Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf takes part in a promotional video shoot in Toronto on Sept. 17. Coach Babcock had high praise for the defenceman.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

He didn't go back and watch their games.

He didn't want to sit through the bloodbath of a year ago.

Instead, what coach Mike Babcock wants to watch is the Toronto Maple Leafs with a clear head in this training camp – his training camp – starting on Friday here on the East Coast.

Story continues below advertisement

No preconceived notions. No lineup put in pencil to start the process.

A free-for-all for everyone, from Day 1.

"The reason I haven't done that is because things went so poorly," Babcock explained of not going back and reliving the carnage that was the 2014-15 Leafs' horrific 68-point season. "Why would I watch them be bad? It makes no sense to me. They've got a clean slate."

In a nearly 20-minute-long address to the media on Thursday, Babcock served up some excellent theatre. A simple question about the background of his assistant coaches, for example, stretched on and on, as he detailed his hiring process and each coach's skill set at length.

He used to hire experienced hands to help him behind the bench.

Now, he says, he often brings in young and relatively unknown assistants – such as Leafs newcomers D.J. Smith and Steve Briere – as they introduce him to new ideas and challenge his mindset, 13 years after he came into the NHL as a relative unknown himself.

Babcock doesn't have a problem with people he doesn't know, in other words. And right now, the Leafs roster is filled with them.

Story continues below advertisement

So if he holds true to his word and offers equal opportunity, that could make for a fascinating lineup on opening night. After acquiring Michael Grabner from the New York Islanders for five prospects in an unusual roster-clearing deal, the Leafs still have 69 players in camp – including four wildcards on professional tryouts – and it's very unclear where many slot.

Their situation at right wing alone now that Phil Kessel is gone means any one of Grabner, Joffrey Lupul, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Brad Boyes or Richard Panik could theoretically get time on the top line, whatever it may be.

The depth chart on defence is entirely unsettled, too, aside from Babcock praising both captain Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner on Thursday.

Babcock wouldn't even go so far as to say the goaltending situation was anything close to decided – only that he wants one netminder to pick up the bulk of the duties at some point.

What Babcock has here, entering his first camp with the Leafs, is flexibility. Management isn't married to any one player – many are still holdovers from the previous regime – in a set role. They're not pinned down to what they need to be this season, especially when winning isn't expected or necessary.

They can experiment. And their new coach certainly sounds like a man who intends to.

Story continues below advertisement

"Can they play or can they not?" Babcock said at one point when asked about giving those on a tryout a chance despite the fact they were older players.

"Hopefully people will come to the forefront that we're not even aware of," general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

"There's going to be three or four guys that are going to be way better than I think," Babcock added.

That's the curious thing about the Leafs ever-evolving roster: At the NHL level, it's not particularly young. The kids – aside from Morgan Rielly – are all going to be playing their big minutes with the Marlies, leaving Babcock with a lineup potentially stuffed with unheralded vets anxious to show something to a coach desperately looking for it.

Even someone such as Nazem Kadri isn't all that green any more – he turns 25 the day before the home opener – and he's one of only a few Leafs in that age range likely to make the team.

It's not clear how the Kessel-less Leafs are going to score goals. (Babcock explained he hadn't yet found a way to make the Leafs projected contributions add up to 230, his target on the offensive side of things.) The blueline looks like a hodgepodge. And there's no guarantee the veterans on one-year deals or tryouts stick around for the season, given Toronto's sign-and-trade mentality.

Story continues below advertisement

But, with the additions of Grabner and Boyes and others in recent weeks, the Leafs won't ice a cannon-fodder-filled team the way Buffalo did a year ago en route to nabbing the second-overall pick.

It's too far to suggest they'll frighten anyone, but the Leafs should be somewhat better than a year ago.

At the very least, they'll be easier on the eyes, putting in an effort in order to please a coach they know isn't going anywhere.

"We're going to get to know these guys that arrived at camp," Babcock said. "Not the ones that played here in the past."

He hopes they're not the same thing.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter