TORONTO – A year is what you make of it.
The Maple Leafs began 2015 with a pair of losses on the road to the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Immediately after the Jets defeated Toronto, head coach Randy Carlyle was relieved as Toronto’s bench boss.
The team then fell into peril under interim coach Peter Horachek. He, along with general manager Dave Nonis, were dismissed immediately upon season’s end in April.
On Saturday, the Leafs defeated one of the better team’s in the National Hockey League, the St. Louis Blues. It was a complete effort that makes the one delivered by the Leafs who rung in 2015 pale by comparison
New head coach Mike Babcock brought in the elements for the team to “play the right way” and “structure” not seen before. But what does it all mean?
“That’s been our safety valve,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri prior to Saturday’s game. “We have a system in place that when things get tough we don’t panic.”
Kadri has been one of the focal points of the Leafs turnaround.
Currently on a one-year contract, Kadri has been given every opportunity to excel in high-demand positions. He was placed on the Leafs’ top line to start the season and stills finds himself there, despite the consistent play of former No. 1 centre Tyler Bozak.
“He’s earned the right to play in those situations,” Babcock said of Kadri. “You earn the right to play against those players and, eventually, those players will be playing against you.”
Kadri went through the longest scoring drought of his career as he adapted to Babcock’s system. He went 15 games without a goal, all while continuing to sit in the top-five in the league in shots on goal. Now his offence is starting to come back; Kadri has four goals and 11 points in his last 11 games.
“He’s playing way better. Every 10 games he’s improved drastically,” said Babcock. “To me, he’s being rewarded a little bit, which is positive. It’s not how I measure him. He’s played against (John) Tavares and (Sidney) Crosby for three nights and he was good on two of them.”
Babcock does not evaluate Kadri’s success in points, but more in the his ability to back-check when he does not have the puck, and his drive to the net when he does have it.
In fact, going to the net and creating consistent pressure in the offensive zone is the biggest mark of success under Babcock.
The system in place has allowed for any player to be rewarded with an opportunity to score a goal from a high-danger area.
“When everyone plays the way they are supposed to, the guy that comes up with the puck is the safety valve,” said Leafs centre Peter Holland following Saturday’s game. “That’s the way the system is designed,”
The Leafs began their current campaign going 1-7-2. What appeared at first glance to be a race to the bottom of the standings now sees the team at .500 — for the very first time this season — with a 15-15-7 record.
When Horachek took over on Jan. 6 of last year, he tried to get the Leafs to play a more structured style. For the first few games, the Leafs complied. But with results lacking, they abandoned it.
It’s January again. With games getting tougher to win as team’s jostle for a playoff spot, Toronto’s new structure will be put through its toughest challenge yet. Can it succeed late in the season?
“That’s what we’re going to find out,” said Kadri.