TORONTO — Mike Babcock didn’t spend the off-season watching tape of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a conscious decision.
“Things went so poorly, why would I watch them be bad?” the new Leafs coach said Thursday. “It makes no sense to me. They’ve got a clean slate, and I want to catch them be good. That’s what I got right there when I walk out of the coaches’ office: catch them doing it right.”
Babcock and the Maple Leafs enter training camp with the best kind of unfamiliarity. The veteran Stanley Cup- and Olympic gold-medal-winning coach understands he’s in for some surprises, but he doesn’t want the team’s recent struggles to cloud his view.
He doesn’t know how centre Nazem Kadri has shown flashes of sublime skill mixed with fits of inconsistency, how defenceman Jake Gardiner sometimes can’t be trusted in his own end or how captain Dion Phaneuf has been maligned for his mistakes. Babcock has coached against the Leafs, but this camp is a chance for him and general manager Lou Lamoriello to get to know players and make their own judgements.
“Everyone knows what the coaches expect and what the management expects from everybody,” Kadri said. “That’s realistically the difference is there’s no grey area. Everything’s crystal clear.”
Clarity had been lacking in the past when Dave Nonis was the GM and Randy Carlye was the coach. Several players said they aren’t used to the kind of personal attention they have received from Babcock, who made several calls to players over the summer to see how things were going.
When Gardiner showed up at the Leafs’ practice facility, teammates asked him if Babcock had called. When he said he had four or five times and was told the same from others, it was clear the coach with the US$50-million, eight-year contract wanted to get off on the right foot.
“Mike did a really good job of reaching out to everyone and basically outlining what he expects,” Phaneuf said.
Now it’s up to the players, especially those who want bigger roles, to show Babcock what they’ve got. It starts with three practices in Bedford, N.S., outside Halifax before the pre-season begins Monday in split-squad action against the Ottawa Senators.
“A first impression’s pretty huge, especially on a new coach for playing time and stuff like that,” Gardiner said. “Everyone’s got a fresh start and it’ll be good for everyone with a new coach, a lot of new faces.”
Gone is right-winger Phil Kessel, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 1. In camp are several newcomers on one-year deals, including forwards Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Shawn Matthias and Mark Arcobello and defenceman Matt Hunwick, and winger Michael Grabner, acquired Thursday in a six-player trade with the New York Islanders.
Grabner has one year left on his deal, and the Leafs have four players in camp on professional tryouts hoping to get a similar chance. Forwards Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross and Devin Setoguchi and defenceman Mark Fraser could take advantage of Babcock’s clean slate to earn jobs for the season.
“I don’t even know how old they are,” Babcock said. “Can they play, or can they not?”
That’s the determination Babcock, Lamoriello and their staffs will make over the next few weeks before Toronto hosts the Montreal Canadiens Oct. 7 to open the regular season. Lamoriello stressed that Leafs brass has no “preconceived notions” about players going in.
For Babcock, that includes goaltending, where Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are back as a tandem. Bernier would seem to fit the bill as the No. 1 netminder Babcock likes, but he’s not being handed that distinction.
“Someone’s got to grab it,” Babcock said. “Let’s decide who wants to play. They’ve put in their work, I know that. They both want to be No. 1. I don’t know. Let’s watch and see who it is.”
While there’s plenty up in the air, Babcock made it perfectly clear that while Phaneuf has been the subject of intense attention and criticism, he believes in the defenceman as a top player and as the team’s leader.
“It’s an easy target if you’re the captain,” Babcock said. “I like Dion as the captain of the Leafs. He’s going to be the captain of the Leafs. He’s our leader right now and we can really help him with the leadership side of things and we’ll help him be the best he can be just like everyone else.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press