The Maple Leafs made a quick trip home after their 3-2 shootout loss to Washington on Saturday and took to the ice at their practice facility Monday morning knowing that, while they’ve played long stretches of solid hockey, nothing less than a nearly-flawless performance will get them the results they’re seeking. And, while they’ve still got a ways to go in that respect, the Buds believe they’re going through the process the proper way.
“I think they've practiced real hard,” head coach Mike Babcock said of his team Monday after practice. “I think as they understand more they get better and get used to what you expect. You don't have to explain quite as much. I think our guys have worked, I don't think that's been an issue at all for us. They've worked in the weight room and been professional and gotten after it in practice, so that's a positive.”
To a man, Leafs players are also keeping upbeat, even in the face of small breakdowns that wind up costing them a standings point or two. They don’t feel as if any member of the team is letting them down. Rather, they’re looking at cleaning up some small areas of their collective game and capitalizing on the opposition’s mistakes.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say (we’re having) letdowns, I’d say just miscues,” said winger James van Riemsdyk. “It’s not like we’re deviating, it’s just sometimes certain plays we’re not making the right reads and the right plays. But I think we’ve been fairly consistent, and we’ve just got to tighten some of those miscues up.”
“We’re happy with the way we’re playing right now,” added defensemen Morgan Rielly. “We’ve played two good games where we’ve had the chance to beat some pretty good teams. We’re going into Dallas, a team we just played, so we know what we have to do. It’s just a matter of playing a full game and playing well, and not making any mistakes.”
The way they cut down on those mistakes is by repetition and learning, and Babcock’s practices give Leafs players opportunities in both those regards. The tempo is high from the coach’s first whistle to his last, and he takes time to speak to players individually and the team as a whole to communicate what he expects. And his charges are buying in.
“He’s been a lot about details and preaching the little things,” centre Nick Spaling said of Babcock. “It translates a lot into our games. I think our team is pretty detailed. We’ve got some things to correct as a team, but he’s got us focusing on playing that team game, and I think we’re moving in the right direction here.”
Added van Riemsdyk: “He’s a good teacher and a good communicator. He knows guys are putting in the effort and trying, it’s just a matter of dialing things in a little bit more. I think he’s been pleased for the most part with how we’ve been working out there, and it’s going to start going our way if we keep going.”
If there’s anyone who epitomizes Toronto’s early-season pattern of solid work but slow results, it’s centre Nazem Kadri, who has just one goal and five points in 14 games despite leading the team in shots with 60. But nobody is down on the 25-year-old, including himself. Indeed, his teammates and coaches are pleased with what they’ve seen from him both in games and in practice.
“Obviously, for the amount he has had the puck and the amount of offence he has created, he'd like to score more,” Babcock said of Kadri. “We’d like him to score more too. To me, the competitive part of his game, his play without the puck, the way he is playing has been a vast improvement almost game-in, game-out. We've just got to keep him going.”
“He’s getting a ton of chances, and they’re eventually going to start falling,” added van Riemsdyk. “He’s doing a lot of other things really well, I think he’s been off to a good start to the season, and he’ll start getting some puck luck and things will start going in for him soon.”