Skip to main content

Mike Babcock is a notoriously demanding taskmaster, but he sounded more like a happy headmaster when it came to grading the first half of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ NHL season.

“Well, probably exceeded it in some ways,” the Leafs head coach said after Sunday’s practice of his expectation for the first 41 games of the season. “We did lots of good things. We’re giving ourselves a chance to be in the playoff race. We’ve gotten better, we got a lot of young players who got a lot better.

“We had a lot of guys missing the whole first half. They seem to be rounding into shape. So we’re looking forward to the second half and we’ve just got to keep getting better.”

After Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks – who were missing rookie star Elias Pettersson – the Leafs finished with a 27-12-2 record in the first half of the season. That was good enough for 56 points and second place over all in the NHL before Sunday’s games. The only problem is the first-place team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 10 points ahead of the Leafs and also residents of the Atlantic Division.

Naturally, with Babcock there is a but for everything. In this case, he wants to see his team compete harder as the playoff race tightens up in the next three months. He also wants to see the Leafs back to full strength as quickly as possible, as forwards Zach Hyman and Tyler Ennis and goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Garret Sparks are still on the shelf with injuries.

“We’re skilled, we love to play that game,” Babcock said before the Leafs played the Canucks on Saturday. “But, the game moving ahead – October it’s one level, and it just keeps going. It’s hard and it’s heavy and it’s competitive. We’ve got to learn to play that way every night.”

On the plus side, the Leafs are one of the most intimidating teams in the league when it comes to offence. The team’s 152 goals in 41 games, an average of 3.71 a game, are second only to the Lightning, and their goals-against is not bad either, ranking sixth with 113 or 2.76 a game.

A lot of that offence has come from the magical combination of John Tavares and Mitch Marner. The possibility of playing with Marner was used as a selling point in luring the free-agent Tavares to sign with his hometown team last summer.

After 41 games, their pairing has outdone all of the expectations. Marner leads the Leafs in points with 55, which was sixth in the NHL before Sunday’s games. Tavares has 27 goals, which was third in the league behind the 30 of the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin.

Auston Matthews would likely be having a season that would surpass even those of Tavares and Marner if he had not missed 14 games with a shoulder injury. But he still has 20 goals in 27 games and his three points in the Canucks win show that Matthews is back in full stride.

The two most pleasant surprises on the team are Morgan Rielly and Andersen. Rielly, after having to listen all last season to blather about how he is not really an elite NHL defenceman, stepped up his game more than anyone else on the team this season. He is now a force at both ends of the ice and is second to Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks in points by a defenceman with 45 in 41 games.

Andersen says a new off-season training regimen with his personal trainer is why he avoided his traditional slow start to the season and push his way into the conversation about the best goaltender in the NHL. He is second to Marc-André Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights in wins with 20 and sports a sparkling .923 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average.

But the Leafs will have to do without Andersen for a little longer, as the groin-muscle problem that flared up in December is not quite healed. He has missed the past four games and Michael Hutchinson will start Monday’s game against the Nashville Predators.

Hutchinson was acquired in a trade with the Florida Panthers last week because backup goalie Garret Sparks sustained a concussion last Wednesday when he endured a shot off his mask in practice. Sparks also took part in practice on Sunday and said he is feeling better but a return date is unknown.

Actually, Sparks said, it was two shots off his mask that did the damage. He declined to say who was firing high on him because “both of them were the same individual.” However, spies say the culprit was William Nylander. Sparks, though, claims not to hold a grudge.

“It’s humorous, but it’s not,” Sparks said. “He feels bad and it’s never happened before, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, certainly. He’s a very important part of the team and I know that he would never in a million years try to do something like that to me. So no hard feelings.”

Finally, the one area the Leafs need to improve is special teams. Despite all their firepower, the Leafs’ power play runs in fits and starts and slipped to eighth in the NHL with a 22.9-per-cent success rate. The penalty killers were 15th in the league by Sunday with a success rate of 80.4 per cent, but the unit has been much better lately, allowing just two goals in 20 chances in the past eight games.

“We struggled there for a couple [five-game] segments on the penalty kill, didn’t win faceoffs, didn’t get clears,” Babcock said. “We kind of got it back on track here. Our penalty kill goes as those things go and as our goaltending goes. But it’s important we don’t take a whole bunch [of penalties] and it’s important we do the things I talked about.”

In that regard, the Leafs are already the best. They have only been short-handed 107 times this season, the fewest in the NHL.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe