Detroit – Mike Babcock returning to Detroit with his Toronto Maple Leafs team isn’t big news anymore.
But the way Babcock’s team is playing these days certainly is.
The Maple Leafs (3-1-0), who visit the Red Wings (0-1-2) on Thursday night, were already considered a Stanley Cup contender and an entertaining offensive team – and then they signed free-agent forward John Tavares on July 1.
Since then, expectations in the city have skyrocketed, and the Leafs haven’t disappointed in the early stages of this season.
The Leafs lead the NHL with 20 goals (averaging 5.0 per game), have scored on a ridiculous 10-of-20 power plays (50 percent). They have two players who have scored as many goals as the Wings have scored as a team in three games. The Wings have six goals, Auston Matthews has seven and Tavares has six.
“They do look dangerous,” said forward Frans Nielsen, talking about a Leafs team that has scored seven goals in each of their last two games, both wins. “They have a few guys who are scoring at a real high pace. There’s definitely a few guys on that team you have to watch a little bit extra.”
The addition of Tavares, who somewhat surprisingly signed a seven-year contract worth $77 million with his hometown team, has provided exactly what Toronto expected.
With an already dynamic offensive team led by the young trio of Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, adding Tavares has given Babcock the opportunity to distribute three powerful scoring lines.
And Nylander, a restricted free agent, hasn’t even played yet because he hasn’t agreed to a new contract.
Nielsen played with Tavares with the New York Islanders and was surprised when Tavares joined the Leafs.
The opportunity to return home, play in front of family and friends, and the chance to win a Stanley Cup were all reasons Tavares left the Islanders, where he had spent his entire career.
“I was a little shocked when I found out; I did not see Toronto coming,” Nielsen said. “But talking to him about it, it makes more sense now.”
Thursday’s game will be the first between the teams this season, and with the Wings searching for their first victory, this might not be the best time for Detroit.
The young defense the Wings are playing with now will be severely tested. In the next-to-last preseason game, against a nearly-full Toronto lineup, the Leafs defeated the Wings 6-2.
“The good thing for us is, at least we saw them in the exhibition and all the young D (defensemen) played in that exhibition game,” Blashill said. “We know how fast they can come at you and we’re better prepared having done that.
“It doesn’t mean we’ll meet that challenge. It’s up to us to show that. If they’re coming at us flying 100 miles per hour the whole night, it’ll be a long night. We better put the puck behind them, grind them in their zone and make them defend as much as possible.
“If we do that we’ll be in a good spot. If we don’t, it’ll be a hard night.”
In an effort to generate more offense, Blashill switched two lines during Wednesday’s practice, moving Justin Abdelkader with Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, while Gustav Nyquist skated with Andreas Athanasiou and Thomas Vanek.
Blashill didn’t commit to the changes for the game but needs to see more offense, especially with Toronto coming to Little Caesars Arena.
“Just a look to see if we can’t make one little adjustment to score a bit more. We’re close to scoring,” Blashill said. “Nyquist has a real high hockey IQ, too, and had good success with Vanek (two seasons ago). We’ll see if maybe we can replicate some of that.”
Maple Leafs at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m., Thursday.
TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Leafs (3-1-0, 6 points) have been as offensively dangerous as many felt they’d be after signing C John Tavares (six goals) in the summer. … C Auston Matthews (seven goals, three assists) has been red-hot, and the Leafs' power play is currently at an NHL-high 50 percent.