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Hockey Defence is Leafs’ word of the day, but Babcock may have doubts

If the Toronto Maple Leafs manage to put the brakes on their skid, they will remember Monday’s practice as their come-to-Jesus moment.

If not, it will be just one more collection of empty promises about finally paying attention to their defensive game.

With the Leafs allowing 23 goals in their past four games in losing three of them, head coach Mike Babcock dedicated Monday’s session to defensive structure – knowing where to stand, the coach likes to call it – and cutting down on scoring chances off the rush. Odd-man rushes have made the goaltenders short-tempered in the past week or so.

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Afterward, the Leafs’ dressing room at their suburban practice rink had the air of a 12-step meeting or old-fashioned revival. There were all kinds of players taking the pledge.

“I think just committing to defence,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said of the message from the coaches. “Obviously, we’ve given up too many goals in these games. As well as we can play offensively and the firepower we have, we haven’t played that way on defence. It’s tough to win games like that. That’s basically the biggest message today.”

He left out stop losing faceoffs in the defensive zone, but that one might have been delivered privately since Matthews is the biggest culprit in that regard of late.

The Leafs had better hope the promises take hold quickly. They have back-to-back road games Tuesday and Wednesday, starting with the Nashville Predators, which are chasing the Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead.

Things got interesting when the subject turned to depth. The Leafs are supposed to have lots of it, but with defencemen Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) on the shelf and the top Toronto Marlies farmhand Calle Rosen, who’s become an American Hockey League all-star, unavailable due to a foot injury, the blueline group grew thin in a hurry.

Babcock seemed to suggest early in his media scrum that the Leafs are not ready to compete with other NHL contenders when it comes to injury reinforcements.

“The thing about a team is you’ve got 23 spots and you’ve got a minor-league team.” Babcock said. “You’re supposed to build the best program you can to have as much depth so you don’t miss people.

“If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you keep on going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when their different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That tells you what state you’re at. You’ve just got to keep adding better players.”

Funny thing. The Boston Bruins, who the Leafs just happen to be battling for second place in the Atlantic Division, have been dealing with multiple injuries since at least Christmas. But they managed to hang on to second place through most of that and now have a four-point lead on the Leafs. Both teams have 10 games left in the regular season.

Toward the end of his session, depth came up again when Babcock was asked about calling up prize prospect Rasmus Sandin, who just turned 19. The Marlies defenceman appears to be getting the hang of the North American game as he has managed a goal and 10 assists in his past seven AHL games.

But this time, Babcock brushed aside the notion of dipping into the Leafs’ depth. He acknowledged that the subject was raised with Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe and then brought up Leaf forwards Kasperi Kapanen (who seems recovered from a concussion and was at practice on Monday) and Andreas Johnsson. Both players were not granted jobs on the Leafs until they were deemed ready for full-time NHL duty.

“We talked about that. We talked to Sheldon about it, too,” Babcock said and then posed a rhetorical question to the media. “What we’ve done really well with Kapanen and Johnsson is what? Let’s not get in our own way because we’re feeling a little tension. Forget that. We’ve got good players here, dig in and play good.”

It could be easy to conclude from that response that Babcock asked Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas about calling up Sandin, perhaps after asking Keefe if he thought the youngster was ready for a look at the NHL. Then it could well have been Dubas who told Babcock not to get in the way.

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In any event, a good outing against the Predators will show that the Leafs are serious about changing their offence-only ways. Another loss would not be a disaster as long as the Predators don’t score half a dozen goals but losing to the staggering Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday would be a different matter.

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