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Life on the Road - Toronto Maple Leafs

A young challenge for a new coach

Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

There may not be two teams in hockey who are more directly inverse of each other than the St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs, after years of foundering, have hired a Hall of Fame head coach and are building their offense around two dynamic talents who can lead them well into the future. The Blues? Well, it would be hard to use the word “dynamic” in almost any context. After firing head coach Ken Hitchcock yesterday, the Blues are left largely without an identity. Tonight, as they raise Bob Plager’s number to the rafters, they’ll look to the past to find that meaning. If they can’t locate it there, they may struggle to keep up with the high-flying Maple Leafs.

Though they currently sit one point out of a playoff spot, the Leafs have three games in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers and they play the kind of up tempo game that can allow them to catch fire at any time. Led by the reigning No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, Auston Matthews, Toronto has a bevy of young forward talent.

Matthews opened the season by scoring four goals in his first career game. He made the All Star team and has received universal acclaim for his ability to dig goals out of dirty spots and pressure the opposition from all over the ice. Amazingly, however, Matthews is not even Toronto’s leading rookie scorer.

That honor belongs to Mitch Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015. His 41 points in 48 games are largely defined by his 29 assists, many of which have come on some of Matthews’s 23 goals.

Marner and Matthews are Nos. 2 and 3 in the NHL in rookie scoring, but the player in fourth is yet another Maple Leaf. William Nylander, the son of former NHL center Michael Nylander, has registered 31 points. Yet another top 10 pick of Toronto, those three forwards have the potential to terrorize the league for years to come.

Indeed, of the top 15 scoring rookies in the NHL, six play for Toronto. Forwards Connor Brown and Zach Hyman and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev rounds out the list. And yet shockingly, the Blues have yet to have a single point recorded this season by player who is rookie eligible. Indeed, they only have two games played, as Ivan Barbashev’s brief recall stands alone as the only rookie experience for a Blues skater this season.

While the Blues are looking toward the future with Mike Yeo, the Maple Leafs look to Mike Babcock. Babcock, who won the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008, is in his second season in Toronto. Though the Leafs finished with the worst record in the league last season, they managed to use that failure to acquire an asset in Matthews that could prove to be nearly invaluable.

Babcock is renowned around the league as a task master, and yet his conducting of Maple Leafs practice on Wednesday morning seemed to be anything but. The Leafs were engaged in enjoyable shooting drills and flying around the ice with smiles and high spirits, standing in stark contrast to the dour and hard work the Blues put in in the previous hour.

Blues fans may remember that Babcock was the subject of rumors in St. Louis before he ultimately accepted the job in Toronto. Indeed, after the failure against Mike Yeo and the Minnesota Wild in the 2015 playoffs, there were rumors that he would be the person brought in to replace Ken Hitchcock. Those rumors disappeared when he signed his deal with Toronto, and aside from a glorious two month stretch in the spring of 2016, the Blues never really recovered.

The Blues have put a great deal of emphasis on building from the net out, and Toronto may have found their building block in goaltender Frederik Andersen. Andersen was traded by Anaheim to Toronto this past summer for a first and a second-round draft pick in a deal that made many Blues fans question the single pick that the team received in exchange for Brian Elliott.

Toronto fans may have been ruing the deal at the start of the season, but Andersen has quickly become an indispensable part of their team defense. Andersen put up a 87.6 save percentage and a 3.67 goals-against average in October.

While those numbers may put Jake Allen’s January to shame, they wouldn’t be sustainable over the long haul. Lucky for Toronto, Andersen was stellar in November and then otherworldly in December, molding himself into the backbone his team needs.

If there’s one obvious deficiency that the Blues should be looking to exploit when playing the Maple Leafs, it’s Toronto’s older and slower defensemen. Matt Hunwick and Roman “Door” Polak are still vital parts of Babcock’s shutdown pairing, and their relative foot speed may actually put Jori Lehtera in play for a competitive foot race. The Blues would do well to execute smart changes and try to exploit that pairing with quick puck movement rather than allowing themselves to be bogged down.

The St. Louis Blues stand at a fundamental crossroads in the franchise’s history. If they’re to take the right path, it must begin tonight, and must involve harnessing the energy in the crowd and the hope for the future toward the goal of leaving Toronto with a rough night on the road.