tryout with the team, Joly made himself noticeable on almost every shift. Has definitely earned himself an invite to the main camp. As much as I like his game, it has to be noted that this was in fact a rookie tournament. It remains to be seen whether Joly’s skills will translate the same way against NHL regulars.

Nikolas Brouillard- The young defenceman was impressive in the games that he played, showing poise, grit, and an offensive side to his game. Unfortunately, an injury sustained in the tournament has severely damaged his chances at securing a professional contract.


The Blue N’ White Tonight Podcast…


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It was an eventful weekend as the entire crew of The Blue N’ White Tonight made the journey to London for Saturday night’s game between the Leafs and Canadiens. On Sunday morning, a very tired host, co-host, and producer talked about PTO’s and Mike Babcock before being joined by Leafs Hub’s own Jude MacDonald to discuss several topics including the site itself and the rookie tournament.



Next Week… 

We’ve only been on the air for 4 episodes but we’ve already had some great guests including former Leaf Greg Terrion and “The Voice of the Marlies” Todd Crocker. You may have first seen this week’s guest if you grew up in the Toronto or Hamilton area and watched Channel 11. He spent almost 17 years (1981-1998) as a sports anchor and university play by-play man for CHCH Television. All Leafs fans will of course recognize him as the rinkside and intermission host for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Of course, we can only be talking about Paul Hendrick who will be joining us from Leafs training camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Don’t miss this one!



Coming Soon…

We have some very great guests lined up as always including the one on our September 27th show! There’s a rule that we have at The Blue N’ White Tonight Podcast. We never announce a guest until the week before so you’ll obviously have to catch next week’s show with Henny to find out! I do guarantee that you’ll may just pee yourself when you hear who it is!


Tweet of the Week…


This week’s “Tweet of the Week” includes a great picture taken at the Leafs-Habs rookie tournament game after a great tilt featuring Cameron Lizotte and Michael McCarron.

It kind of sends a chill up your spine to know that hockey is back and so is the bad blood between the two teams!

Please send all comments, opinions, and hate mail to: retoronto71@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @robb_ellis

I’ll catch ya next week… UP HERE IN THE BLUES!!!-

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