As the Maple Leafs near the 20-game mark of their centennial season, they've built a stellar home record (7-2-0) to begin the year. None of Toronto's players see this as a surprise, they all believe they've got enough talent in the dressing room to compete with any team in the NHL - but there are some intriguing differences between the group the team's veterans looked at on paper in this past off-season, and the squad that's won six of their last nine games and put the league on notice they can hurt opponents with their speed, savvy and skill.
"I knew we were going to be younger and inject some of that skill these guys have into our lineup, (but) nothing's ever a sure thing until you see it in live action," said winger James van Riemsdyk when asked what's surprised him about this Leafs team. "You're never fully sure, but I think a lot of these young guys have come in and done a great job and continue to work at it. But we can't be satisfied. We've had an OK start, and now we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and expect our best game as many nights as possible."
"I knew our skill level would be high, but I didn't realize we'd have this many young guys in the lineup," added blueliner Matt Hunwick. "I knew we had some veteran guys coming back, and obviously not all of them are with us right now. I'm maybe a little surprised at that, but at the same time, I know these guys are pushing and they've been playing exceptionally well."
The youngsters to whom van Riemsdyk and Hunwick were referring - wingers Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Connor Brown; center Auston Matthews; and blueliners Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick - have made a notable impact on both the scoresheet and on the mind of Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. But Babcock pointed out that it isn't only the Leafs who are learning and adapting and growing their games, both individually and as units. The entire NHL - the younger, faster, smarter NHL - is filled with teams that have the capability to build on strong starts to the season. The ones who'll wind up qualifying for the post-season are the ones who can continue to evolve in a positive way right through the 82nd game of the year.
"You watch the first time you play a team and then you watch a second time - so you play Florida once and then you watch them again and you can't even believe it's the same team," Babcock said. "But every team in the league is taking drastic steps early. And so our guys have to take big steps, and you've got to have that youth growth as well. Not only do you (have) to get better structurally as a team, you've got to get better as players. So they're working hard at that each and every day. I think we're going in the right direction, (but) we've got a lot of work to do."
Toronto's next opponent - the Carolina Hurricanes, who arrive at Air Canada Centre to play the Leafs Tuesday night - is a perfect example of what Babcock is talking about. The Canes are a young group in transition and struggled immensely out of the gate this season, but they're in the midst of a four-game win streak that includes victories over expected playoff teams such as the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens.
Carolina also is coached by Bill Peters, who worked under Babcock in Detroit for three years and who employs a similar game strategy to the Leafs' bench boss. In many ways, Toronto's players are taking on an opponent who plays the way they do, making for an especially robust challenge.
"They're doing a lot of the same things we're doing," van Riemsdyk said of the Hurricanes, who've allowed just four goals in their current win streak. "Actually, it's kind of funny - they have some similar terminology to us, too. We know there's not going to be not a lot of room out there. It's going to be a hard-fought game, and we're going to have to put our work boots on tomorrow."
The Leafs are coming off a 2-1 loss to Montreal Saturday, and although they failed to get enough pucks past star goalie Carey Price, Toronto's players are seeing some of the fruits of their labour pay dividends. They haven't yet had even a full quarter of a regular-season together, but they can see a core of talent forming, and one that is likely to remain intact in the years ahead.
That knowledge builds comfort and confidence, and the task that remains is proving to Buds fans, management and the hockey world that this team can succeed as it grows together.
"Everyone's come in and bought into the system and followed everyone's lead," centre Nazem Kadri said. "We're a pretty tight-knit group, and as the months start to roll and everyone starts to get more and more familiar with each other and we start to bond on and off the ice, I think that'll translate to on the ice as well."