I’m watching the 3rd period of the Toronto Maple Leafs v Anaheim Ducks. It’s tied 4-4, but in the context of the NHL standings, it’s a mean-nothing game – just like every game the Leafs have played since around, well, opening day last October. That is, unless you’re tracking the Auston Matthews sweepstakes…and here, in their spot near the very bottom of the table, the Leafs’ every loss moves them closer to drafting the young American phenom.
So I’m not watching the Leafs because I think they might win tonight, put together a little run, and make the playoffs (they were mathematically eliminated a while back). No, these days the Toronto Maple Leafs are worth a look because they’re playing fun games. All those Toronto Marlies in the lineup are making for interesting hockey: hockey that’s full of mistakes, to be sure; but fast, entertaining, committed hockey. As often as there are gaffes and giveaways (pretty regularly), there are flashes of speed and skill.
Mike Babcock hasn’t coached a team this young since he stood behind the bench decades ago in junior hockey. Some nights he must feel like he’s running a daycare centre. He says, “they’re fast – sometimes they go to the wrong place, but they get there fast.”
Too true. Zach Hyman skates like the wind, and Morgan Rielly is as good a skater as Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty. Soshnikov gets his snap shot away as quickly as anyone in the league. And William Nylander does it all, and does it gracefully and with a vision that belies his 19 years.
To me, the vaunted “rebuild” is already working. It’s a petri dish, a work in progress happening in prime time. Trading away stalwarts like Reimer and Winnik, lodestones like Kessel and Phaneuf, and outright plugs like Clarkson has cleared the decks for a cadre of young players to develop in public. Right now I’m seeing Nylander and Hyman matching up against Getzlaf and Perry, Carrado and Marincin v Fowler and Bieksa – and the Marlies kids are doing a decent job. (NB – game’s now done, Leafs winning 6-5 in overtime. Not exactly textbook defensive hockey, but a thousand times better entertainment than what Toronto fans have had to put up with since the Mats Sundin years.)
The Leafs have 10 games left, and I’ll do what I can to watch as many as I can. And for the first time in years, there is some genuine interest in Toronto over who’ll be in the lineup come the start of next season.