TORONTO (Jan. 3) — One year ago tonight, at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Randy Carlyle coached his final game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, losing 5–1 to the Jets. The score actually flattered the visitors, who were physically manhandled and thrown about the ice. No one put a finger on Dustin Byfuglien. Three days later, general manager David Nonis fired Carlyle and replaced him with assistant coach Peter Horachek.
Need I remind anyone of the aftermath?
So, here we are, on Jan. 3, 2016. Expected by many to endure one of the longest seasons in franchise history, the Maple Leafs are sitting at .500 in the overtime/shootout standings — 15–15–7 for 37 points. Since Oct. 31, the club has been among the best in the National Hockey League with a record of 14–8–5. None of it makes sense; much of it has led to hyperbole and confusion. But, the numbers do not lie.
Under Mike Babcock — the 21st man to stand behind the bench since May 2, 1967 — the Leafs have developed structure in their game and character that belies a razor–thin roster. Just think of the odds had someone placed a bet at the beginning of the schedule that the Leafs would be a perfect 7–0–0 in early–January against Western powers Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville and Los Angeles. Again, it makes no sense, but several of these wins have been remarkably one–sided, including 4–1 at home to the Stars (Nov. 2); 4–1 at St. Louis (Dec. 5); 5–0 over the Kings at the Air Canada Centre (Dec. 19) and Saturday night’s 4–1, third–period uprising against the Blues here in town. On paper, the Leafs don’t belong on the same ice as Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville. But, they’ve performed exceptionally; startlingly well in these matches.
If you watched, for example, the opening minutes of Hockey Central on Sportsnet Saturday night — and were not aware of the standings — you might have thought the Leafs were battling for first place in the NHL. Between 6:30 and 6:35 p.m. EST, George Stroumboulopoulos, Elliotte Friedman, Nick Kypreos and Kelly Hrudey gushed over the Blue and White — invoking, at one point, the “p” word (as in playoffs). Tyler Bozak, during a brief interview, made it sound as if the Leafs had discovered perfection… in the dressing room and on the ice. Many would attribute such over–the–top dialogue to Sportsnet and the Leafs being owned by the same company, but Strombo and his cohorts are far–too professional for that. Instead, it should be remembered that the Leafs came into this season with expectation lower than at any point in the post–Harold Ballard era (after 1990). Mild accomplishment is therefore bound to be lauded and exaggerated.
Better, in my view, to remind hockey’s most easily–influenced fans that the Leafs are four points removed from the NHL basement; seven points out of a playoff spot with six teams blocking their path to the No. 8 position; that it is virtually impossible to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament after winning one of 10 games in October and — most importantly — that the plan envisioned by Brendan Shanahan and apparently rubber–stamped by the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment should not be altered by anything that happens this season. To venture from such a perspective is irresponsible journalism. There’s an abundance of flag–waving in the mainstream media today — much of it rife with conflict–of–interest. We need our TV bastions — Friedman, Kypreos, Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger et al — to remain grounded.
At the same time, yes — it is only fair to accord Babcock and the Leafs full credit for raising many eyebrows the past five weeks. Particularly with goaltending in such flux. That the elite coach has conveyed structure and defensive framework among so many that were part of last season’s calamity here in Toronto could be worthy, itself, of consideration for the the Jack Adams Award. Undeniably, the Maple Leafs have more character than talent… and character has prevailed since the beginning of November. Which only augments roster components the club needs to flip at the trade deadline for draft picks. That was the “Shanaplan” coming into 2015–16 and it must not be abandoned because of moderate over–achievement.