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The Maple Leafs need to start thinking about a new message

Despite having won just about everything there is to win in hockey, Mike Babcock has never coached a team that wasn’t supposed to lose.

That’s been part of his motivational playbook since the dawn of time. Babcock played junior on the worst team ever (“We won, like, zero games”) and took his first trophy as a manager with a no-hoper (“There were a lot of times when I had my hands over my eyes behind the bench”).

To hear Babcock tell it, it’s a near miracle his Detroit Red Wings surmounted the handicap of all those future Hall of Famers, and don’t get even get him started on Team Canada, what with that target on their backs and Latvia feeling all frisky.

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His Toronto Maple Leafs had a pretty good run this year, and while Babcock is talking up the usual Nietzschean will-to-power stuff, he also wants everyone know what the expectations should be.

“They got more points than us, so we’re the underdogs,” he said on Monday of his team’s coming series with the Boston Bruins.

Yes, that checks out.

Since Toronto has had forever and a day to get used to the idea they would end up with either the Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, a few truisms have taken hold.

First, that the Leafs would have beaten their Southern likeness Tampa, and, second, that they will lose to their New England opposite in Boston.

The thinking here is that Boston is more physical, more defensively sound and more experienced. In hockey, we tend to think of the regular season as a game and the postseason as a war. The Bruins have been up at the front lines longer.

The facts, such as they are, don’t line up to prove that hypothesis. Toronto beat Boston three of four times this year. The teams’ second-half records were identically impressive.

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Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock talks to his players during a practice session in Toronto on Monday, as the team prepares for their opening playoff round against the Bruins.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

But “Leafs are doomed” is the story we’re going with right now. Given all this time, the proposition has ossified into fact because it’s comforting to all involved.

This gets at the real genius involved in the team’s turnaround under general manager Lou Lamoriello – he’s built a very decent team that suffers under no expectations whatsoever. It’s a beta-testing hockey team that will never be publicly released, lest any bugs be found.

Given the market, given its history and given its tendency toward frequent outbreaks of hysteria, this is something close to miracle work.

The players have something to do with that. Everyone who was supposed to be good has been. A few that weren’t have been as well.

The Matthews, Marners and Nylanders of the world haven’t accomplished anything tangible yet, but they have all hit their individual means.

No trade has gone badly awry, and no goofy contracts proffered. Nobody’s made the police blotter or gone rogue on social media.

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Most important, no one’s felt the need – one that infects so many major sports franchises – to do something nutty in the hopes they will be recognized as a paradigm-shifting genius. Managerial sobriety is the order of the day.

It’s not sexy, but – presuming you are also lucky – it is effective. Given a few years of smooth operations, people who’ve been burned many times before will start to believe even the most disreputable team knows what it’s talking about. Even in Toronto, where two nights of mix-and-match lineups will birth a hundred conspiracy theories on Reddit.

The key to all this has been messaging.

Despite a crushing Game 7 loss the last time Toronto faced the Boston Bruins in the playoffs in 2013, Leafs players say both teams have changed a lot. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock says the first-round series with Boston won’t be 'easy.' The Canadian Press

From the start of the Leafs’ five-year plan, at every level of the organization, the watchwords have been “slow” and “steady.” The complementary operating principle is “loose lips sink ships.”

On Monday, various Leafs were baited a half-dozen different ways to turn this series into 2013 redux or a grudge match or a combination of the two. But once these guys start talking, it’s a torrent of “Let’s get at ‘er” bafflegab delivered so insistently that it often runs over the question.

“We obviously took some steps forward from where we were last year and where we finished,” Auston Matthews said. “The regular season really means nothing now. Making the playoffs isn’t about where you’re seeded.”

(Ed. note: Tell that to the accountants in arena operations.)

In his looping, auto-talking way, Matthews is extremely on-message here: “We are getting better, though our getting better may now be at an end. Don’t judge us on results. Judge us on getting better.”

Everyone – the coach, the GM, the president, the stars, the laundry attendants – says the same thing, which amounts to nothing. The newly pliant fan base is left to fill in the informational gaps and prop up the prevailing narrative. That’s how you get from a hundred-point season to “Toronto can’t beat Boston.”

Five years ago, there would’ve been an appended clause: “Toronto can’t beat Boston. So everyone should be fired.”

You can see how things have changed.

Beyond the hockey, the curiosity of this coming Leafs playoff run is how long this unusual state of expectational equilibrium can be maintained. At a guess, not much longer.

If Toronto loses to Boston, they get a pass. Do they get another one next year? Very doubtful. Then we’re getting into win-now-or-change-something territory.

If Toronto beats Boston, that may be worse news for the Plan. That’ll leech out all the frantic “OUR TIME IS NOW” instincts of the fan base. You just know the current bovine calm in the stands cannot last.

Either way, this enormously successful effort at readjusting an entire city’s rooting personality is nearing the end of its useful lifespan.

However the Leafs do in the next couple of weeks, it’s time to start thinking about a new message. What’s been done already was difficult. The next step – from competence to a championship – will be much more so.

Or they could just win now. That would simplify things. And it would give Babcock a chance to say something like, “I just can’t believe it, but I always believed in these guys.”

Perhaps for the first time, he wouldn’t be fibbing.

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