TORONTO — Mike Babcock appreciates the recent enthusiasm of youth around his team, one that includes an almost nightly celebration of a Maple Leafs prospect accomplishing an NHL first.
It has its limitations with the first-year Toronto coach, however.
On Saturday night, it was William Nylander’s first two-point game in the NHL, highlighted by a rocket wrist-shot goal that has the scoring-starved team salivating at what is to come.
Throw in defenceman Connor Carrick’s second goal with the Leafs, the game-winner in the 4-1 victory over Buffalo, and the Leafs dressing room was a positive place following a rare Sunday afternoon practice.
The generally hard-working group has been infused by youngsters and committed to playing stout defensively, winning four of their past six games. Babcock is impressed enough with the mini-surge, though it’s a far different vibe than what he prefers with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“There’s way more excitement in the room when you’re going in the playoffs and you’re chasing the big silver trophy,” Babcock said, a dose of reality to spread on the modest success of late. “That’s a lot more fun than this. In saying that, they are good players and they’re trying to get better.”
That feeling Babcock talks about is likely at least two years away for the Leafs, if not more. No one in management is getting carried away with some late-season victories, though it’s hard not to appreciate seeing the young players get a taste of action and success.
And it’s certainly a far cry from the misery that accompanied the team late last season, an eventual death march for everyone from then general manager Dave Nonis, to interim coach Peter Horachek to leading scorer Phil Kessel.
“You see glimmers of inspiration,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, the team’s leading scorer with a meagre 37 points. “We’re pushing everyone in the right direction. We really do have something here.”
The team was eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday, but that was just a mathematical formality. In the remaining 11 games of the season — starting Monday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Calgary Flames — the roster figures to remain prospect-heavy, though some veterans are getting close to a return from their injuries.
There will be a handful of opportunities to play spoiler, especially in early April with games against the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, a pair of teams in a battle for the Eastern Conference wild-card spots. There will also be some more opportunities for memorable career firsts for the youth brigade.
While that’s all feel-good stuff and a modest treat for the team’s fan base, Babcock says management will not be misled by whatever success is accomplished now, preferring to wait until the off-season to see where it fits in the big picture.
“One thing you have to be real careful of this time of year when you’re a non-playoff team is over-evaluating what you have because the team you are playing against some nights isn’t prepared to play,” Babcock said. “When you’re a really good team, the teams prepare to play against you every night. They’re excited to play you. You’re a benchmark for them.
“When you’re not, sometimes you can catch them off-guard, so we don’t want to over-evaluate anybody here.”
To be clear, Babcock has been appreciative of the development of some of those prospects and isn’t being a downer. He is being a realist, spreading caution in the early stages of the team’s rebuild.
“Being a good kid and a good kid with potential is way different than being a real player,” Babcock said. “A real player shows up four years from now and are top scorers or a shut-down centre, a guy who can play against the best people in the league and his team comes out on top.
“We’re a ways away from that, but we’ve got some potential here that’s exciting for our group.”
That’s about as much excitement as should be allowed for a team at the bottom of the NHL standings.