On Mike Babcock, Auston Matthews’ ice time, and reasonable vs. ridiculous criticism

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Toronto Maple Leafs' Musings
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

No shortage of Toronto Maple Leafs fans are seeing red about the coaching job of Mike Babcock — and the latest criticism makes it obvious they’re not always thinking straight.

The latest deluge of fan venom directed towards the Leafs head coach centered around Auston Matthews’ ice time in the late stages of the team’s 4-3 loss to Washington on Wednesday:

The team trailed by two late, pulled one back with 2:35 left in the game (scored by John Tavares with a broken finger on his right hand), and Matthews — a generational goal scorer — only got on the ice for the final 20 seconds of the game. Blasphemy, right?

Not if you watched it at all closely.

Let’s recap the final four minutes of the game:

  • The Matthews line was on the ice for about a full minute from 3:55-2:55, with time running out to narrow the lead to one and make a game of it.
  • Marner and Tavares, with Kerfoot on their left, came over the boards next for less than 20 seconds before scoring with 2:35 left in the game. The Leafs had just pulled the goalie and gotten Kasperi Kapanen, who was having a good game and was fresh, on the ice as the extra forward. Kerfoot – Tavares – Marner stayed on for the next shift, with Kapanen returning to the bench so the goalie could return to the net for the center-ice faceoff.
  • The Leafs pulled the goalie again with around 2:10 left and Kapanen came on again as the extra forward.
  • Marner changed out for Nylander not long after.
  • Matthews could be seen around the 1:55 mark with one leg on the boards. After a 60-second rest, Babcock likely intended on having him on the ice for the rest of the game. After all, he prefers winning to losing and knows Matthews is an elite goal scorer.
    Auston Matthews wants on
  • The puck re-entered the Washington zone at 1:50 without another Leaf forward peeling to the bench. Kerfoot swung by the bench as the Leafs regrouped in the neutral zone but chose not to change (if you need to take your anger out on someone, be mad at him?)
  • The puck never left the zone until 21 seconds were left in the game. It’s fairly rare for this to happen, even with the goalie pulled — a full 1:30 without a whistle or the puck leaving the zone. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t direct much of note toward the net in this time, spending a lot of it on the perimeter, which was the real issue here. Unlike a 5v5 cycle situation and just like on a power play, though, you wouldn’t peel off for a change for fresh legs here given you’re zipping the puck around in a full-court press for a goal with the extra man in the dying minutes/seconds — and don’t forget your net is empty at the other end.
  • After the puck was cleared by the Capitals, Matthews was raring to go and jumped on the ice with 20 seconds left. He won a puck race on the wall, but William Nylander was knocked over behind the net and the puck was scrummed just about until the final buzzer.

In terms of what Babcock had control over, could Matthews have gone on in lieu of Kapanen after the second goalie pull? Watching from home, we have no feel for where Matthews was at rest-wise and it’s not like it was the plan to not play Matthews over him for the next 1:30. It’s just the kind of stuff that happens sometimes in the chaos of a hockey game.

Of course, lurking in the background here is the overall frustration with Babcock’s management of Matthews’ minutes. Matthews’ Game 7 ice-time, and particularly his late-game minutes, were major talking points all offseason.

Whether it’s the reduced power-play time in recent seasons or his lack of shared 5v5 ice time with Mitch Marner, there is some room to craft a somewhat reasonable argument in there. Babcock certainly doesn’t use Matthews like the Oilers use McDavid. That’s in part due to the power play historically speaking, but also because Babcock has two elite centers to balance out — not a luxury any coach or fan base in the league would turn down — and he’s more stringent than other coaches about shift length. He also rarely stacks his best center and best winger on the same line, although I’d argue the gap between Nylander and Marner is not as big as it’s made out to be at 5v5 (that’s not to say it wouldn’t be nice to see in certain situations anyway).

For a coach who preaches the 40-45 second shift, it’s notable that Matthews has gone from 45 and 46 seconds in his first two seasons to 48 in 2018-29 and 49 so far in 2019-20. Matthews also led all skaters in Game 7 (tied with Tavares) last Spring with 27 total shifts — this despite Matthews being on the ice for three goals against and not having his best night overall (he was great in the series in general). Over the duration of the series, Matthews played two-plus minutes more per game at even strength than all of the members of Boston’s big line.

Side note on the PK here, as Marchand and Bergeron play 1:30+ per game there: Matthews and Babcock have had the conversation about it and Matthews isn’t interested in killing penalties, as he rather save himself for 5v5 + PP.

As for the man advantage, there has been some movement in Matthews’ ice time this season under power-play coach Paul McFarland now that Matthews has joined the big unit with Tavares and Marner — he’s gone from 2:34 per game in 2018-19 to 3:01 so far in 2019-20.

It’s still not the four minutes that McDavid, Draisatl, Rantanen, MacKinnon, Kane, and Stamkos play per night (a small part of this, speaking to last season, was the Leafs’ lack of power-play opportunities). You could argue that with the likes of William Nylander and Tyson Barrie on power-play #2, the Leafs should be able to get two units clicking while keeping everyone fresher for 5v5 play, but I’ve got time for reasonable criticisms about how the Leafs manage their power play — it punched below its weight for large portions of last season, including playoffs. While it’s converted over 26% of the time (top 10) so far this year, it is still working out the kinks under McFarland, although I see that more to do with their entries than pulling PP#1 off the ice too early.

I’ve also got no issue with the act of questioning Babcock in general. He’s paid $6.25 million a year to coach in the biggest market in hockey and this is a talented team that is yet to win a playoff series during his tenure. But the criticism needs to be based in reality and should make sense within the context of the game. Combine the Game 7 controversy with the outrage after the Washington game and the ridiculous Jason Spezza takes from earlier this month — somehow the Leafs built an effective fourth line without him so far — and you can see how some of these half-truths, if not complete misrepresentations, build on themselves into a narrative that is quickly losing touch with reality.