HAMILTON, Ont. – In his decorated coaching career, Mike Babcock has navigated more than a few challenges. But he’s never been at the helm of as much young talent as he is now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a task presenting its own set of difficulties.

“I’ve never seen this many kids. I’ve never had this many kids who are ready to make the [NHL] team,” Babcock said Friday morning. “I’ve rushed some players [to the NHL] the odd time and they ended up back in the minors and to me that’s counter-productive so we don’t want to err on the over-excited side, we want to err I think on the cautious side.”

Every club is grading every player in its organization during the preseason, and for those on the bubble between NHL-ready and AHL-bound, it can be an especially trying time. When the Maple Leafs traveled to Hamilton on Friday to face the Detroit Red Wings for their penultimate exhibition contest, the team did so with a roster of almost entirely minor-league skaters. Coming off a 6-1 blowout loss to the Montreal Canadiens with a regular season-type lineup on Thursday, the fresh set of legs for Toronto resulted in a 2-1 loss. More importantly, it gave the coaching staff a final chance to assess a number of Maple Leafs on the fringe.

“Things get clearer and clearer,” Babcock said of his final roster. “You get excited about a kid early, and as the lineups get better and better, you’re not quite as excited about him anymore. That’s just the way it is.”

On Friday, his lineup played young at times, making too many blind passes and giving the puck away too often to establish zone presence or generate chances up front. A perfectly placed shot from Brendan Leipsic, right over Jimmy Howard’s glove, gave Toronto some momentum. But they failed to maintain much pressure on Detroit until the third period. With strong goaltending down the stretch from Jhonas Enroth, the Maple Leafs failed to find an equalizer but showed a better compete level than the night before.

“It was a muddy track out there for both teams, the ice was just awful, and there wasn’t a lot of room,” Babcock said. “Guys were trying to make an impression. I don’t know if it was fun for anyone to watch, but our guys were competitive. Our goalie was really good.”

Babcock stressed the importance of execution and getting on top of opponents after Thursday’s dismal showing, particularly with how it pertains to his young players. In the first period on Friday, Toronto let the game come to them without attacking the Red Wings offensively. That improved as the game wore on, but Babcock knows too well the challenge awaiting them at the next level.

“When the puck is there, you’ve got to compete for it. Like a pro does,” Babcock said Friday. “That’s how [a pro] feeds his family. He’s got three kids at home, he feeds his family by winning that battle. You’re just skilling your way around because you’re better than everyone else. One guy knows what compete is, the other has no idea because he’s never had to. You can say, ‘oh [that player] was very competitive.’ Yeah, at the level they were at. There’s a whole new level where men play against you.”

With only Saturday’s preseason game in Detroit left to evaluate players against NHL-calibre talent, the decisions for Toronto’s management and coaching staff won’t be easy. Thinking he had a lineup put together for the tilt, Babcock revealed Friday night there will be a couple changes due to injury. Nazem Kadri did not skate in practice on Friday morning and had a “boo-boo” according to his coach; James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have also been dealing with problems. At the end of the preseason road, the Leafs have tough decisions to make. As much as they like the kids, striking balance is still the key - even if they aren’t sure where that balance is yet.

“We understand what’s going on, we talk about it, Lou [Lamoriello] and I, every day,” Babcock said. “He has a wealth of experience and I do too from different organizations and so, let’s not get overexcited. That’s what happens, you get overexcited, you love the kids early and you get no points.

“Sometimes, just never getting any points is a great teacher. Pretty soon, you want ‘em and you figure out a way to get ‘em. The good players figure out a way to play. They’re too competitive not to.”


- For a preseason match there was a fair amount of chippiness between the division rivals. Steve Ott and Rich Clune tussled early in the first period, and Peter Holland left the frame with a double minor for roughing after going after Robbie Russo for lighting him up at the blue line. Colin Smith and Byron Froese both took sticks to the face, with Smith exiting for much of the opening period. In a scary moment, Detroit’s Ben Street was clipped in the neck by the skate of a falling player while in a board battle. He was taken to hospital after the game; at press time he was in stable condition and would stay overnight as a precaution.

- Playing on back-to-back nights, with travel, is draining, but Kerby Rychel still had some impact in Friday night’s game. His net presence nearly led to a second period goal – pinged off the Red Wings' goal post – and his big body opens up a lot of room in the middle of the ice. He came close to tying the game midway through the third by planting himself in the crease again, but couldn’t bury the feed. He’s likely to start in the American League, but Rychel’s number should be on speed dial for Toronto.

- Kasperi Kapanen has come along in recent days. After blending in with the rest of Toronto’s young forwards early on, he’s made an effort to separate himself with solid play in his last two games. On Friday, he made an impression without the puck, engaging in board battles and being more physical along the wall. In what was a sloppy affair offensively at times for Toronto, Kapanen’s attempts to contribute in other ways stood out. “I thought Kapanen had another really strong outing,” Babcock said. “Good skill.”

- After being claimed on waivers by Toronto last year, Frank Corrado waited 28 games to make his NHL debut. The 39 tilts he did play in earned him a one-way, one-year contract in the summer and he appeared to have a good foundation going into camp. But the emergence of Connor Carrick, and free agent signings of Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak, may once again put Corrado on waivers. He’s been skating with the “minor league group” in practices and games and despite a plus-5 rating going into Friday’s contest, his showing may not be enough to bump someone else. Babcock said he would consider carrying eight defencemen; if he doesn't, Corrado may be exposed to waivers again. “I feel like I played my game, I did what I can to control what I can,” Corrado said. “I thought I showed what I can do. I feel like I put forth a good effort. We’ll see what happens.”