If anyone has a sliver of ill-will towards the Leafs roster for the upcoming season, it’ll be Mike Babcock, and it’s not for the reasons you’re thinking. Babcock has an easy-to-follow theme that’s been in the weeds since joining the organization in 2015: He has his toys, and he makes use of his toys.
Here is the opening roster for the 2018-19 season (for the sake of argument, we’ll ignore Nylander’s absence):
Forwards -> Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Tyler Ennis, Par Lindholm, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Frederik Gauthier.
Defence -> Morgan Rielly, Ron Hainsey, Travis Dermott, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Igor Ozhiganov, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin.
Goaltenders -> Frederik Andersen, Garret Sparks.
Players with a strikethrough are no longer on the team while those whose names were bolded had the pleasure of being Babcock’s toys. Call it old school thinking or professional stubbornness, but it didn’t take long for Babs to identify those on the team he would trust in any and all situations.
Hainsey and Zaitsev gained Leaf fame from their full two-minute penalty kill stints, Brown was the go-to bump-up to play with Matthews when things weren’t looking too well, and Marleau apparently gives the Leafs the best chance to score when facing elimination.
Hyman is the only toy Babs has left of that initial group, but he does enough on the ice to justify being used so much and 21 goals is a nice stat line (despite six of them being empty-netters).
Does this mean Babcock is finally going to start relying on his star players more? Most likely yes, and the removal of his toys doesn’t have too much to do with it. Whatever Mike and Kyle talked about at the end of the year will probably impact some aspects of the team. Either that or we’re back to square one.
But Babcock has proved to have a ‘Walder Frey’ type of attitude here. If his old toys are taken:
Jason Spezza: Babs loves his vets and Spezza joins the Leafs with 16 years of experience. We’re expecting the 36-year-old to man the fourth line and chip in on the power play, but would it surprise any to see him play in the top-nine at any point? The tie goes to the veteran and if he wants someone he can trust, he’ll give Spezza the tap whenever he can.
Kenny Agostino: The 27-year-old has put up points anywhere he’s played, which for the most part has been the AHL. He spent the most time in the NHL last season starting with the Montreal Canadiens before getting picked up off of waivers by the New Jersey Devils.
What caught Claude Julien’s eye in training camp was his work ethic and heavy play which led to him being one of the first call ups for the Habs. Agostino changed his style to match what was expected of him and provide Montreal with those “energy” minutes. It’ll be difficult for Agostino to make the team, but it’s those kinds of qualities Babcock gravitates to.
Ben Harpur: He’s making the team. Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun did a piece on the 24-year-old which included this quote:
They think they maybe need more size and grit on the back end. If that’s an element I can bring to help the team win, I’m happy to do that.”
Music to Mike’s ears, is it not? Babcock will do whatever he can to ensure he’s on that roster and Dermott being out should make the path easier.
Ilya Mikheyev: We can lock this answer in already as the two are pretty much bffs at this point.
We shall never forget the price of gasoline in Toronto (probably) said Mike to Micky (Ilya Mikheyev) on his first day in town... So much to be excited for... How’s your Sunday is going??? #tmltalk pic.twitter.com/uXN8REIc0c— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) August 11, 2019
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