If only Mike Babcock could work some magic.
The Maple Leafs coach must grin each time he checks his bank account, what with the eight-year, $50-million US contract he signed with Toronto in 2015, but there’s no kind of money that can give him the ability to snap his fingers and make problems disappear.
The Leafs, coming off a couple of tough losses and with a couple of tough games against the Winnipeg Jets looming this week, held a rare Sunday afternoon practice at the MasterCard Centre, with Babcock determined to get his team back in the winning column starting on Wednesday in Winnipeg.
“What happens during the year?,” a philosophical Babcock asked. “Why do you win some games and you’re on a bit of a roll and suddenly you come off it? If I had the answer to that, for sure, it would never happen.”
The Leafs won six of their first seven games before being shut out by Pittsburgh on Thursday, a loss that was followed by an effort against St. Louis on Saturday that was the antithesis of inspiring.
When Babcock viewed film of the game on Sunday morning, it was clear to him what specifics needed to be addressed. Babcock called Sunday’s practice a “reality-therapy meeting.”
“We just got to the nitty gritty,” he said. “We just talked about the facts.
“I thought (the Blues) worked harder than we did and they were on top of us, and I didn’t think our D had a chance to make many plays. When you look at the whole game (from) overhead and you see how far our forwards were away from our D, for the D it was a tough night. We have to do a better job of that.”
If practice was an indication, there could be a few changes against the Jets.
Tyler Ennis might draw back in on the fourth line, taking the place of Andreas Johnsson, but eyebrows were raised to an extent when it appeared that Travis Dermott could be scratched, with Martin Marincin taking his spot on a duo with Igor Ozhiganov. Dermott was paired with Justin Holl, who has not yet played in a game this season.
Babcock demurred when asked whether a blue-line change is on the way.
“I don’t know,” Babcock said. “I got lots of time to think about that.”
Dermott had not been told one way or another, but seemed to be reading the tea leaves.
“I feel good with where we were at, how we were playing, our communication level was getting better every day,” Dermott said in reference to Ozhiganov, speaking in the past tense.
“I have not talked to (the coaching staff) about the little change here (during practice). Whatever happens, happens.
“I always love playing with Hollsy, though. Was kind of fun having the one practice, just us two. Not too sure of any meaning behind it.”
The Leafs will have a day off on Monday and will practise on Tuesday before heading west for the quick one-game trip, so there should be a better handle on Babcock’s plans then.
What’s more important — and not that we would undersell the role the third defence pair plays — is the Leafs know where repairs must be made. The two losses are enough of a lesson, or so the impression was being given on Sunday.
“It starts with not only working harder but I think working smarter,” said Auston Matthews, who has gone three games without scoring a goal after scoring 10 in the first six games. “I think sometimes we are maybe too predictable. You do the same thing over and over again, teams watch video. Mixing it up off faceoffs, in the neutral zone and stuff like that (is key).”
For Babcock, the common denominator remains the same. And there’s nothing magical about it.
“You never mind leaving the building and walking by everyone when you have played really hard and you won all the battles and you won all the races,” Babcock said. “When the last couple of nights you haven’t won enough battles and enough races, you don’t feel very god about what’s going on.
“So you have to fix it. You have to get back to work.”