The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had the greatest start to the 2015-16 NHL season. They currently sit at 1-3-1 and have the second worst record in the Atlantic division. Despite the losses, there is more than one reason to optimistic and hopeful about hockey in Toronto.
New head coach Mike Babcock has his team playing with a different effort and mindset then they did last season. It’s still early, but this team appears to play an uptempo game where they refuse to roll over and give up, even if they are trailing on the scoreboard. That can be attributed to Babcock’s style of coaching. But it also comes down to the players and if they choose to perform well. Three Leafs have stood out early on this season for a variety of reasons. Let’s examine each of them and their on-ice contributions.
Matt Hunwick is a veteran defenseman who first broke into the league back in 2007-08 with the Boston Bruins. He spent last season a depth option with the New York Rangers before being signed to a two-year deal by the Leafs this past summer. Hunwick has definitely been impressive in his short time with the Blue and White.
He has become a leader on the ice and in the dressing room. The former seventh round pick works hard, isn’t overly flashy and appears to be a steady presence on a Leafs blueline that has lacked stability for so long. Pair that with his excellent skating and defensive awareness and you have a solid addition to your club.
The much maligned offensive defenseman was often criticized over the last few years in Toronto. At times, the criticism was completely justified. Others, it looked as if he wasn’t managed properly and that his skills and talent were wasted in a role he wasn’t meant to play in.
This year, it appears the young player has regained his confidence and every time he steps on the ice it has shown, whether it’s an extra zip in his step, a booming shot or a smart pass. Babcock has continued to mentor and encourage the young defenseman, and so far it has been nothing but beneficial.
He now plays more sheltered minutes and is getting less time on the penalty kill than in previous seasons. He’s made up for it by being excellent on five on five situations, where his skating and shooting works to his advantage. The Leafs are still learning a new system, but Gardiner appears to be well on his way to earning his coaches trust once again.
“Uncle Leo” as he is affectionately known by Leafs fans, has been excellent early on this season. Not only has he been his usual hard-hitting and pest self, he has also added a little bit of goal scoring. Komarov is a talented player if he’s given the right circumstances.
When he left the Maple Leafs to play in Russia for the 2013-14 season, he was able to put up solid numbers including 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points. He had a slow start to this years training camp but has since come back strong and has impressed Babcock and the coaching staff. The multi-lingual forward was even given time on the teams top line, which is a solid sign of trust.
These three players have impressed the Leafs staff with this hustle, skills and work ethic so far. If they continue to learn and grow in Babcock’s new system, consistency may not be that far away.