Chris Johnston dished some interesting nuggets on the Headlines segment in the second intermission of HNIC on Saturday night, including Leafs management’s thinking for waiting into the season to make a coaching change instead of back in the offseason.
Kyle Dubas was initially non-committal about Babcock’s future in his end-of-year press conference, mentioning that the entire organization was under evaluation following the first-round exit at the hands of Boston.
Johnston’s intel is that the Leafs front office evaluated the team’s performance in the series and believed the group showed enough progress over the seven games to continue on with Babcock at the helm to start 2019-20.
Looking big picture, as the Leafs reflect back, this is probably a coaching change they would’ve preferred to make last summer knowing what they know now rather than 23 games into the season. The reason they didn’t do it at that time was because there were a lot of things they liked in that first-round series against the Boston Bruins, especially Game 5, where the team played tight and controlled and got a win on the road in TD Garden to put themselves within a game of winning the series. When management reviewed that series afterward, they felt it was a sign of progress under Mike Babcock and decided to keep him into this season.
The Leafs posted a 50.8 Corsi For percentage, a 51.5 Scoring Chances For percentage, and a 52.17 Expected Goals For percentage over the duration of the seven-game loss. By the expected goals metric, that was a marked 4.5+ improvement over the 2018 series vs. Boston.
Johnston also mentioned Game 5 specifically, which was one of the best games the Leafs ever played under Babcock. The team gave up very little at 5v5 en route to a 2-1 win — it was a 0-0 battle that stayed that way into the third period despite the Leafs carrying over 60% possession in the opening 40 minutes. In the third, the Leafs stuck with it and scored twice in the final ten minutes to prevail, putting themselves one win away from advancing with the series heading back to Toronto for an elimination Game 6.
Alas, that kind of tighter-checking playoff-style hockey Babcock wanted to see the Leafs evolve into playing consistently did not transfer effectively this year. The team lost its way offensively to start 2019-20 while giving up a lot defensively as well. 23 games in, with the team’s record sitting at 9-10-4, the Babcock era ended a quarter of the way into his fifth season with the club.
Johnston also noted that Babcock contacted Keefe after his first win as the Leafs head coach in Arizona on Thursday — something Keefe, “really appreciated” — and that the two had a chat after the coaching change decision came down so that Babcock could help Keefe get up to speed.
Sheldon Keefe phoned Mike Babcock after the coaching change was made. Those men had a nice conversation and traded some notes on what has been going on with the team. It’s just a sign of the good relationship they built — a positive relationship from working within the organization over the last number of years.
Mike Babcock also sent Sheldon Keefe a text message after the Leafs won in his debut in Arizona. I know that was something Keefe really appreciated.
As for Babcock’s future, Elliotte Friedman reported during the segment that some informal feelers have been sent out, but it sounds like he’s going to take some time before deciding on his coaching intentions going forward.
I think there have been some informal feelers sent out to see how Mike Babcock feels about coaching again. He didn’t want to talk about anything like that, but the word around the league from some people who know him is that he’s going to take some time.
Johnston also noted that there might be some smoke around a Leafs-Blues trade connection given St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong’s presence at Leafs games of late:
Johnston: Doug Armstrong is here of the St. Lous Blues and he is also here with his VP of Hockey Operations, Dave Taylor. Whenever you see two senior executives from one team, it raises the eyebrows.
This is the second time Armstrong has watched the Leafs this season. They’ve had a number of senior staffers around Toronto games this year. That is something to watch as we get closer to the trade season.
Friedman: I do believe the Leafs would like to see how this team performs under Keefe. So far, it’s looking pretty dynamite. I do think they’d like to see how things continue to go before doing anything, but maybe somebody else can tempt them.