Skip to main content

Connor Brown, left, skates in front of Justin Holl during a practice as part of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp at the BMO Centre in Halifax on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015.Jeff Harper/The Canadian Press

You'll hear the comparisons all season.

"Detroit did XYZ for years – so now Toronto is, too."

That's natural when a high-profile coach goes from one high-profile team to another, as Mike Babcock did this off-season. Everyone will be watching every game – every shift and line change, even – looking for similarities between the puck-possession Red Wings of the past 10 years and the Maple Leafs of today.

While there's an obvious talent gap between the two organizations, those likenesses could be easy to spot.

In the first three days of training camp out on the East Coast, Babcock has gone so far as to show the Leafs players and prospects video of what his Detroit teams did in game situations in recent seasons as a way of highlighting, in detail, how his system functions.

Several came away very impressed.

"Watching tapes of Detroit and how they played his system, it's kind of hard to believe that they lost in the first round of the playoffs [to Tampa Bay]," said Mitch Marner, the Leafs top pick in 2015 and the rare young player who admits he loves to watch film breakdowns. "It's kind of unbelievable to watch. All the systems he's shown us – it's really good. We've got to take them in now and process [the information] and do it."

"There's lots of information," captain Dion Phaneuf added. "We expected that. He's a very detailed coach. We're going to see more of it. You've got to pay attention. You've got to be a sponge because there's a lot of information when there's new systems being put into place."

So what is the change, exactly?

According to the players, it's speed. Babcock wants his players to pursue the puck hard, providing incredible back pressure when the opponent moves through the neutral zone with the puck.

But it's also about support. He wants a five-man-unit mentality, whether on offence or defence.

Join the rush when there is one. Negate the other team's rush when it comes.

He wants the Leafs to become relentless – which isn't a word anyone would use to describe their play in recent seasons.

It's a welcome change for someone like Roman Polak, the big defenceman who was quite perturbed at times last year over how lackadaisical and disorderly the Leafs were in his first season in Toronto.

"We just weren't on the same page," Polak grumbled of the team under former coaches Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek. "This year I think we're going to change. Everybody is doing what they're supposed to: stay together, always stay together in the D zone. And when we go on offence, there's always going to be four guys jumping in. We have to be on the same page, playing together.

"I think it's going to be easier for everybody because you're not going to spend as much time in the D zone. We're going to be tight together in the D zone, and it's going to be simple – easy five-foot pass and you're out of the zone. You don't waste your energy in the D zone, as we did. We spent too much time there, and you're just waiting for a [line] change or something as soon as possible. You don't create any offence from that.

"It's going to be more structured. Everybody I think for sure is going to work [hard]. They're going to play hard. They're going to do what they're supposed to do on the ice. We didn't do it last year. Everybody was all on their own."

The reason that won't happen this season, even with a similar Leafs roster and very low expectations?

"He's going to demand it," Polak said. "It's the way he coaches. If you're not going to do it, you're not going to be playing."

Polak explained that what always impressed him when playing Detroit, during his days as a defenceman in St. Louis, in the same division, was that the Wings pushed the pace and played to that structure throughout the lineup.

There were few easy shifts.

"You look at their top line – it's [Pavel] Datsyuk and whoever it is – they're playing hard, too," Polak said. "They're always backchecking. They have great offensive skills, but they're going back, too. They're not just fully offence."

The big question – and perhaps it's the question of the Leafs season: Just how big a difference can a coach and a system make in the NHL?

If you subtract the Datsyuks and Zetterbergs and drop in Richard Panik and Nazem Kadri, can you get anything close to similar results? Can the Leafs be a great possession team, the way the Wings always were under Babcock, regardless of who is in the lineup?

Is that relentlessness innate to a player or can the right coach and system bring it out in anyone?

It feels like we'll find out this season in Toronto. Starting with the Leafs' three exhibition games in the next two days, where the split-squad rosters will try to implement some of what they learned in Halifax over the weekend.

"The biggest thing that he wanted us to take from this camp is to put in place some structure for the exhibition games and work on it," Phaneuf explained. "Because that's the way we're going to play all year. He's been very clear on that."

"It's a big change for a lot of us," added Tyler Bozak, one of the players Babcock has singled out as someone he wants to work with and improve his all-around game. "But you just see how smart he is as a coach. If we can get it down and work hard and figure it out, we should be a pretty good team."

Babcock's assessment: "We've got a lot of work to do."