Nazem Kadri

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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A memorable debut for Marleau, a forgettable debut for Mason

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Patrick Marleau‘s first regular season game with the Toronto Maple Leafs could not have gone any better for him.

The 38-year-old forward, who had spent his entire NHL career with the San Jose Sharks before signing in Toronto this summer, scored twice and had five shots on goal, helping the Maple Leafs to 7-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

The Jets actually had a decent start to this game — except it didn’t show on the score board.

Winnipeg held a territorial advantage thanks to three consecutive power plays, but couldn’t finish their chances and it quickly went off the rails for the home team.

The Maple Leafs made them pay with three goals late in the first period. Marleau struck in the second period, taking a puck off his skate and making a move to the backhand on Steve Mason, and he struck again in the third period, too.

With the pressure of a three-year, $18.75 million contract, it’s hard to envision a better start to Marleau’s time in Toronto.

The same cannot be said for Mason, who was making his regular season debut for the Jets.

Signed to a two-year, $8.2 million deal this summer, Mason gave up five goals on 20 shots and was pulled early in the third period, giving way to Connor Hellebuyck.

Toronto, with its youth and talent, has a solid offensive attack and it showed once the Maple Leafs were able to get through their early penalty trouble, thanks largely to the performance of goalie Frederik Andersen. The Jets ended the night 0-for-8 on the power play.

While the Maple Leafs are likely going to score plenty of goals this year, that’s not the start Mason would’ve been hoping for with his new team. Nazem Kadri started the onslaught and less than three minutes later, Toronto had a three-goal lead going into the intermission.

Video: Nazem Kadri scores the first goal of the 2017-18 season

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Last year, Auston Matthews scored the first goal of the 2016-17 regular season.

On Wednesday, it was his Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Nazem Kadri opening the new season with its first goal, as he skated by the net and flipped a loose puck over Steve Mason, who is making his official debut for the Winnipeg Jets.

The Kadri goal came soon after the Maple Leafs killed off three consecutive Winnipeg power plays early on, which helped the Jets take a sizable lead in shots on goal. That said, they were unable to beat Frederik Andersen, who was up to the challenge with some key stops.

Toronto opened up a three-goal lead on Winnipeg after the opening period. Talk about a tough start for Mason.

‘That group can be way better’: Babcock calls out Kadri, Marleau, Komarov line

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Expectations weren’t very high for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, but they surprised many by not only making the playoffs but also pushing the Capitals in the opening round of the postseason.

This year, the Leafs won’t catch many teams off guard, so they need to make sure they’re playing good hockey if they want to make it back to the playoffs.

This week, they collected a pair of wins over their bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, but head coach Mike Babcock isn’t thrilled with the way all his forwards have been playing.

He’s had an issue with the way the line of Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, and Leo Komarov have been playing lately.

“I thought early (in camp) they were going good,” said Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “But that line’s got to be better. That group can be way better, way quicker, a lot more diligent. They’ve got to upgrade. We need Kadri to be real good for us to be effective. That group has got to find some chemistry and get going.”

Having Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner doesn’t hurt, but Kadri, Marleau and Komarov will need to be key contributors if they want to take the next step.

Kadri had an incredible season in 2016-17, as he scored a career-high 32 goals and 61 points in 82 contests. Komarov, like Kadri, has the ability to chip in offensively while playing with a physical edge. Both players can get under the opposition’s skin, too.

Marleau was signed early on in free agency, as he surprised many by leaving the San Jose Sharks. The veteran can skate and chip in offensively (he had 27 goals with the Sharks last season), and he’ll also be expected to be one of the key leaders on the team.

The Maple Leafs have two games left in their preseason. They’ll finish things off with a home-and-home series against the Red Wings tonight and tomorrow.

From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.