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Finding No. 1 goalie an X-factor for Maple Leafs

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- It is the dawn of a new era in Toronto.

With the addition of coach Mike Babcock, along with general manager Lou Lamoriello and team president Brendan Shanahan, the feeling is the Maple Leafs are headed in the right direction.

However, it is going to take time for the Maple Leafs to meet their ultimate goal of being a Stanley Cup contender. It is important to note the management team has not put a timeline on reaching that goal.

Here are three X-factors that can help the Maple Leafs be the disciplined, hard-working team Babcock aspires to coach:

The Mike Babcock effect: Babcock has a no-nonsense approach and expects much from his players; mostly professionalism. Some players will hack it while others will not make the grade. Babcock acknowledged the Maple Leafs may have trouble scoring goals this season but said scoring is not his immediate focus -- playing the game right is. That means defense trumps offense.

"What I'm going to do is go to camp and we're going to establish a work ethic and establish a structure so the players get comfortable and understand where they are supposed to be," Babcock said. "We're going to set some expectations and I'm going to get to know them and they'll get to know me."

As players gathered at MasterCard Centre in Toronto on Sept. 7 for their medicals and media sessions, the phrase clean slate was mentioned frequently. They believe the new coach will judge them on what he sees, not on their past performances. Babcock even went as far as saying he did not watch video of the Maple Leafs' games from last season.

"Why would I watch them be bad?" Babcock said. "It makes no sense to me. They've got a clean slate and I want to catch them being good."

This is a foundation season in Toronto. The players that make the Maple Leafs in 2015-16 will be expected to play a certain way. The players who are sent to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League will be expected to play the same way.

"It is rejuvenating and refreshing," center Nazem Kadri said. "Everyone has a clean slate and everyone knows what the coaches and management expects. There is no gray area. Everything is crystal clear. We just have to go out and do it.

Finding a No. 1 goalie: The similarities between Toronto's two candidates for the starting goaltending job are shocking.

Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are 27 years old. Both have played 175 NHL games; Bernier's record is 76-67-20 while Reimer is 74-64-16. Their goals-against averages are similar, 2.63 for Bernier and 2.91 for Reimer, as are their save percentages, .916 for Bernier and .913 for Reimer.

Thus far neither has been able to establish himself as a bona fide No. 1 NHL goalie. Each has had moments of glory, but not enough to make him the favorite for the job.

Babcock made it clear he will chose a No. 1 goalie. He learned a long time ago that works best for him.

"My second year at Red Deer College I went with two goalies all year long," Babcock said. "In Game 1 of the playoffs I went with one and in Game 2 I went with the other and then we were out of the playoffs. I haven't done that since. I like one guy to know who's the guy and usually what I tell him is I'll tell you when you're not starting."

The next wave: For the past two seasons the Maple Leafs have placed a high priority on acquiring skill at the draft and in trades. Their top picks at the draft the past two years have been speedy and skilled forwards William Nylander (No. 8, 2014) and Mitchell Marner (No. 4, 2015). They acquired Pittsburgh's first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Kasperi Kapanen, in the Phil Kessel trade, and Connor Brown was the leading rookie scorer in the AHL last season.

All four players are small-to-medium sized. Frederik Gauthier, on the other hand, is 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds. Having graduated from three seasons of junior with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Maple Leafs' first round pick (No. 21) in 2013 is expected to play with the Marlies this season and develop into a two-way checking center.

The Maple Leafs are content to have these players develop in the minors or junior before making the jump to the NHL. So if Marner does not make the Maple Leafs this season, it's OK for him to spend another season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

"Patience is the key," said Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas during development camp this summer. "We're not going to rush them. We have reiterated that over and over. We're not going to bring them up unless they are absolutely ready to stay up all the time. We want them to be 100 percent ready to play for the Maple Leafs. We don't want them to start with the Marlies, go to the Leafs and then back to the Marlies."

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