With only a handful of games in the books for the Leafs and much of the league, it’s obviously a little early to start drawing any conclusions about anything at this point. As a general rule, the cut-off for making any big statements about the hockey season falls around the 20-game mark or so. We’ve always been outlaws over here at TLN though.
Seriously though, up to this point the Leafs’ performance has fallen in line almost exactly with what many people predicted; their possession game has started to climb but they don’t have enough pure skill to break games open. It is what it is, and I think it’s a good thing. Yes, I know, the team is 1-3-1, what the hell is good about that?
The jump in puck-possession has been something – the Leafs are at 52.3% CorsiFor at even-strength for all score situations, and 50.1% score-adjusted (from war-on-ice). Again, major grain of salt here since it’s so early (especially for score-adjusting), but it’s easy to see that through the first couple weeks it’s been quite a different picture than the Carlyle days, like we would’ve thought, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it continue. At least they won’t be down in the cellar in this regard, like they have been before.
And as for starting things in the right end of the ice, the Leafs have unsurprisingly been better there as well, as Siegel at TSN points out:
Just 28 per cent of Toronto’s faceoffs began in the offensive zone last season, better than only Buffalo. That number is up over 32 per cent in the early going this fall, tucked amongst the league’s top-10.
But beyond all that they simply look better. I’ve complained a few times in the past about how the Leafs always looked rigid and completely lacked any flow to their game. It could have been that they were overcoached (I know, hilarious) and scared to make mistakes, but whatever was going on, they did some really bad things. Tons of stop-and-go, stretch pass attempts to the other team’s blue-line repeatedly, they were just a total mess to watch.
This year so far I’ve actually enjoyed watching them, even while knowing they’re likely to lose because of the lack of play-making power in the lineup. The games have been fairly back and forth, they’ve been putting much more pressure on the other team than we’ve seen in years really, and generally the game just flows better.
We expected this from a Babcock-coached team, but perhaps not so quickly. And let’s be honest, there are always questions about a coach, even one with such a great history, until you start to see things change first-hand. No matter the strength of someone’s resume, there’s always the chance to crash and burn with the Leafs it seems.
That’s why there’s reason for some major optimism here, despite the slow start record-wise for this team. In sports, if you can establish some sort of constant in your efforts to build a competitive club, that’s a huge step forward (assuming it’s good, of course). Babcock appears to be that kind of rock, and he’s proving it already.
When you know Babcock can be counted on to put forth this brand of hockey, it makes things a little clearer for management – they can evaluate their own players better and look at who around the league they might want to target to plug into this system and predict more accurately how it will work out. With Carlyle, everyone just looked like a trainwreck night after night.
But now it’s up to that management team to inject some talent into this roster and have the guys who are currently being counted on get pushed down the lines. Who knows how quickly they can make that happen, but when it comes to the rebuild checklist, they know they can put a tick next to coaching.