Leafs brass urges caution
Babcock, Lamoriello warn East is a tough conference and playoffs not a given
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs begin the franchise’s 101st season with a course in Reality 101.
MikeBabcockandLouLamoriello were at the lectern Thursday, both Stanley Cup winners who know that the team’s 95 points last season, a 26-point jump forward, was still just one point better than the Lightning and the Islanders, who both missed the playoffs.
It could be that, instead of a step up, these Leafs go home after 82 games, another hazard on the notso-straight path to a Stanley Cup for many young teams who learn the hard way. And that stumble would come with the trumpeted additions of Patrick Marleau, Dominic Moore and Ron Hainsey.
“When you go through all the teams in the East, you say, ‘they’re better, they’re better and they’re better,’ ” Babcock remarked Thursday at the opening of training camp. “Every team that’s meeting with the press today thinks they’re better.
“We’re all not going to make the playoffs, so let’s just focus on getting better and the rest will look after itself. What I do know, you have to get out of the gate in the first 20 games. Camp is so important to get off to a good start.
“I used to say, if you’re playing on my birthday (April 29), you’ve had a good year, that means you’re starting the third round. I haven’t seen a third round since I can remember.”
Babcock coached some great teams in Detroit and Anaheim, but also thinks he knows what breeds complacency — a summer of travel, golf and leisure that distracts from what players were told in spring exit meetings. Babcock saw little of that, however, when he dropped by summer skates at the MasterCard Centre or watching last week’s rookie tournament.
“What I’ve found is that the hungrier you are, the more you pursue knowledge,” the bench boss added. “I think our guys did that this summer. We had lots of resources here, with our sports science guys and our skill coaches. Some teams don’t like it much, but we do when players get outside help to improve your game. They’ve done the work, it showed in their fitness tests so far and I think it will show this year.”
From Lamoriello’s angle as GM, it was a productive summer, the last quiet one he’ll have before contract clouds gather for William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and the GM gets bombarded with James van Riemsdyk trade questions.
Lamoriello signed Connor Brown and other RFAs and stuffed the other roster skeletons back in the closet by reporting Thursday that Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul both failed their physicals, freeing up almost US$11 million in cap space.
He repeated for the hundredth time that Matthews nor anyone else will be captain, and then made the feel-good announcement that loyal soldier Roman Polak will get a PTO when on-ice practice begins Friday in Niagara Falls, Ont.
“I’m excited, our players are excited, but you have to temper that,” Lamoriello said. “The season we had was real good and it was a good playoff, but we did not win. We’re still into growing. I feel an excitement with the players, but it’s under control. We will have to wait and see what the end result is.”
The Leafs have the all-important goaltending, with Frederik Andersen healthy and talking about appearing in 65-plus games, after 66 last year, 33 of them wins.
“It’s nice to prove to yourself you can play pretty much every night,” said Andersen, who a year ago was recovering from a leg injury and feeling like a fish out of water in his new city. “But (burnout) is not so much what I worry about. It’s up to the coaching staff.”
So many doomsayers are predicting the Leafs are an Andersen injury away from falling off the ladder, but Babcock sees no reason the Dane won’t reach 60 appearances and beyond.
“Sixty and 22 (for back-up Curtis McElhinney) sounds like good math to me,” Babcock said. “We’ll see how healthy he is, if he can go on the back-to-backs. The better we play, the easier it is on a goaltender.
“Freddy’s been here, he’s used to you guys, used to his (US$25million) contract, he’s in better shape than he’s ever been in his life, which is huge for him. He should play a little more.”
While Andersen has a longterm deal, van Riemsdyk faces yet another round of trade rumours, because it’s supposedly impossible to bring him back next year and shell out for the kids.
“This is the first time in my career going through something like this,” van Riemsdyk said. “But as far as that shakes out, we have a bigger goal as a team. Individual stuff takes a backseat.”
Entering his sixth season in Toronto, having arrived when Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf were considered the nucleus of a playoff contender, van Riemsdyk is also preaching some caution.
“Everyone starts the year at the same point,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much buzz or hype or positivity you have around your group, you have to go out there and prove it on the ice.” firstname.lastname@example.org