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Hockey Leafs racking up wins as Babcock finally embraces youth movement

Maple Leafs defenceman Justin Holl controls the puck while skating up ice against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York on Thursday. Toronto won 4-0.

Mary Altaffer/AP

The Toronto Maple Leafs of the future became the Toronto Maple Leafs of the present this week.

By making several changes to his forward lines and a few to his defence, out of necessity, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock took a big step forward in the team's rebuilding plan. For the past two years, there has been nothing but talk about what the Leafs would become with the building blocks of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, and now that team is here.

The Leafs now have speed throughout all four lines, making each of them threats to score. A happy bonus is the injury to Rielly and the illness that befell his fellow defencemen Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak showed the Leafs now have depth at the position. Before that, the endless trade talk around the team was always about its need for a defenceman by the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline.

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If you don't think the Leafs have kicked up their game into a higher gear, just ask their latest victims. The New York Rangers simply could not keep up on Thursday night as the Leafs, despite playing the second of back-to-back games at home and on the road, blew past them for a 4-0 win, their second consecutive shutout and fourth consecutive victory.

"They are obviously a good team and they are fast," Rangers forward Rick Nash said. "When you play against a fast team, you can't play into their transition. It was on us. We turned the puck over too many times. We didn't get the puck deep at their blueline and their transition game came in back on top of us."

What Nash was saying is that too many times the Rangers handed the puck to the Leafs at their own blueline and then were left flat-footed while the Leafs roared down the ice for a scoring chance. That is what the best teams do – turn mistakes back on those who make them and get the puck moving the other way in a heartbeat.

The interesting thing about Babcock's changes is they originated with the fourth line, traditionally the baggage smashers who get a few minutes to knock some bodies around. But that was yesterday's NHL, and when Babcock finally decided to make his fourth line as contemporary as his other three, the domino effect was dramatic.

Up until the Leafs' two-game road trip that took them into last weekend's all-star break, the fourth line was comprised of centre Frédérik Gauthier, who seemed on the verge of sticking with the Leafs after a 2 1/2-season apprenticeship, veteran Matt Martin, whose value was in his thumping body checks and the increasingly rare fight and Mitch Marner, seemingly in a perpetual cycle of punishment and redemption for his defensive shortcomings.

The obstacle here was trust, a sacred commodity in the Babcock coaching manual. Babcock trusts players who rarely make mistakes, work hard and think defence first. That is why Marner could never displace anyone on the top three lines for long this season, especially Leo Komarov.

With Komarov on the shutdown line with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Patrick Marleau, Babcock felt comfortable. Komarov could be counted on to do what was necessary in the defensive zone. The problem was, this meant the Kadri line was always limited offensively despite the skills of Kadri and Marleau.

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As long as the Matthews line and the Tyler Bozak line were scoring, this did not matter if Kadri's line carried out its shutdown duties. But when the other two lines' scoring slowed down, even as the Leafs started playing better defensively after Christmas, Babcock decided to accelerate his growth plan.

For the Leafs' game in Chicago against the Blackhawks on Jan. 24, Marner swapped places on the fourth line with Komarov. Speedster Kasperi Kapanen, promoted days earlier from the Toronto Marlies farm team, manned the other wing. Then 37-year-old Dominic Moore, who has more offensive up-side than Gauthier, regained his job as fourth-line centre.

This not only revitalized Kadri and his line, it gave the Leafs four lines that were at the least a threat to score. In the past four games, Kadri and Marner combined for a total of eight points. The Leafs scored 16 goals in those four wins and allowed just three.

Even better, this was accomplished with three rookies on defence. Rielly's injury showed rookie Travis Dermott could play in the top four, and when Hainsey and reserve defenceman Polak were felled by a stomach bug, 26-year-old rookie Justin Holl came up from the Marlies and showed he could play on the top four. He became the first Leaf defenceman to score in his first two games. Also, second-year man Nikita Zaitsev returned from a broken foot at top form.

Rielly and Hainsey could return to the lineup on Saturday night in Boston against the Bruins, which might mean a return trip to the Marlies for Holl. But Leafs management now knows they have depth at a position considered a liability as recently as the start of the week.

"We think we're getting better, we think we have a chance to be quite a bit better," Babcock said. "I think early we were exciting and we scored like crazy, but we didn't know how to play without [the puck]. Then, there was a while where we struggled and everyone thought we weren't very good – I actually thought we were pretty good – we didn't give up much, but we couldn't score. Now we're scoring again and guys are getting their feel back.

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"We're deeper than we've been, we've got four lines, and, let's be honest, the kids we have brought up, all of them – I didn't know [Zaitsev] could be this good, I thought [Holl] was really good, Dermott has been good. We seem to have some good depth that you don't know until you try. That's positive."

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