“Normally, when you’ve been nine or 10 years in one spot, you’re not worried about (veterans),” Babcock said. “But when you come to a new place, you don’t know who they are. They’ve got to get going. So that’s up to them and up to me.”
This past October, in the midst of his first training camp as the head coach of the Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock made sure to point out how important he feels veteran leaders are to a hockey team. He spoke of familiarity with players and the idea that he wants guys to already know the practice format so he can spend more time teaching as opposed to demonstrating drills.
With the eyes of the fan base locked squarely on the kids of the future, the idea that the team will need veterans that Babcock can lean on is often overlooked. When the Maple Leafs are good enough to be a solid playoff team (let’s say 2018-19), the core is going to be Nylander, Marner, Rielly and potentially one more. Matthews? Laine? Puljujarvi?
With a probable selloff of veterans in the next month, this Leafs team is going to get younger quickly. As the deadline approaches, we are likely going to hear rumors about every person on the active roster as people look to the future and forget that some of these current players (even the older ones) will still be around when the team gets good.
Babcock mentions Polak, Hunwick, Dion, and Komarov as great “pros”.
— Platinum Seat Ghosts (@3rdPeriodSuits) January 14, 2016
When Mike Babcock mentioned “pros” during his radio spots last week, he was referring to players that lead by example; guys he can lean on to deliver his message to the rest of the dressing room, and guys that will check Mitch Marner in his second season if he gets caught dragging on a back check. These guys will be important for the team’s future… and for my money it starts with Nazem Kadri.
Kadri will be 28 at the start of the 2018-19 season, he’ll be entering his 10th year in the Maple Leafs system and what will be his fourth playing for Mike Babcock.
“I just think he’s brave, he’s smart, I don’t think he’ll have any issue whatsoever, it’s just getting the time. All these players, we could do everything with them at once, but it doesn’t work like that in life. You’re just building blocks and you keep plugging away at it and once a guy is doing something pretty good you can move to the next thing”
When speaking about Kadri this week, Babcock sounded like a coach that feels the desire to spend extra time turning him into a complete player. This sounds to me like the coach is turning Kadri into a “Babcock-style” player. He may not be the stat sheet stuffing offensive dynamo that we were promised when he was drafted but Kadri is developing into one of the team’s best players and will be a key veteran when the team needs it.
With Kadri as the elder statesman up front, Jake Gardiner is likely to fill the same role on the back-end. At 25, Gardiner has been the Leafs best defender this seasons. In the past few years, his name has been linked to more trade rumors than just about anyone but this season it seems things may be shifting in that regard. He looks more comfortable each game and is clearly learning to use the incredible raw tools he has always had. Don’t be surprised if he’s settled in as a 29-year-old top-pair defenceman by the time the Leafs open the 2018 season.
There’s a good chance that both Kadri and Gardiner will have their names filling the rumor mill until the deadline passes on February 29th, but it should not come as a surprise if both are still around long into the future as “Babcock guys”.
On the less obvious side, Dion Phaneuf and Shawn Matthias are two players that I could picture in the 2018 opening night lineup. Phaneuf as an overpaid veteran that will continue to anger fans that only see him for his contract and not for the player he actually is, and Matthias as the bottom-6 grizzled veteran filling the Michal Rozsival role was saw on the Blackhawks last season.
James van Riemsdyk is the kind of player every team wants. Big, fast, offensively gifted and on a contract that would be desired by 29 other teams. While he is their best player and will still be relatively young by the time the Leafs are able to make the push towards contention, JVR is not mentioned because he may simply be too valuable for the front office to hold on to. Teams likely call for him every day and there’s a good chance that one of them eventually throws in the right pieces that makes an offer just too good to turn down. Van Riemsdyk would be a great fit on a playoff team three years from now, but so might the multiple high-end assets you’d be likely to receive if he’s traded.
“What about the team’s lone all-star?” you might be asking. Leo Komarov has been great for this team, but if the Leafs don’t sell high on him they are out of their mind. He probably shouldn’t finish this season with the team let alone be here three years from now. But more on that later from the one and only Jon Steitzer (@YakovMironov).
While it’s fun to look at the prospects and the coming draft picks, it’s important not to lose focus on which of the current players will still be around down the line. Who would you keep from the current roster that would be necessary to make this team playoff contenders?
Oh, and by the way, 2018-19 will be the age-30 season of a guy named Steven who currently resides in the St. Petersburg, Florida area.