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14th of December 2018

Travel



Harder, heavier element Babcock’s desire as Leafs continue to pile up victories

Just what the Maple Leafs need when William Nylander returns at some point this week: Another highly talented player able to score on any shift, no matter the score or time in the game.

Kidding, of course — Nylander will be welcomed back into the lineup by teammates and Leafs Nation alike, giving a Toronto forward group that is already among the deepest in the National Hockey League another exhilarating weapon.

Once Nylander, who arrived here Sunday, gets past the adjustment period, which is likely to begin at home against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday (both coach Mike Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas indicated after Nylander signed on Saturday that four or five days will pass before the 22-year-old plays his first game), opposing coaches could be that much more challenged in their defensive schemes when Toronto is the opponent.

Which brings us to something Babcock said on Saturday after the Leafs won for the 10th time in 13 road games when they beat the Minnesota Wild 5-3.

Babcock isn’t in the habit of voicing anything by accident, if you will. The coach is measured in his daily scrums with media, and even in the final days of negotiations between the club and Nylander, when publicly nothing appeared to be certain beyond hunches, Babcock was steadfast in his conviction that the winger would sign. He was right.

So post-game at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., Babcock mentioned that the Leafs “should play them 20 times going into the playoffs.”

This reference to the Wild after the Leafs were outplayed at five-on-five, especially in the third period, by a heavier Minnesota club that turns in an honest, physical game.

“Now, we’ve gotta make the playoffs,” Babcock said, adding an unnecessary caveat, because the Leafs will accomplish that, “but we need to understand how heavy and how hard it is. We’re fun to watch, there is no question, but just because you are fun to watch doesn’t mean you get to play a long time in the spring.”

And this was Babcock before the morning skate: “I think it’s a real good game for our team to try to take a step, because they make it hard to do what we need learn how to do.”

Whether Babcock is sending a message to his players or to Dubas to try to acquire a player or two of that ilk, interpret it whatever way you like.

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The Leafs are a better team now than they were in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs and they were better last spring than they were in 2017. Each trip to the post-season, however, didn’t go beyond the first round.

Through 27 games, the Leafs have won 19, and perhaps therein lies a small problem for Babcock. As much as he was glad the Leafs found a way to win in Minnesota, it could be that convincing his players to perform with a little more bump and grind is more of a challenge when losses aren’t piling up outside his office door.

The Leafs have won four in a row and when they play in Buffalo against the Sabres on Tuesday, will be in the hunt for their second five-game winning streak of the season.

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As productive as the Leafs have been in collecting points, the game will mark the first stiff test Toronto has had in Buffalo in several seasons, even taking into consideration that the Sabres play in Nashville against the Predators on Monday night.

The bonus in all this for Babcock and the Leafs? Plenty of time — 55 games, if we’re doing the math correctly — remains for the coach to establish in the Leafs methods that include detailed, intense, heavy hockey, the kind that can result in a firmer guarantee of playoffs success.

For the time being, edge-of-your-seat hockey should continue to get the Leafs by.

Nylander, once he is in proper game mode, will make the Leafs that much more dangerous.

KLIMCHUK CONNECTS AGAIN

Morgan Klimchuk appears to be making a fine first impression with the Toronto Marlies.

Klimchuk, acquired from the Calgary Flames last week for defenceman Andrew Nielsen, scored his second goal in as many games for the Marlies in a 5-2 Toronto loss against Lehigh Valley on Sunday at the Coca-Cola Coliseum.

Pierre Engvall also scored for the Marlies, who fell to 9-8-4. Goaltender Eamon McAdam made 35 saves.

Carter Hart, in line to be the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalie of the not-too-distant future, stopped 33 shots in the Lehigh Valley net. Phil Varone paced the Phantoms with two goals.

The Marlies, meanwhile, should know in the next couple of days whether they will be getting a boost from the Leafs.

With the signing of William Nylander, the Leafs have to reduce their roster by one player. Forwards Par Lindholm and Kasperi Kapanen, as well as defencemen Travis Dermott and Igor Ozhiganov, are exempt from waivers, but none of the four are going anywhere.

That would leave defencemen Justin Holl and Martin Marincin, as well as Frederik Gauthier, who is out now that Auston Matthews is back from injury.

The expectation is that one of Holl or Marincin will be sent to the Marlies. Each requires waivers to go to the minors, so the Leafs run the risk of losing the player.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/koshtorontosun

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