TORONTO — Leafs coach Mike Babcock wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to call the Lightning the "best team in the league."
But as Tampa Bay faced Toronto for the first of four meetings this season, Babcock’s admiration wasn’t just in the way the Lightning plays, it’s how the roster was built. That included making tough decisions, like trading Ben Bishop and Jonathan Drouin.
"I like the way they’ve moved past players when they thought they should," Babcock said.
Babcock’s Leafs entered Tuesday trailing the Lightning by 10 points in the Atlantic Division. He liked the challenge, noting, "To be the best, you have to beat the best."
"(The Lightning is) a high end hockey club," Babcock said. "I like their team. They play fast. The (Brayden) Point kid has really given them more options. They’ve got a lot of centers on that team. They’ve got center playing wing, got center playing center. They’ve got too many centers, actually. To me, that’s how you build a hockey club.
"They’ve got a really good goaltender. They had a goalie there (Bishop), they moved him and suddenly the other guy (Andrei Vasilevskiy) seems to be really good too. Sounds like a really good program."
One area the Lightning definitely needs to improve on is faceoffs, where it is second to last in the league at 46.9 percent. Only Colorado is worse.
Point is better in the dot than last year, jumping from 44 to 47 percent. Tyler Johnson, top, is at 50 percent and Steven Stamkos, bottom, is at 48 percent, according to faceoffs.net.
"Puck possession is key to our success and when you can start with it more often than not, it’s only going to help generate more," Stamkos said. "And we’ve lacked that. It’s something we’ve addressed internally. It’s tough. You have to watch some video and pick up on tendencies and you do need wingers to help you out once and a while. But the onus is on us as centermen and we’ll look to improve."
Vasilevskiy started for the Lightning, which went with a regular 12-forward lineup (RW J.T. Brown in, D Andrej Sustr and Slater Koekkoek scratched). … RW Ryan Callahan (upper body) continued to skate in a regular jersey, but missed his eighth straight game. Callahan could return as early as Thursday in Montreal.
• According to latest Bovada odds, Nikita Kucherov is a 1/1 favorite to win the Hart Trophy, followed by Connor McDavid (9/5) and John Tavares (15/2). Vasilevskiy is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy (2/1). Mikhail Sergachev is third (16/2) to win the Calder. D Victor Hedman (3/1) is second behind the Kings’ Drew Doughty (9/4) to win the Norris Trophy. The Lightning has 6/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup.
• Former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier was named grand marshal of the Gasparilla festival during All-Star weekend Jan. 28-29. …Expect Stamkos to be named Atlantic Division All-Star captain today. Jon Cooper will soon be named Atlantic coach.
• All five Lightning prospects in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo have reached the semifinals, with Canada and Czech Republic advancing.