Maple Leafs Would be well-served by Making Playoffs
There’s a moment in the documentary leading to the Centennial Classic where we get a sneak peak at Leafs coach Mike Babcock and the mindset he’s instilling in his overachieving young team.
Cameras in the Argos’ BMO Field dressing room that was taken over by the Leafs for the weekend captured the renowned Babcock intensity on full display.
“These games, these fun games, just like in the playoffs … all you’ve got to do is your simple part,” Babcock tells the troops before heading to the ice to face the Detroit Red Wings. “Do your simple part and you’re great together.”
Yes, the man said “playoffs.” And yes, he said it to a group of players in Maple Leafs uniform.
An outdoor classic has nowhere near the stakes of a contest in the Stanley Cup tournament, of course, but recognizing and responding to the big-game feel is part of the Babcock text book.
The more learning opportunities the better, for a coach widely acknowledged as one of the best in the game. So even if the Leafs are nowhere near deep nor experienced enough to challenge for a title yet, grinding their way into the tournament can only be seen as a positive.
With that in mind, why not now?
Management isn’t planning to abandon the patient rebuild just for a handful of playoff-revenue dates. Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello aren’t about to deal young prospects for veterans to make the push, either.
And here’s the beauty of it — the culture of the reconstruction is so firmly rooted now, that if the Leafs do manage to grab a spot, expectations will be minimal.
First things first: There is a tendency in this market, both from the media and the fan base, to succumb to hyperbole if the Leafs have even the briefest taste of success. The six-game winning streak that ended last Friday in Washington certainly brought the playoffs into play and, with it, predictable excitement.
An emotional 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre slipped the Leafs back out of the playoff spot they held for less than 24 hours. And with the team on a five-day bye week, the standings will become skewed by the time they return to action on Friday in New York, when the Leafs will hold multiple games in hand on all of the teams they are chasing.
Acknowledging that there are roadblocks in the way, the outside chance at regression and a torrid schedule ahead, let’s look at the reasons why talkin’ playoffs in Toronto in early January isn’t as far-fetched as dreaming of a week on the beach.
YOUTH IS SERVED
Yes, expectations were significant for rookie Auston Matthews and, to a lesser extent, fellow NHL freshman Mitch Marner entering this season. But both have exceeded them — and then some.
Both were impact players less than 10 games into their NHL careers and both continue to improve almost nightly. Most importantly, each has shown dominant offensive moves that even seasoned NHLers are unable to contain at times.
And it gets better. Most nights, the Leafs have as many as eight rookies in the lineup and, to varying degrees, each have had their impressive moments. William Nylander is a setup machine on the power play, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman are effective linemates for Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev continues to evolve into a top-four defenceman.
More than once this season, Babcock has said it is the rookies who are driving this team. He’s right.
And the more meaningful games they play, the more equipped they will be to handle the bigger moments that everyone in the Leafs organization believe await in future seasons.
Leafs management deserves serious credit for the way the youngsters have been instilled with a winning mindset from the start of their NHL careers while also benefitting from among the best off-ice support in the league. And the fact that they are adapting and thriving so early in their careers is ample reason to adjust the timeline.
Clearly reinvigorated by the task at hand in Toronto, Babcock lives for teachable moments. Spend enough time around Leafs practice and you see it on a daily basis.
One of the most driven coaches in the game, Babcock is determined to see his young players develop. It’s part of the reason his Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-Connor Brown all-rookie line may be the best on the team. It’s also why he had Matthews on the ice for the final minute of the Centennial Classic with the Leafs nursing a one-goal lead and Red Wings veteran Henrik Zetterberg on the other side of the faceoff dot.
That didn’t work out so well, with the late Red Wings equalizer, but Matthews bounced back with the game-winner in overtime — and you can bet a helpful video session from the coaching staff post-game.
The biggest thing Babcock wants to teach the Leafs, however, is how to win. A taste of the playoffs this spring, even if it’s just one round, will pay big dividends in the future and provide all sorts of material for his coaching curriculum.
While we’re not suggesting major changes around the trade deadline to improve the prospect, what’s the point in not doing everything possible to get the current group to the playoffs now?
Based on the record they’ve built so far (44 points in 39 games and on pace for 92) and the fact they’re in a weak Atlantic Division, it’s certainly well within reach.
Stockpiling the shelves with high-end prospects is a wise strategy, ultimately aimed at sustained, long-term success. Led by the savvy eye of assistant general manager Mark Hunter, the Leafs are well on their way.
But how many times have you heard Babcock say the goal is to be a playoff team every spring and a serious contender in most of them?
The Edmonton Oilers felt they were on that path after a series of top picks, but potential didn’t translate into enough wins. If that goes on for too long, frustration can be a disruptive force.
Sure, the Leafs make their share of mistakes and they’ve let some games get away. But there’s also strong chemistry, with the young players bringing new life to the veterans and those older players helping to mentor the kids.
Overall, there’s a winning culture borne in part because of the belief that the rebuild is for real. If playing and having success in tough games in March and early April lead to a post-season berth, the reward would be worthy.
If they hadn’t suffered through so many miserable seasons with little hope, players such as Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak might feel chafed at all the attention being heaped on their young teammates.
The opposite, it would appear, is happening.
Those three and others such as defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner can also see the fruits of the rebuild and are motivated to remain a part of it when the team does become a contender.
Kadri has 16 goals in 39 games and, as long as he remains healthy, will destroy his previous season high of 20. Furthermore, the defensive groundwork Babcock drilled in him last season continues to take root.
Van Riemsdyk is on pace for 29 goals, one shy of his career best, but also 69 points, which would easily be his most productive season. On a line with Bozak and Marner, van Riemsdyk is benefitting from the creativity and space created by the latter and the reliability of the former.
For most of the longer-term veterans with the Leafs, their only playoff memory is of the miserable collapse in Boston in 2013. Understandably, they’re all anxious for another taste.
It would be a remarkable turnaround to go from 30th (and last) overall to being a part of the Eastern Conference playoffs — and it’s not an easy turnaround.
(OK, it’s a little easier when 30th was accomplished in part because of a tank job, but we digress.)
There are certainly obstacles in the Leafs’ way, of course, starting with the compacted schedule once the bye week is done. Will a team full of young players hit a wall? Will the time and space Matthews and Marner have been able to carve for themselves become limited when the texture and tenacity of games change during a playoff push?
There are also issues on the Leafs blue line, the weak link so far and one opponents are anxious to exploit. And don’t forget the frustrating inability to close out games they are leading. But be sure of one thing: Babcock wants them to find out — and the sooner the better.
“At playoff time in the NHL, you’re up one or down one,” Babcock said recently. “It’s the same every night. You’ve got to love the duress. You’ve got to love the grind. You’ve got to love digging in and knowing you’re going to get it done.”
KIDS LEADING THE WAY
The Leafs knew they were going to get production from their rookies this season, but who could have envisioned the freshmen leading the team into playoff contention?
Through 39 games, first-year players have combined for a whopping 151 points (57 goals and 94 assists), easily the most from rookies in the NHL.
And included in that total are several superlatives:
*Centre Auston Matthews leads all Leafs in goals (21) and points (35). The 21 goals are more than any Toronto player scored last season and are tied for third in the NHL.
*Winger Mitch Marner had three assists on Saturday to give him 22 on the season, the most among rookies, and has 12 points in his past 11 games.
*William Nylander leads the Leafs and all NHL rookies with 15 power-play points.
*Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev leads all NHL rookies in ice time, averaging 22 minutes and 40 seconds per game.
COMPETITIVE JUICES FLOWING
With so many more positive signs than in his first season as Leafs coach, the competitiveness in coach Mike Babcock is becoming more apparent.
Rebuilding is one thing, and Babcock has bought in to the long-term view of Leafs management. But winning and improving significantly right away is more suited to his character.
“The competitive people get better and better,” Babcock said recently when asked if the Leafs’ recent run of success has accelerated his expectations. “The noncompetitive people have got to find some place else to play. That’s just what happens in the good programs.
“So we’re finding players every day as we watch them grow. We have aspirations to be a very good team in the NHL, one that in the summer you know can make the playoffs.”
Babcock acknowledged the obvious — that the Leafs aren’t there yet, but well on the way.
“We’re a work in progress,” the coach said. “We like the direction we’re going.”
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
“Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”