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Lagging Leafs on road to becoming relevant again

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 5:  William Nylander #39 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Ottawa Senators during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 5,2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Senators defeated the Maple Leafs 3-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

 William Nylander is one of the Toronto Maple Leafs many building blocks (Getty Images).

TORONTO – Snaking through the morass of morning traffic on the Queen Elizabeth Way and Lake Shore Boulevard, sports talk radio here is a must if you’re coming for a Leafs or Blue Jays game. Monday was no different. My longtime cohort Jeff Blair, the former columnist of the Globe & Mail, had the mic as he normally does on The Fan 590, Canada’s sports giant.

He spent the requisite amount talking about Jack Eichel, like we’ve heard in every town the Sabres have arrived in from coast to coast in two countries the last five months. Then he moved to the hometown team, the one in 30th place in the NHL that entered Monday’s game on a five-game losing streak and a 1-8-1 slump over its last 10.

“The Leafs,” Blair intoned with some dramatic effect, “have to have the happiest fan base in Canada.”

His words just about prompted a slam of the brakes. (OK, the traffic actually did do that, but go with me here).

Given time to stop and think, it was easy to ponder. Montreal fell apart without Carey Price. Ottawa and Vancouver are mediocre. Calgary and Winnipeg are big disappointments. And Edmonton is, well, Edmonton. And that’s even with Connor McDavid.

Then there’s the Leafs. Blair is right. They have sages in charge in Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock. Young players on the rise like William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner. Last year’s No. 4 overall pick, center Mitch Marner, has 107 points in 51 games this year at London of the OHL. Their AHL farm team, the Toronto Marlies, have a league-leading 43-13-4 record with a roster that includes former Pittsburgh No. 1 pick Kasperi Kapanen.

And what happens if the Leafs add Auston Matthews to all this?

The Leafs are definitely behind the Sabres on Rebuilding Road – or should it be Tank Terrace? – but they have a chance to close the gap fast. And all the snickers from the 716 aside, the Leafs finally finding their way and becoming relevant again would be good for the entire NHL.

As this season winds down, the Leafs are doing Tim Murray proud with the way they’re “losing properly.” After collapsing to a 4-3 shootout loss to the Sabres on Monday, they have lost 25 games this season by one goal – including the last five straight. They’ve dropped 11 of those in overtime or shootouts.

After going 13-8-5 in November and December, the Leafs are a very tanky 7-18-4 since the New Year, with plenty of trades helping ease the slide.

“It’s easy to sag and feel sorry for yourself and be mentally soft,” said Babcock. “Why don’t we dig in a little harder? Is it one shift? Is it one faceoff that gets you over the top? I don’t think anyone here has lost sight of the plan and where we’re going. At the same time, when the game starts we’re trying to win every single night. Don’t ever kid yourself. We’re playing our players that way, trying to find a way to get two points and feel good about ourselves.”

There were 11 players in the Toronto lineup when the met the Sabres on Oct. 21 in First Niagara who weren’t in it Monday night in Air Canada Centre, be it from a bunch of trades (notably Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer), injuries (Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk) or movement to and from the AHL.

Nonetheless, the Leafs were the better team Monday for 47 minutes. Leo Komarov burned the Sabres for a goal on a 2-on-1 after 25 seconds and Buffalo was as lackluster as it’s been all season for much of this one. There was no excuse for such a no-show. Which team is tanking again?

You get the feeling the Leafs love to fast-forward the process, especially since the Sabres already have huge building blocks in Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. But Lamoriello won’t let that happen. This is going to be a deliberate approach.

“What I did with Lou all winter long was when he was getting carried away, I talked to him,” Babcock said. “And when I was getting carried away, he talked to me.”

Marner will be in the NHL next year but could get loaned to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships. If the Leafs lose the Matthews lottery and end up with one of the Finnish flash wingers, either Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi, there’s a good chance they might stash them back in their home country for a year.

“It’s important to go through this experience,” said center Nazem Kadri. “What do they say? You’ve got to crawl before you can walk and you got to walk before you can run. It’s something we’ve taken in stride. You have to feel out the process. There’s been hard times but dealing with adversity can help take you over the top and help you achieve your goals.”

Kadri, who made several foolish plays in the third period to help the Buffalo comeback, has received particular attention from Babcock. He’s only 25 and has been widely known for being a party animal in Toronto. Sowing his wild oats won’t fly anymore.

“It’s a work in progress and if Nazem was right here, I’d say the same thing to him,” said a smiling Babcock. “The big thing for him and for all kids is you’ve got figure out what a pro is. I think when you start getting paid, you think you’re a pro. To me, that has nothing to do with it. …

“It’s not what comes out of your mouth. It’s what you do every day. That’s how you live and that’s what guys are watching. If you say all the right things and you’re living wrong, no one is listening to you.”

More sage advice. The Leafs are behind the Sabres. But you should be concerned the gap might not be as wide as you think.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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