When the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they were signing Mike Babcock in May 2015, it sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world.
The team was a mess at the time off the ice and still largely lacking a future on the ice (neither Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews were drafted yet). The highly-regarded coach picking Toronto represented something of a watershed moment for the organization in their attempt to return to relevancy.
You know the story from there:
- The Leafs tore the team down to the studs the following season and tanked the year
- The team drafted Auston Matthews
- Matthews, Nylander and Marner all are on the team the next season and the Leafs made the playoffs, then lost in the first round
- The team added Patrick Marleau as their big free agent signing and lost again in the first round
- Lou Lamoriello was pushed out of the organization in favour of Kyle Dubas
- The team added the big free agent prize in John Tavares, William Nylander held out, and the team again lost out in the first round
- The signed Matthews and Marner to massive, over-market deals
And that takes us to this season. The Leafs have had a fairly average start of 6-5-2 with a plus-one goal differential. Last week, I wrote about how 2019, in general, has been a pretty average year for this Leafs team. While this is a new team with a lot of turnover, the point still stands that the top of the roster has remained the same and that alone should be enough to be more than a roughly .500 squad.
Naturally, with the team essentially trading wins and losses over a full calendar year and losing three straight times in the first round, calls for the coach to be fired have not only surfaced, but they have become quite loud and incessant. Is this really Babcock’s fault, though?
Coaches can only control so much in a game. The easiest thing to do is blame one person – and sometimes it is true – but it’s much more difficult to look a team in totality and identify the actual problems. Most people look at special teams when they think about coaches — and that is generally fair. The Leafs hired two new coaches to run each unit in the summer and they have had 13 games so far, which obviously isn’t much of a sample. The results are mixed, with the power play ranking 16th and the penalty kill at 22nd. Did anyone think two new coaches would come in to run those units and they would magically be amazing right from the start of the year? Let’s look at their special teams after 40 games.
What about shots against? The Leafs are fourth in team corsi. Their goaltending is fifth last in team save percentage. As a team, they have the 10th worst PDO so far despite all of this scoring talent. Any reasonable bet would have all of those things evening out over time. At some point, they are going to get healthy and go on a run.
But I do understand some of the frustrations with the team. They lack jam and that will always bother fans. That is not on the coach, though — he doesn’t sign the players, deal with the cap, or build the team (by and large). Their defense is still weak and this was predictable – they never addressed their biggest need this summer, which was trying to assemble shutdown pairing. Until they do, it’s going to be a mixed bag of Muzzin, Barrie, Rielly, and Ceci receiving the assignment, and three of the four have proven they can’t handle it. Again, that isn’t on the coach.
Injuries haven’t helped, either. John Tavares is the big one, but Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman are notable losses as well. The Tavares injury is particularly problematic because the Leafs have to use Auston Matthews in the top matchup role for now, with mixed results so far. Do coaches at this level have to talk to star centers about standing between their opponent and the net so he can’t skate right to it and score? It’s scapegoating to call this a Babcock issue.
While the Leafs were able to successfully sign all of their top players, every single one of them was overpaid as an RFA (John Tavares is not included here as a UFA), and the resulting squeeze adds up to a loss of depth players, which is showing on the Leafs’ third pairing and in the quality of players on the bottom lines. While their depth at forward has benefited from positive emergences, having additional money to bring in established, contributing veterans would have been beneficial. It also doesn’t help that they have had an intense schedule to start the year, including four back-to-backs in the month and little time off between games, to actually work on their issues.
Really, while Babcock is taking all the heat, a large part of this can be attributed to adjusting to new coaches, some bad luck, injuries, and a tough schedule to start.
The other fact of the matter is that the players have to play better. Recently, Babcock and the coaching staff have received a ton of heat for the way the team starts. Is the expectation here that Babcock dials up a Miracle-style speech before every game to try to motivate grown adults paid millions of dollars to play hockey? Against Montreal, the Leafs started the Auston Matthews line and they got run over in the first shift, with Matthews losing a number of battles along the way. If Babcock has to pump up Matthews, Johnsson, Nylander, Rielly, and Ceci for a Saturday night game in Montreal, then really, what is the problem here?
Very rarely have we looked so far this year and been able to clearly say, “Why was player X on the ice in that situation?,” with the situation costing the Leafs. Even when Babcock started Ilya Mikheyev and Kasperi Kapanen in overtime, while I understand the heat he took, he was clearly sending a message to his underperforming stars. Later in the overtime, one of them even got burned for the losing goal.
This does not mean Babcock is without fault or has been perfect, but the criticism has shifted so far beyond reality at this point.
At the end of the year, if the team is looking back at another first-round playoff exit where they got crushed on special teams again and the coaching staff did not adjust their lines at all, we will have a different story on our hands. But fire the coach after the first 13 games in this situation? The anger is being directed at the wrong individual right now.
- Kasperi Kapanen has looked more comfortable on the right wing. He moved there against Washington and has seven points in six games in that time. That said, against San Jose, he had a nice little play in the first period on his off-wing where he chipped it off the wall around Mario Ferraro and set up Spezza, who was a trailer on the play for a good scoring chance. It was nice to see him make a move like that on his left side, but he still looks best on the right, where he can use his speed on his forehand while keeping the puck out wide.
- I was curious to see how Kapanen would respond to playing Montreal again after the stick incident. It was a rather uneventful game for him with one shot on net as well as his lowest ice time of the season.
- Against San Jose, Babcock turned to the fourth line to close out the first period – this is becoming more of a common theme. He actually did it against Boston (in Toronto) and against Columbus in the third period to get both games to overtime. That line is starting to become a close-out line for the coaching staff.
- The Leafs’ first closing line with the net empty against San Jose: Kapanen – Matthews – Moore, Rielly – Ceci.
- Two rookie mistakes by Ilya Mikheyev led directly to goals against Montreal. The first was a weak play at the blue line that went for a turnover, giving Jonathan Drouin his first breakaway goal of the game. You can’t be weak with the puck in that area in this league — especially when you are thrust into a top-six role (meaning you play against other top-six lines) because you’re even more likely to get burned. The second was Drouin’s second breakaway goal – an errant pass to Barrie leading to another Drouin breakway goal. You can’t mess around in that area of the ice.
On a positive note, I didn’t realize Mikheyev is tied for the lead in rookie scoring with 10 points, although he has the lowest points per game among those he’s tied with (Victor Olofsson and Cale Makar).
- Can’t tell if Morgan Rielly rushing up the ice on the power play is by design or because teams are taking away the drop pass breakout, but it only seems to happen around once a game and it is a pretty fluid play. The drop pass is fine when it works, but every single team has clued in on it and a proper counter punch needs to be developed. Babcock mentioned that the team has not had much time to practice, so it should be interesting to see if they add in new wrinkles by the Philadelphia game on Saturday. They will have three full days off between games.
“We think the format we have works extremely well … unless you’re a Leafs fan.”
– Gary Bettman on the playoff format
To be completely clear, it is bad because it makes no sense. Whether it impacts the Leafs or not is completely irrelevant (to me at least). Top teams are playing each other in the first round while lower seeds are getting easier paths to the Cup and their organizations stand to profit. Every single owner should be upset about this format.
Of course, this is coming from a commissioner that also sanctions three-point games – another thing that makes absolutely no sense. The league would be much more exciting if it moved away from the fake parity (more bad teams = more trades!).
“I feel like everyone’s coming at us like it’s the end of the world here. We’re OK. Every team goes through it, and we’re having some talks, but, I mean, it’s not frickin’ go crazy.”
– Jake Muzzin on the Leafs’ struggles
Naturally, he’s right. This is also what happens when players get paid, though – the honeymoon period is over, and expectations are high.
“These guys are getting great opportunity themselves. Rehearsal has been longer than probably we expected. We are going to have a way to make good decisions at the time when that happens.”
– Mike Babcock on upcoming roster additions
I know it has been tough at times the past few weeks, but these injuries are going to be a good thing in the long run. Players have been moved around and the coaching staff has tried things they wouldn’t normally try. That is a positive development.
Tweets of the Week
Quick comment regarding Babcock’s statement: I don’t think anyone can set out to break a games played record. There are so many things that can happen, and that is not my goal. My one and only goal is to win a Cup. That’s it. Anything else is just gravy. -PM
— Christina Marleau (@c_marleau) October 25, 2019
If this is true, why wouldn’t he accept a healthy scratch (or more) down the stretch last season? From March 1st onwards, Marleau produced four points in 18 games. He looked every bit like a player about to turn 40. He then proceeded to have a poor playoff. I completely understand that the streak means something to him – it would mean something to me, too. But to come out now and say you only care about winning the Cup is laughable at best. It’s okay to care about the streak, too, because it’s meaningful, but this “my one and only goal” is a downright lie. And yes — the Leafs wanted to scratch him at times last season. He wanted nothing to do with it.
And he didn’t advise him to let management know? https://t.co/pO26TU4H5G
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) October 25, 2019
I don’t know what Marleau said to Matthews when they chatted about what happened in the summer but the only thing he should have told Matthews is to tell Leafs management. What we do know is that Matthews did not do that.
I never thought a Leafs-Sharks game would be this boring.
— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) October 26, 2019
I’ve had this gripe with the team for a few years now and mentioned it sporadically – I don’t find them particularly entertaining from game-to-game. I am acutely aware of how skilled they are and when they connect for a goal, it can be electric. But the rest of the game? There is little in the way of physicality, intensity, or just overall personality. It’s a pretty bland product… and honestly, it lacks passion.
Barrie smoked in open ice.
— Anthony Stewart (@StuMunrue) October 26, 2019
Marner the first game, Barrie the second game. After Petry hit Barrie, you could actually see him turn his head to see if/who is going to come after him (and the subsequent Matthews drive-by). I wonder what Petry would have to do for someone on the Leafs to even realize it and respond in some sort of capacity?
The night before, Matthews got clocked with a slightly high hit, and I don’t think anyone on the team even had their heart rate change (to be clear, not calling for Brenden Dillon or anyone to be jumped here, but some element of emotion would be nice to see). At a minimum, you can take a number and get the guy back at some point later in the game. For Petry in particular, that is two straight games taking a piece out of top-of-the lineup Leafs players. I don’t understand how Brendan Shanahan, of all people, stomachs this.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- With Tavares out, we’ve seen enough of experimenting with Frederik Gauthier or Jason Spezza at 3C (it’s a small sample this year, but factor in their play the last few years and just the slightest amount of common sense…). I would just move Nylander to center, play Marner with Matthews the entire time, and — you know — put the onus on the players the team is paying almost $30 million combined to step up.
- While I respect the Leafs rewarding Frederik Gauthier by moving him up the lineup to 3C, I think he is out of his element there. His development has been genuinely encouraging to the point where he can be looked at as a player that can legitimately contribute, but he is strictly a 4C who takes faceoffs, some defensive zone faceoffs, and penalty-killing duties.
- I think Michael Hutchinson has generally been OK in tough circumstances and the fact that he is winless is not really on him. I would be trying to find him a soft-ball game to get a win and boost his confidence a bit. The Leafs only play twice this week (Washington and Philadelphia), but next week, they play Tuesday against the LA Kings — that looks like a good opportunity. Plus, any extra Andersen rest is a win.
- I think Kevin Gravel had a really tough first game — he got beat a few times — and he has settled in a bit since then, but I still like Martin Marincin better pretty well strictly as a penalty killer. The reality is that Travis Dermott should be returning soon and neither of them should play when that happens and if everyone else is healthy.
- I think I would strongly consider giving Tyson Barrie some run on the first power play unit. That is the best part of the game and they need to get him going. I understand what Rielly has done there over the last year and a half and that he is clicking at a point per game so far this season, but he has just the four power play assists. The power play is clicking at the 16th best percentage so far this season (admittedly, the 21.1% would be high if it sustained over a full season). Rielly’s best contribution to the power play is his ability to skate pucks in and set it up all on his own. After that, Barrie has generally been a better goal scorer in his career (.11 career goals per game vs. .15) and pretty well anyone can pass it to the half-wall and collect assists because Matthews/Marner take it from there.