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Learning Mike Babcock's system won't be painless for Maple Leafs

TORONTO -- Mike Babcock's voice is already gone and the puck hasn't even dropped yet on the 2015-16 season.

There's been a lot of teaching going on for the new Toronto Maple Leafs head coach.

And it's going to continue all season.

Win or lose -- and it's going to be much more of the latter in Year 1 of the Lou Lamoriello-Babs Don't Call It a Rebuild project -- Babcock is going to get his message through come hell or high water. That's going to be the biggest gain overall this season, changing the way things are done in these parts, re-engineering the DNA of a club that's gone about it the wrong way for a long time.

"We're going to get it so that we're organized; we're going to get it so that we're very hardworking and that we're in it together night in and night out and a hard group to play against," Babcock told a throng of media on the eve of the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the hoarseness in his voice in midseason form.

"We need to make it hard on teams. Now, how long is that going to take? I can't really answer that question. I just know we're working at getting better every day."

Babcock's vocal cords have gone through the wringer because he's stopped practice many a time since camp began Sept. 17, instructing players how he wants it done correctly. It has been a demanding training camp, and that's a good thing.

"Is it a tough camp or is it just a new philosophy?" asked Leafs veteran winger Brad Boyes. "When I was at an Andy Murray camp, it was blow the whistle and we all knew you'd race back to him. It was fast-paced but we were used to it. Here, things are going quick and Mike is trying to do stuff, he doesn't go to the board as much; he's going on the fly and he wants you to think as you go. Not all guys are used to it. It takes a little bit to get used to, but it's been good. We're working on things we need, things that are invaluable. It's good. It's not overly exhausting, but it's demanding on your mind. Because you have to figure out what we're doing. And he doesn't let up. If you're doing it wrong, then you do it again. It's been good in that sense. There's no time wasted."

As crazy as it might sound, Babcock is bringing a little Sochi to his squad, blending in some of the same system philosophy that saw Team Canada steamroller the 2014 Olympic tournament.

Playing keep-away with the puck won Canada gold, and despite Babcock's having a roster here that's three leagues below in talent compared to that Sochi squad, the fundamentals remain the same.

"It's what we're hoping to do, yes," Babcock said Tuesday.

It means playing with speed and trying to spend as much time as possible in the offensive zone while also making smart decisions with the puck.

What Babcock doesn't want his team to do is back up and defend trap-style, which in the past might have been the route other coaches chose with rosters lacking enough high-end talent.

Instead, Babcock is trying to ingrain a philosophy and system that will make his team push the envelope as much as it can. "Go, go, go" will be the constant refrain.

"If we're better at holding on to the puck in the offensive zone, then we're not in our own zone defending," said Boyes, slated to start the season on the top line with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. "So there's a lot more that goes into just being solid in the D-zone: You hold the puck in the neutral zone; you come through with speed; you bottle them up in the neutral zone; you're above them in the O-zone; they don't get speed. It's teaching a full-ice defensive system, which will allow you to score goals. It will cause turnovers. It will get us moving. It will have us have control of the puck in the O-zone. He talks about 'heavy on the stick' a lot. Those things aren't seen as defensive plays, but in essence, they are, because you're stopping the other team from scoring."

The question is just how long it will take for the Leaf players to adhere to this system instinctually and not revert back to their old ways. That's Babcock's greatest challenge early on.

Near the end of practice Tuesday, the Leafs coach was talking to goalie Jonathan Bernier.

"He wants me to play a certain way," Bernier said in French afterward. "He said to me, 'You've got a job to do, and the defensemen have a job to do. Have confidence in the system I'm trying to teach the players.'"

In other words, Babcock was telling Bernier to square up to the puck and not worry about the backdoor play, which is a constant concern for a goalie who doesn't fully trust what's going on around him.

Building that trust from the net on out is what Babcock has been working on.

"We're working really hard and I'd say harder than I've seen in the past," said Bernier. "It comes from a coach that has a lot of intensity and that's produced a change in the team."

This season will not be judged by wins or losses for the Maple Leafs. Progress will be in terms of work habits, culture, demeanor, setting the stage for the next generation of players who will onc day take over this team. William Nylander and Connor Brown are NHL-ready, but the Leafs sent them down for further seasoning in the AHL, stressing the desire for them to develop in a more positive environment on a team that should win a lot of games.

It's the kind of scorched-earth approach that this organization should have embraced years ago. The fans in this town have been ready for it forever.

Whether it ultimately works cannot be answered now. But the approach itself is the most refreshing thing that's happened here in decades. Of that, there is no argument.