You have to assume Mike Babcock knew the question was coming. The Toronto Maple Leafs coach stood in front of reporters ahead of Saturday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that the young Leafs have begun to draw comparisons to. The Hawks, after all, were once a young, rebuilding squad that featured the likes of a young but mature franchise centre in Jonathan Toews and a dynamic, smallish point producer in Patrick Kane.
And the Leafs leading scorers today, well into a rebuild of their own, are Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, two players who are alarmingly similar in playing style to the aforementioned Hawks.
The Blackhawks have gone on to win three Stanley Cups since those two entered the league in 2007-08 and Babcock addressed the similarities between the paths of those two teams.
“Well you hope there’s similarities. I mean, you hope,” he said. “(Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville) told me the same thing this morning: ‘You remind us of nine years ago.’ But in the meantime, they’ve won three Cups and they’ve kept it going. They found a way to change out players. Their core players have been just so good that they’ve been able to do a good job.”
Quenneville was asked about the similarities as well and reminisced on Toews and Kane’s rookie season.
“Nine years ago we had a real young team,” he said. “We had some real tough years prior to that. You’re fortunate to get a (Toews, Kane and Duncan Keith) and I was fortunate to come in at that stage when these guys were ready to take off and become great players. They had a lot of good players around them.”
If the Leafs are indeed using the Hawks as a model for their success, they were reminded yet again on Saturday night of how far they will have to go to become one of the league’s elite. Ryan Hartman scored in the extra frame to hand the Leafs a 2-1 overtime loss, their second loss against the Hawks this season.
It was a tight, playoff-like affair in which the more experienced Hawks simply suffocated the young Leafs at times.
“Everyone talks about Chicago and how well they score. Yea, but they play defense. They’re unbelievable in the neutral zone,” Babcock said.
“That’s why they win championships: they know how to play without the puck.”
While the likes of Matthews and Marner certainly have once-disgruntled Leafs fans now dreaming of a Stanley Cup, what can easily get lost in those comparisons is the process which the Hawks had to go through to get those three Cups.
You’ll remember that in 2007-08, the Hawks missed the playoffs. The Leafs currently own the final wild card spot by just a one-point margin. If they’re to do one better than the Hawks team they’re being compared to and make the playoffs this year, it won’t come easy.
And Babcock was quick to remind everyone of that.
“Now, I think everybody has a plan,” he said. “And when you have a plan and you keep adjusting that plan and you stick to it you have an opportunity to do that. But not many teams have won three Cups in that period of time that they have so let’s just get better here today.”
The Leafs have been a work in progress all season and will likely continue to be so through their final 12 games of the regular season. Lines are still being juggled and one reason for optimism Saturday was Auston Matthews scoring his 32nd goal of the season and breaking his seven-game pointless drought.
Matthews is a centrepiece of the Leafs and as good as he’s been this season, in what could be a Calder Trophy-winning campaign, Quenneville stopped short of forecasting how well Matthews and the Leafs could be in the future.
“There’s a lot of teams that have some real bright stars and some good kids coming along here and it’s tough to forecast that,” he said.
For now, the Hawks are back on top of the Central Division, yet again. It’s early on in this comparison, and games like Saturday only exemplify that.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Quenneville said of the team’s journey to their three Stanley Cups in six seasons. “You need a lot of things to go right just to get one. That’s what it makes it so special. Certainly the best part about winning one is trying to win one. That’s the fun part.”