The Leafs are without a win after three games, but there are signs of improvement

It’s all going to plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Well, mostly. It’s unlikely, for example, that part of the plan was to be named as Officially The Absolute Worst Sports Team In North America, a title that was bestowed upon them this week by ESPN The Magazine. The award recognised the Leafs’ achievements in ‘ticket prices, strength of coaching, fan experience, ownership, players, number of championships and ‘bang for the buck’’ (no, me neither) and other such trivialities. But we knew that already, ESPN, so the jokes on you when you think about it.

Otherwise, it really is all going to plan. A team now blissfully unburdened by expectation have produced no more and no less than what was anticipated of them after three games. There’s been more organisation, more effort. A commendable opening loss to Montreal, a 4-0 defeat by the Red Wings made unflattering by a poor night for Jonathan Bernier, and a shootout loss to the Senators that featured the overhauling of a 3-0 deficit is the story so far.

Though it’s more than a little unsettling that the spectacle of high-paid athletes caring is somehow cause for celebration, it actually kind of, well, is. The frequency with which Randy Carlyle complained about a lack of effort from the players last season was mind-boggling. Infuriating. Exasperating. Whoever you blame – Carlyle, Nazem Kadri, HBO, Dave Nonis, Carlton the Bear, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Phil Kessel’s alleged hot dog vendor – there has evidently been a change of culture in Toronto with the arrival of Mike Babcock. Systems and effort is the message.

“You play with good structure,” Babcock said after the 5-4 shootout loss to the Senators on Saturday. “You’re organized. You don’t cheat. You do things right. You play heavy – pretty soon you start to win all the time just because you do things good.

“We don’t have to change the people. We’ve just got to change how we do it. Over time, suddenly, they’ll look like real good hockey players. I thought they looked good at times tonight.”

That’s not quite true, of course; they did have to change the people to an extent. The main spoiler for a miracle season of confounded expectations is scoring, something that’s to be expected after the Leafs ushered perennial 30-goal scorer Kessel to the door marked Do One in the summer. It means that Kadri, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk will have to shoulder the scoring burden. All three are solid forwards that lack Kessel’s killer instinct. The scoring talent is thinly spread – against the Senators Leo Komarov was on the top line.

But that’s OK. There may be more pressure on some players than others – Nazem Kadri for example has to show what he’s made of this season – but fortunately no-one is expecting greatness from the collective. What they do expect, and what Babcock expects, is that no one hides. There may be low expectations, but there won’t be any passengers.

“He wants a lot from the players, and he wants us to work hard,” Komarov said. after the game, and the fact that the Finn tends to skate himself, and his oppoents, into the ground most nights, might explain why he’s been rewarded with minutes by Babcock. “Every day you come in here and you’re trying to do your best and show him that you can earn a spot and play for this team.”

Komarov’s suggestion that the early stages of this season are effectively an extended trial period for the team are apt. Everyone is on trial. The kids aren’t being rushed, finally, so the guys from the previous regime need to prove themselves and the veterans with short contracts are playing for their futures in the league. In the end they and everyone else are playing to prove their good enough for Mike Babcock.

Turnovers, the bane of the Leafs existence during the collapse of last season, have been reduced with lines playing more effectively as a unit. When describing the Leafs cohesion against Ottawa Babcock was cagey, but generally optimistic. “We can’t give up that many chances, we’ve got to be tighter,” Babcock said. “On the positive side, we generated lots of chances and scored some goals, which is positive, so hopefully some guys will have gotten some confidence from that.”

The fact that Babcock managed to shoehorn the word ‘positive’ twice into a short sentence shows that naturally he’s not going to throw anyone under the bus after three games. But internally, you can bet that a man as experienced as he will already forming judgements about who can cut it and who can’t.

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