Babcock to Leafs? Why?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 20) — Amid the Week 2 hysteria in Leaf Land, I have a prediction: Mike Babcock will stay right where he is and re-sign with Detroit Red Wings. That won’t go over well here in the city of shattered dreams but it makes too much sense. Sorry, Toronto, for the bulletin.

Let’s break the local pattern and think logically for a minute.

Since leaving Anaheim in 2005 (he led the Mighty Ducks, as they were still known, to the 2003 Stanley Cup final, losing a seven-game series to New Jersey), Babcock has worked for what many believe to be the most professionally-operated franchise in the NHL. I have no first-hand knowledge of his relationship with general manager Ken Holland but it seems to be one of high mutual respect. Beginning last season, Babcock took on the challenge of coaching, for the first time, a Detroit team without Nick Lidstrom. Amid a spate of injury to such key players as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, he guided the club, for a 23rd consecutive spring, into the playoffs. Under his direction – and with the enduring assistance of European super-scout Hakan Andersson, arguably the most valuable off-the-ice asset in the league – Red Wing youngsters Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Danny DeKeyser, Jakub Kindl and Kyle Quincey are improving more than gradually.

Why, then, would Babcock leave the stability of Detroit for the constant flux of Toronto? Of course our city would re-name Nathan Philips Square at City Hall Mike Babcock Square were he to guide the Maple Leafs out of their half-century funk. But, so what? Here’s a guy with a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals on his resume. He’s already a lock to be in the Hall of Fame. What does he still have to prove, and why would he opt for the annoyance of this city, where his hockey reputation is unlikely to be enhanced (check with Brian Burke about that)?

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WHAT ON EARTH DOES MIKE BABCOCK HAVE TO PROVE AS A COACH AND HOW WOULD HIS HOCKEY REPUTATION BE ENHANCED IN TORONTO? IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

The laughable notion, in these parts, that everyone pines to be a Maple Leaf — the latest being Eric Staal — is regularly proven false. If given reasonable options, most choose to ply their trade elsewhere; away from the lunacy of the Toronto hockey cauldron. Babcock is too wily to take the bait and Holland too crafty to let his coach walk. The so-called moratorium on contract negotiation during the Red Wings season is apparently a myth. Neither is it necessary for the two sides to come to an immediate accord. In good time, Babcock and Holland will conclude they still need one another and the latest Toronto sensation will vanish like a puff of smoke.

WEEKEND THOUGHTS: I was in favor of the Leafs replacing Randy Carlyle after last season but if Brendan Shanahan agreed to extend his contract only to let him go at the first sign of trouble, it will be another blight on the organization. An objective glance at the Leaf roster would indicate the club is hardly poised to rocket upward in the standings. In a best-case scenario, this is a transition year for the Blue and White – thus the prudent off-season decision to retain young players and prospects in lieu of a quick fix. If an overnight decision is made that Carlyle has lost the current team, Shanahan and David Nonis will come off looking silly… Carlyle, however, is puzzling. While a coach has to adjust, during games, to which players are performing better than others, Randy is rolling three lines early in the season after Nonis worked exclusively in the summer to provide him a four-line contingent. In Detroit on Saturday, Peter Holland (6:52 of playing time), Richard Panik (3:10) and Matt Frattin (2:54) hardly saw the ice. I thought the message in eliminating Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren was to deploy more-skilled forwards at the bottom of the line-up. So far, no dice… Now that Jonathan Bernier has the best game of either Leafs goalie, blanking the Red Wings in regulation time at Joe Louis Arena, we will watch with intrigue Carlyle’s strategy moving forward. Might he re-establish Bernier as his No. 1 stopper? Or will the coach continue to play eenie-meenie-miney-mo with Bernier and James Reimer? Leafs visit New York Islanders on Tuesday; Ottawa on Wednesday. There is no rule that a coach must use both goalies in consecutive-night games. Such established netminders as Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, Carey Price and Tuukka Rask often play back-to-back, though perhaps not this early in the season. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on Carlyle having already chosen to start Bernier in Uniondale and Reimer in Ottawa… The weekend’s count, by the way, was Henrik Zetterberg 5, Maple Leafs 1…

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DETROIT OUTSCORED THE LEAFS 5-1 IN CONSECUTIVE-NIGHT VICTORIES. HENRIK ZETTERBERG, CHASED HERE BY NAZEM KADRI, WAS IN ON ALL DETROIT GOALS WITH FOUR ASSISTS ON FRIDAY AND THE OVERTIME WINNER SATURDAY. DAVE REGINEK GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

The Buffalo Sabres are solidly and passionately owned by the Terry Pegula family, which has also purchased the NFL Buffalo Bills. But, hockey fans in western New York aren’t likely to have much of an appetite for another hopeless team. Thursday night’s game against Florida drew a supposed crowd of 17,864 – roughly 800 shy of a sell-out. Many fewer people were in the building. The Sabres announced a capacity audience for Saturday’s game at First Niagara Center against Boston yet there was an alarming number of empty seats in the lower bowl, as detected on TV. Buffalo did not score in either match. The club is obviously committed to a slow build but will endurance prevail among ticket-buyers? And, if so, for low long?… Toronto native Ken Daniels, the industrious TV voice of the Red Wings, put the Roman Polak argument to bed by asking the Maple Leaf defenseman how he pronounces his last name. The verdict? Po-lock, not Po-lack. I continue to hear both on Leaf telecasts… Back to Buffalo for a moment, I’ll be shocked if the Bills wear their blue jerseys at home again this season. The club is 2–2 at Ralph Wilson Stadium with losses in blue against San Diego and New England; victories in white over Miami and Minnesota. The Bills beat the Vikings on Sunday when Kyle Orton threw a touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins with one second left in regulation time. Minnesota wore its predominantly purple uniforms. Buffalo travels to New York to play the Jets next week then has a bye. Kansas City visits the “Ralph” on Nov. 9. If the Chiefs are not clad in their usual home red, it will be a colossal surprise…

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BUFFALO WHITE vs. MINNESOTA PURPLE WORKED WELL FOR THE BILLS ON SUNDAY. FOX/CTV

I knew that Ralph (The Program Guy) Platner had somewhat of a following here in town after half-a-century at local sports venues (and synagogues). But, I was astonished at the enormous out-poring of affection for a man that most had never met. He was instantly recognizable by his brush-cut and thick, horn-rimmed glasses and he clearly left a mark on the Toronto sports community. The blog I wrote after his funeral on Wednesday had the most hits of any I’ve posted since launching this site in June 2011. Given that I write primarily about the Maple Leafs, that’s quite a tribute to Ralph, who died last week at 67 of complications arising from a stroke. It would be nice if the Blue Jays somehow recognized Platner next season… Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are a brutal 6–9 and suffered a killer loss at home to Montreal on Saturday. Making the playoffs will now be quite a chore. But, one thing the Argos have consistently done well in my lifetime is find elite kickers and punters. From Dave Mann to Zenon Andrusyshyn to Hank Ilesic, Lance Chomyc, Mike Vanderjagt, Noel Prefontaine and, currently, Swayze Waters, the Argos have frequently held an edge in the kicking game. Elsewhere, not so frequently… Carlyle has put together an effective third line with the Maple Leafs: Mike Santorelli centering David Clarkson and Leo Komarov. All winning teams need a forward unit that can pester the opposition and forecheck tenaciously. Santorelli, Clarkson and Komarov are doing it well thus far. Clarkson, in particular, seems energized though he’s not following much of an act after his dreadful first season in blue and white. Still, any Leaf success is contingent on goals and points from the No. 1 unit of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. When that trio is quiet, not much else happens. The club won’t improve without the big guys motoring, along with secondary production from Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul. And, the more I watch Kadri, the more I’m convinced he’ll never perform optimally for Carlyle… The ankle injury sustained by first-year Leaf Brandon Kozun had me cringing on Saturday. Kozun got rag-dolled into the end boards by the much-bigger Kyle Quincey of Detroit and his leg folded inward. Unfortunately for the Leafs, small players – no matter how determined – are at such a risk. It is rarely simple today for a winger listed at 5-foot-9, 162 pounds (both likely exaggerations) to endure the grind of an 82-game schedule… Every time I talk or listen to Pierre McGuire, I’m amazed he hasn’t been given the opportunity to manage a team in the NHL. Like his mentor, Scotty Bowman, McGuire has a good read on every player in the league. When he isn’t working for NBC, Pierre can be found in front of a host of TV monitors, watching parts of every game on a given night. His work-ethic is second to none. McGuire has been interviewed for a number of jobs — most recently in Minnesota and Pittsburgh. His time will come… I figure the World Series will go one of two ways: Either Kansas City will continue its mind-boggling streak and romp to a perfect 12–0 post-season or the Royals will succumb just as quickly to the experience and know-how of the San Francisco Giants. I’m leaning toward the latter and predict San Fran will win its third title in five years (a virtual dynasty) with a five-game victory over the Royals. Neither result, however, will surprise me…

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MIKE MOUSTAKAS AND THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS WILL BE REACHING FOR THE CLUB’S SECOND WORLD SERIES TRIUMPH, HAVING BEATEN THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS IN 1985.

Not sure if you’ll agree but the second Rogers edition of Coach’s Corner seemed kind of rushed on the weekend. Twice, Ron MacLean had to warn the highlights crew to roll images and Don Cherry spoke as if on “Greenies” (or uppers) that hockey players in his day would swallow before games. Either Hockey Night chopped time off the show or MacLean and Cherry were urged by someone to speed things up. Whatever, the whole thing seemed a bit off on Saturday… Cherry’s popularity is such that the Toronto Sun has taken to reviewing his Coach’s Corner segment with a Sunday column entitled Cherry Pickin’. The Canadian Press used to similarly “cover” Cherry with a reporter watching TV in the press box at Air Canada Centre (or, presumably, in his livingroom when Leafs were on the road). Good lucking trying to find a daily article capsulizing the remarks of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. With Grapes, it is not a problem… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dave Nonis should be very careful with Jake Gardiner. It is clear that Gardiner and Carlyle are again having difficulty “meshing” and the still-very-young defenseman has to be reeled in now and then. But, let’s not forget that while the rest of the Leafs were withering in the final weeks of last season, Gardiner was getting better. Unlike many of his veteran teammates, he elevated his performance – much as he did in the playoff round against Boston 17 months ago. This guy is a keeper and the Leafs, if they trade him, will rue the day for many years.

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