Strange as it might sound, this is the pain Mike Babcock was referring to back when he was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The coach intended that much-quoted remark from 2015 to cover the period where the team was attempting to scale up as much as for the 30th-place season staring them directly in the face. That’s where we’ve found ourselves these last few months.

Toronto is at 61 points as it returns from the all-star break – three points ahead of the pace it established through 51 games last year, but seemingly having travelled a rockier road to reach this stage.

There have been teaching moments and stretches of reduced ice time for second-year players William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Babcock has been second-guessed about dressing veterans like Roman Polak and Matt Martin over, say, Connor Carrick and Kasperi Kapanen. Leo Komarov’s usage, Auston Matthews’ power-play time, who gets the call for three-on-three shifts in overtime … all of it has generated external discussion and debate.

Babcock kept a steady hand through the stormy periods before finally making some significant shifts in his roster deployment for games at Chicago and Dallas last week. Now he seems inclined to give his new-look lineup an extended run together.

"The lines – fine – but I like the work ethic," he said Tuesday. "I like the speed of the team, I like the way we got after it instead of standing around watching it. We’ve talked a lot about it here: Each year you have to find a way to play for your group to be successful. We think we know how you’re supposed to play, now we’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to do it every day."

This is an idea a few of the veteran players have floated recently: That every team needs to evolve and change. That the path to improvement comes through searching out a new mix.

Only the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Nylander top line currently remains untouched from the first-round series against Washington last spring.