With more than 25 percent of the 2015-16 NHL regular season completed, the Maple Leafs were making the most of a lull in their schedule: neither starting goalie James Reimer
nor veteran winger Joffrey Lupul
were on the ice with the team Wednesday – although both are expected to return to action in Toronto’s next game Saturday against Washington. Head coach Mike Babcock worked with his players to address a number of areas at the team’s west-end practice facility.
And, just as the game has evolved over the years, so too has practice.
“They’re a little shorter, there’s a little more pace to them, the drills relate more to games with that up-tempo,” said winger Brad Boyes, now in his 11th NHL season, of the difference in practices he’s noticed. “Before, they were slowing things down a lot: you’re doing skills stuff early, and then you do some systems stuff later, where now it’s almost always incorporating systems stuff. There’s not as much individual skills stuff. You get a bit of a warmup, and then that’s it. So that’s the biggest change: we don’t do individual stuff that often anymore. We used to do a lot more.”
Babcock’s practices are, for the most part, a continuous burst of energy, with short breaks to focus on strategy and skill development. On and off the ice, time is of the essence for Babcock, and his philosophy on practice is no different.
“I just try to make them go as fast as they can and understand what they have to do so they don’t have to think in games,” Babcock said. “I believe execution in practice leads to execution in games. I think going fast in practice leads to going fast in games. I also believe players don’t want you to waste their time – they want you to be organized, they want to work, and they want to get off the ice. They don’t want to stand around. So that’s what I try to do each and every day.”
On some teams that have superstar talents leading the way, functioning as a series of five-man units may not always be the primary focus during practices. But with no true superstar to lean on, the Leafs have to work in practice on developing their game as a number of small groups. To their credit, they’re recognizing that no one player can or should be trying to do too much. Practice is about coming together for intense workout sessions and using what limited time they have to bond and learn about one another’s tendencies and talents.
“We’ve got to get stuff out of it,” Boyes said of practice. “We’re at a level now where we’ve got to know what we’re doing out on the ice as a team, and as a unit. That’s the way the game’s going – we’re playing five-man units now. It’s not as much of an individual game. As we go as a unit – especially with our team; we don’t have a (Sidney) Crosby – we play well as a five-man unit. That’s our strength.”
With the high-octane Capitals coming in Saturday to Air Canada Centre, Buds players have a clear understanding of what their primary focus is: keeping Washington’s top offensive talents at bay and cutting down on the number of shots and opportunities they give up in their own zone. Defensemen Morgan Rielly feels confident they’re going to get that job done.
“We’re working hard,” Rielly said. “We’re trying to manage the defensive zone, we’re trying to work on the odd-man rushes and limit those chances against. That’s the most important thing – make sure everybody knows where they’re going, and we know our jobs.”