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Babcock's arrival brings optimism to Maple Leafs

by Mike Brophy /

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a transition phase, and it is clear there will be no quick fixes after they missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons. President Brendan Shanahan and new coach Mike Babcock have preached patience as they take their first steps toward trying to construct a winning team.

With sweeping changes this summer, including a trade that sent forward Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2015-16 Maple Leafs will bear little resemblance to recent editions. Considering they've made the playoffs once since 2004, it's a welcomed fresh start.

Here are four reasons for optimism:

Babcock is behind the bench: Given his success, Babcock could have taken a job with a team that is much closer to being a contender than Toronto. He won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and two Olympic gold medals with Canada (2010, 2014). The Maple Leafs, who haven't won the Cup since 1967, represent one of hockey’s greatest challenges. After signing an eight-year contract, Babcock has the credibility and organizational power to successfully command an intense on- and off-ice commitment from his players. Babcock demands discipline and hard work from his players; those who don't give it will find themselves elsewhere.

Because of their lack of success, coupled with the media scrutiny in Toronto, the Maple Leafs have not been a destination for many high-profile free agents. Babcock said upon his hiring that he wants Toronto to be a "safe" city for his players. That will be accomplished by winning and consistency.

A commitment to character: Shanahan has repeatedly said he buys into Babcock’s vision of bringing in good people. Shanahan is determined to change the Maple Leafs culture and insists the days of players being rewarded for failure are over; players will have to earn long-term contracts, he said.

Nazem Kadri, Toronto's first-round pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, was signed to a one-year contract this offeseason. The 24-year-old center is a skilled player but has not been able to establish himself as a consistent top-six forward. He'll have to prove he's worth being signed long term.

Shanahan also made a point of saying he was not happy with the leadership group. Kessel was traded to the Penguins even though he led the Maple Leafs in scoring each of the past six seasons.

Shanahan and Babcock have made it clear that expectations are going to be raised, and that the atmosphere is going to be a lot more businesslike moving forward.

Morgan Rielly continues to blossom: Rielly, a 21-year-old defenseman, has been solid in his first two seasons and has proven himself as a player of skill and character despite Toronto's lack of success. Rielly is a gifted skater with great mobility and natural offensive instincts. He's an effective puck-carrier who has the speed and commitment to get back quickly into the defensive zone after a turnover.

Despite being young, the Vancouver native is respected by his older teammates. With a change of culture in the locker room, Rielly should benefit from having more input into how things are run. He's the kind of player Babcock will want to build around.

A fresh start for JVR: A lot has been made of the fact the Maple Leafs have selected small, skilled players with their top pick in the past two drafts. Size is not an issue with the player who's now arguably their best forward, 6-foot-3, 200-pound left wing James van Riemsdyk. No one denies van Riemsdyk's skill level; he had 30 goals and 61 points in 80 games in 2013-14, and it looked as though his career was taking flight. He had 27 goals and 56 points in 82 games last season but contributed little down the stretch and finished at minus-33, tied for the fourth-worst rating in the League. The Maple Leafs hope the arrival of Babcock and a new regime in the front office will spark a bounce-back season from van Riemsdyk.

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