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Spaling a steadying presence for Leafs

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

One of the toughest tasks in front of an NHL player is earning the trust of their head coach. A new head coach presents a fresh start with plenty of opportunity for players to earn minutes. In an early stage of the season, Nick Spaling has been a player to capitalize on that opportunity.

The 2015-16 season is the second consecutive season in a new city for Spaling. After five seasons with the Nashville Predators, Spaling was traded to Pittsburgh at the 2014 NHL Draft. One year later, the Palmerston, Ont., native was homeward bound on free agency day as part of a trade with the Leafs.

The initial move from Nashville to Pittsburgh has helped Spaling in his transition to Toronto.

"Last year was a big transition from leaving a system that you're in for five years and coming over and meeting new guys and developing that again," said Spaling. "To do it for a second time, I knew what to expect and knew what was going to come and I think it was an easier transition this way. I knew a couple guys here too so that made it easy."

Another factor in easing the transition to life as a Maple Leaf has been the overall change in Toronto. A new set of players in the dressing room coupled with a new coaching staff has created an opportunity to come together as a group.

"It's been great, it's a good locker room of guys, which is the first part that makes it easy," said Spaling. "The transition with the new coach and the whole team having to go through that together, a bunch of new guys makes it easy for me to come in and fit in when we're all learning together and going through the process."

Spaling's addition has been a welcome one for a group that is looking to stabilize its play down the middle. Head coach Mike Babcock relies heavily on the middle of the ice in all three zones as a springboard for his teams' success. Early in the season, Spaling has been a consistent contributor at even-strength and on the penalty kill. His ability to retrieve the puck and pressure opponents provides instant momentum for the Leafs.

A talking point for fans and pundits has been the duo of Spaling and linemate Daniel Winnik. The pair have played the majority of their minutes together to this point in the season. They've given the Leafs a group that controls play any time they hit the ice.

Despite beginning the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, they've been able to play long stretches in the opposing end. They have given the Leafs more opportunity in what Coach Babcock calls 'The Fun Zone' and set up teammates for more time against opposing defences playing on their heels.

The recent addition of Joffrey Lupul as the third member of the trio has provided scoring punch to go with consistent defensive play and clever forechecking.

Spaling and Winnik played together in spurts as members of the Penguins during the 2014-15 season. While injury problems prevented any true lineup consistency for Pittsburgh, their chemistry has been built off that limited familiarity and a compatibility in style.

"I think he's an easy guy for me to read off of. I think we play similar style games, we like to keep it simple and that's the part that's easy for me to read," said Spaling of Winnik. "I know he's going to be getting that puck forward, moving forward and playing hard in the corners. When he's doing that I want to get open and when I'm doing that he wants to get open."

"He's an easy guy to read and I trust him anywhere filling in down low. He's easy for me to play with."

The job of a head coach is made much easier when you discover sets of players you can rely on. Mike Babcock appears to have just that in Spaling, Winnik and, now, Lupul. The trio has produced offensively in recent games, making the choice to play them that much easier.

"To me, when you're a coach standing behind the bench and you've got guys who are checkers who are never going to score in the ocean, sometimes when you play them too much and you wonder what you're doing," said Babcock. "But, the puck still isn't going in your net. When they can get two goals for you, they can justify to you that you can keep playing them."

"The great thing about it is if you're a player all you've got to do is you've got to say to yourself, 'I've got to make the coach trust me'... If I'm good without the puck and I stand in the right spots and I compete hard, chances are you're getting out there."

Moving forward, Spaling -- like his teammates -- will look to continue to grow within the system of their coach. He'll have the additional emotional incentive of playing both of his former teams within the next month. The Leafs play the Penguins on two occasions in October and head to Nashville to face the Predators in mid-November.

Needless to say, those dates will be circled on the calendar.

"It's always fun to play a former team. Obviously you've got a lot of guys, a lot of buddies there and it brings up that competitive edge one more level. It's fun to be able to go back and play in those atmospheres."

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