LEAFS STILL GETTING UP TO SPEED DESPITE RECORD
Babcock says forward line combinations and assignments will continue to change
Right now, we just have to get playing. That’s our focus. Get everybody up and running and we will go from there.
On paper, all of Mike Babcock’s ducks are in a row.
The coach knows, however, that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ picture is far from being complete.
Through 34 games, the Leafs find themselves in second place overall in the National Hockey League with 46 points, eight behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Leafs have been lucky in a sense, as they have lost just 17 man-games to injuries.
Star centre Auston Matthews hasn’t come all the way back after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury and William Nylander remains on a long road, having played in just six games after signing a contact on Dec. 1. Babcock intimated his lineup — we’re talking at forward — remains in a state of flux as Matthews and Nylander work to return to their highest levels.
With that in mind, as much as Babcock likes to match lines, he is not yet settled on which difficult assignments each of his top three centres — Matthews, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri — might draw on a nightly basis.
“Not one bit, and I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time worrying about it,” Babcock said after the Leafs practised at the MasterCard Centre on Wednesday.
“I’m going to get everyone up and running, and then I’ll spend probably 10 games in a row of each guy getting their opportunity, so they’re ready for any matchup come playoff time.
“Right now, we just have to get playing. That’s our focus. Get everybody up and running and we will go from there.”
Neither goaltender Frederik Andersen nor winger Zach Hyman participated in practice on Wednesday, as both were given the day to rest. Both will be in the lineup on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena when the Leafs play host to the Florida Panthers, Babcock said.
In Andersen’s absence, the Leafs summoned York University goalie Alex Fotinos to guard what otherwise would have been an empty net.
No one expected Nylander to start tearing up the NHL in his first shift and Babcock is the least concerned of anyone. Nylander has two points — a pair of assists against Carolina last week.
While Nylander respects the fact that there is catching up to do, he’s fighting against becoming impatient when he sees the lack of scoring beside his name.
“It gets to the point where you’re going to be mad, but you want to get going (and producing),” Nylander said. “You want to perform.”
Babcock insinuated that had Nylander not taken so long to sign a contract, the player would be in a better state on the ice.
“There was a way to solve that, wasn’t there?” Babcock said. “I didn’t say that (to Nylander) but I mean, come on. What are you getting frustrated for?
“If you don’t come to training camp and you don’t start the year … there was business to be done and he got his business done, but now the business to be done is to get up and running.
“Getting frustrated with yourself or disappointed or whatever word you want, it’s just a total waste of energy. Get excited. You’re playing in the National Hockey League. Get to work and fight your way back. Nobody is surprised (that Nylander is taking a while to get on track). Nobody. I’m not concerned about it. Dig in and get playing.”
At some point, the expectation is Babcock will reunite Matthews and Nylander. It’s not something that is at the forefront for Matthews, as much as he would like to skate alongside Nylander again.
“We have so much skill on this team, it doesn’t really matter who you play with,” said Matthews, who has been flanked by Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, “and if we continue to win, I think it doesn’t really matter what the lines are, as long as we are playing well, playing hard and winning games.”
Fact is, these are trivial matters for the Leafs, who have won 22 games.
The match against the Panthers will be the first of nine of 11 at home and, stretching the calendar further, the Leafs will play 11 of their next 15 games in Toronto.
The Leafs are 9-5-1 at Scotiabank, a record that includes six wins in their past seven.
“We have been waiting for this stretch all year,” Kadri said. “The last couple of weeks it has been quite the grind with the travelling and getting in really late.
“But we got through it and we’re pretty happy with how we’re playing. It’s time to take a stand at home.”
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock says he is not worried about William Nylander’s slow start since joining the team on Dec. 1, and is certainly not surprised by it considering Nylander’s long absence.