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Early signs point to positive change in direction under Babcock for Leafs

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After years of unsustainable play, the Leafs are playing sound, possession-driven hockey. And that's a huge step in the right direction.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When I sat down to write the 2015-16 SB Nation preview for this year's instalment of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I was tasked with exploring the team's "best-case scenario." In it, I acknowledged that making the playoffs, while obviously every team's goal, wasn't and shouldn't be this team's goal.

Instead, I wrote that "a season with decent possession has to be the more realistic goal."

Any best-case scenario has to see the Leafs play a season of positively-driven possession hockey under Babcock. Not half a season; a full season clear of being heavily out-shot. The Leafs aren’t serious contenders, but if they can take steps towards improving the systemic problems that have dragged down the franchise, the season will be considered a success. If possession anchors like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul can break some bad habits, there’s a chance they aren’t horribly out-shot on a nightly basis.

After losing Phil Kessel, it became clear that the Leafs were going to struggle to score this season. Kessel not only provided regular offence, but he served as a buffer for the rest of the Leafs lineups by taking on opposing team's top defensemen on a nightly basis. This provided a certain cushion for the rest of the lineup. Without him, the likes of Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk were likely to get targeted, with less high-end firepower below them.

But if a system could be put into place that could undo the damage done by a Randy Carlyle system that deployed its wingers too high in the offensive zone and didn't apply the kind of up-ice pressure or neutral zone in-and-out passing that is indicative of successful teams in today's NHL, then the Leafs were at least going to be headed in the right direction.

So too, if Babcock could break the long ago unsuccessful habit of relying too heavily on Dion Phaneuf, misusing Kadri and Bozak, and burying not-quite-capable checkers like Jay McClemment, then there could be progress.

And maybe, just maybe, scoring wouldn't be as much of an issue.

Early on, despite the team's losing record, the boxes are being checked.

Dion Phaneuf's minutes have been cut from 23:43 to 21:43 (equal to Morgan Rielly and Matt Hunwick).

Nazem Kadri is playing slightly more than Tyler Bozak on a nightly basis, and with better line mates to boot. Unsurprisingly, he is succeeding. Despite registering a modest three points in five games (good for third on the team behind Winnik and Phaneuf), Kadri trails only Taylor Hall in shots on goal with 27. He's playing well, he's creating, and his 3.7% shooting percentage will rise.

And while Nick Spaling, Joffrey Lupul and Daniel Winnik are perhaps being overly challenged with big minutes and tough defensive assignments, it isn't at the expense of deploying only three lines.

In fact, in only two games this season has a Leafs player registered less than 10 minutes of playing time and not once has a player's ice-time (TOI) dipped below nine minutes. Team lows in TOI this season belong to Leo Komarov (9:07 against Montreal), Mark Arcobello (11:18 against Detroit), PA Parenteau (9:00 against Ottawa and 10:26 against Columbus), and Shawn Matthias (10:24 against Pittsburgh).

Last season, the Leafs deployed 10 players over the span of 97 combined games who played an average of 7:30 on a nightly basis. Mark Arcobello trails all Leafs players in average TOI this season at 11:46.

Systematically, the Leafs are less static in the defensive zone with forwards and defensemen alike applying on-puck pressure, the team's wingers are more involved in puck retrieval and more active in exiting the zone not too early but with the puck rather than before it.

All of these things, together, have resulted in a team that sits an unheard-of-in-years-past top 10 in 5-on-5 possession at 52.3 CF% and 50.1% adjusted for score effects. Offensively, scoring hasn't been as weak as it could be, with 2.4 goals per game in the early going (they finished last season at 2.57).

Instead, it has been the goaltending that has proved costly with both goaltenders clicking at .900 and .890 respectively. When (it is almost inevitable) those numbers come up, the team's results will improve.

Until then, if the Leafs continue to play positive possession hockey, there is little to complain about with a team that isn't and shouldn't be a contender.

After years of dreadful possession hockey and inevitable collapses, Babcock has a team of analytical misfits playing a sound system with balanced usage.