Will Babcock Salvage Phaneuf?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 31) — Eleven days after the Maple Leafs collared the coach they had targeted for more than a year, fans of the hockey club await another detonation. At some point, more of the roster that humiliated the franchise between mid–December and mid–April will be blown apart. What remains intact will arrive at training camp in September with Mike Babcock. And, the lucky few had best be prepared.

Of prime curiosity is whether Phil Kessel and/or Dion Phaneuf survive the summer here in town. Even with Babcock behind the bench, the Maple Leafs cannot possibly transition by hanging on to their decaying cornerstones. Doing so would be akin to covering a homely piece of art with Saran Wrap. At least one of Kessel and Phaneuf has to go before Babcock can begin to fundamentally re–shape the hockey club. In my view, it’s a no–brainer: Kessel and Babcock are not meant to co–exist. I’m uncertain whether Kessel and any coach are destined to live happily but Babcock will find the aloof winger intolerable. If I’m running the Leafs — and as I’ve written on several occasions — I cut my losses with Kessel by attempting to find a team that will assume the bulk of his remaining seven years and $54 million. Any return, in my opinion, is a bonus; it becomes addition by subtraction for the Blue and White.

That would leave Phaneuf, a veteran I contend can work with Babcock — and vise versa. Unlike Kessel, who put it in neutral when the season began to unravel toward Christmas, Phaneuf continued to provide the Maple Leafs an honest night’s work. You’ll recall that he sustained a fractured hand in a fight at Ottawa, Jan. 21, with Milan Michalek and missed 12 games (returning Feb. 26). You probably won’t recall the Leafs fighting for much else after the third week of December. So, I suspect there’s a chance Phaneuf could respond favorably to Babcock.

There’s also the memory of Babcock wanting Phaneuf at the trade deadline in March — a deal that could not be formalized between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings. But, there was plenty of negotiation.

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THIS LOOK FROM MIKE BABCOCK WON’T GO OVER WELL WITH PHIL KESSEL.

To enhance the possibility of Phaneuf thriving under Babcock, I would remove the ‘C’ from his jersey — not because Dion is an incompetent captain or spokesperson… far from it. Phaneuf has put his heart into the role since Brian Burke and Ron Wilson anointed him leader shortly after the Jan. 31, 2010 trade with Calgary. In my view, however, he would prosper from a shift toward solely working on the ice with Babcock and not having to answer for the club after every practice and game — taxing here in Toronto at the best of times; hellish with a losing team.

Out of respect for Phaneuf and the process, I would defer the naming of a new captain until the roster begins to take shape under Babcock. Leafs have done this twice previously. After Rick Vaive had the ‘C’ removed in February 1986 (he slept late and missed a practice in Minnesota), the club did not name a successor until Rob Ramage arrived in 1989–90. And, no player wore the letter for 1½ seasons between Mats Sundin’s departure in April 2008 and Phaneuf’s arrival in January 2010. Leafs could make due next season with a foursome of alternate captains: Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak, Joffrey Lupul and Morgan Rielly (based on the current roster). Rielly appears to be growing into the role of captain but there is no need to hurry along the young blue–liner.

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BABCOCK FEATURE IN THE CURRENT EDITION OF THE HOCKEY NEWS.

Of course, the Babcock/Phaneuf dynamic could become moot if the Leafs are intent on trading their cumbersome contracts — easier said than done, but not quite as difficult now that teams can share salary obligation. Otherwise, Babcock is rather masterful at working with dedicated players and he could be a blessing for Phaneuf. Time will tell.

BLACKHAWKS WILL PREVAIL: Turns out I called the wrong horses in the Stanley Cup semifinals, having stuck with the New York Rangers and Anaheim since before the playoffs. If genius trickles down to your off–spring, you can credit me for Shane Berger nailing a Chicago–Tampa Bay Cup final back in April. From this point forward, he will buy my lottery tickets. Before the season, I actually felt the Los Angeles Kings would carve a Stanley Cup dynasty by prevailing for the third time in four years. But, winning the Cup is difficult without making the playoffs. So, I’ll now go with Chicago forming its own dynasty of three Stanley Cups in six years. The 2015 championship should be a wonderful series featuring arguably the three best players in hockey: Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It’s a pretty good answer to the Cleveland–Golden State National Basketball Association final that features, unequivocally, the two best players on the planet — LeBron James and regular–season MVP Steph Curry. My Stanley Cup pick:

CHICAGO IN 6. (SPORTSLOGOS.NET)

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STANLEY CUP FINALSERIES O – A2 vs. C3TIME (ET)  vs.  NETWORKSWednesday, June 38 p.m.Chicago at Tampa BayNBC, CBCSaturday, June 68 p.m.Chicago at Tampa BayNBC, CBCMonday, June 88 p.m.Tampa Bay at ChicagoNBCSN, CBCWednesday, June 108 p.m.Tampa Bay at ChicagoNBCSN, CBC*Saturday, June 138 p.m.Chicago at Tampa BayNBC, CBC*Monday, June 158 p.m.Tampa Bay at ChicagoNBC, CBC*Wednesday, June 178 p.m.Chicago at Tampa BayNBC, CBC

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KNOCKING OFF THE OLDIES: Tampa Bay becomes the first expansion team to face pre–expansion clubs in all four rounds of the playoffs — having defeated Detroit, Montreal and the New York Rangers this spring. The NHL clubs between 1945 and 1967 are colloquially (and incorrectly) referred to as the Original Six. Boston and Toronto did not make the playoffs this year, but Tampa Bay eliminated the Bruins from contention on the final day of the regular schedule. For the record, the actual “original six” NHL teams (between 1917 and 1920) were the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, Ottawa Silver Seven, Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs and Hamilton Tigers… It was 16 years ago today that the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared farthest into the calendar. Toronto lost Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final at Buffalo on May 31, 1999. The previous team mark had been May 29, 1993, when Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings won Game 7 of the Western Conference championship at Maple Leaf Gardens… This year’s Chicago–Anaheim Cup semifinal ranked with any best–of–seven series in my memory — until Game 7. The Blackhawks bolted to an early 2–0 lead last night at the Honda Center and were never in trouble. It reminded me of the classic Pittsburgh–Washington East semifinal in 2009, when Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin traded blows through six remarkable games. In the finale at the Verizon Center (which I covered for The FAN–590), Crosby was in control of a 6–2 Penguins romp. Pittsburgh went on to defeat Carolina in the East final and Detroit in a seven–game Cup series.

NHL ORIGINAL SIX LOGOS: QUEBEC BULLDOGS, TORONTO ARENAS, MONTREAL WANDERERS.

YZERMAN IN SELECT COMPANY: If Tampa Bay defeats Chicago in the final, Steve Yzerman will become just the sixth Hall–of–Fame player to win the Stanley Cup as a general manager. It last happened in 1999 with Bob Gainey of the Dallas Stars. Gainey’s former teammate, Serge Savard, was manager of the Montreal Stanley Cup teams in 1986 and 1993. Others were Milt Schmidt (Boston 1970 and 1972); Art Ross (Boston 1941) and Lester Patrick (New York Rangers 1928, 1933, 1940).

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STEVE YZERMAN WAS A HALL–OF–FAME PLAYER WITH DETROIT FROM 1983 to 2006.

MUSICAL COACHING CHAIRS: Clearly, the safest route to coaching in the National Hockey League is to have previously coached in the National Hockey League… with some degree of success. Though fraught with peril, the job virtually guarantees re–entry after an initial parting of ways. The past 11 days, alone, have seen the following movement:

? Mike Babcock from Detroit (via Anaheim) to Toronto.

? Todd McLellan from San Jose to Edmonton.

? Peter DeBoer from New Jersey (via Florida) to San Jose.

? Dan Bylsma from Pittsburgh to Buffalo.

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THE BUFFALO SABRES HIRED DAN BYLSMA AS HEAD COACH ON THURSDAY.

Only the Philadelphia Flyers — thus far — have abstained from re–shuffling. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall dipped into the United States college system to hire Dave Hakstol from the University of North Dakota. Perhaps Hextall merely liked the way Hakstol’s name sounded, but we’ll assume there was more to the decision. And, Detroit is almost certain to promote Jeff Blashill from its American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. to replace Babcock. The move will not take place until Grand Rapids either wins the Calder Cup or is eliminated from the AHL playoffs. The Griffins are currently deadlocked with the Utica (N.Y.) Comets after four games of the Western Conference final.

New Jersey also has a coaching vacancy to be filled by “new” GM Ray Shero — late of the Penguins. Speculation evolves around four candidates: Former Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean; John Hynes of the AHL Wilkes–Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh’s affiliate); Washington Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden and Hall–of–Fame defenseman Phil Housley (assistant to Peter Laviolette in Nashville). In April 1987, the Devils went outside the NHL for a new GM, hiring Lou Lamoriello of Providence College. The move worked out rather well (three Stanley Cups). So, don’t be shocked if New Jersey hires a relative coaching neophyte to replace the interim duo of Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, which stepped in after Lamoriello axed DeBoer on Dec. 26.

Of course, the firing and recycling of coaches has always been paramount in professional sport. Virtually no one is immune to losing a job. Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour — ranked first and second in all–time NHL victories behind the bench — were both let go by St. Louis in the early–70’s. Bowman later parted with Montreal, Buffalo and Pittsburgh before winning three Stanley Cups in Detroit. Every coach but Arbour among the top 10 in victories has worked for at least three NHL clubs (Arbour coached the Blues and twice guided the New York Islanders).

The others:

3. Joel Quenneville: St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago.

4. Ken Hitchcock: Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus, St. Louis.

5. Dick Irvin: Toronto, Montreal, Chicago (twice).

6. Pat Quinn: Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton.

7. Mike Keenan: Philadelphia, Chicago, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Florida, Calgary.

8. Ron Wilson: Anaheim, Washington, San Jose, Toronto.

9. Bryan Murray: Washington, Detroit, Florida, Anaheim, Ottawa.

10. Jacques Lemaire: Montreal, New Jersey (twice), Minnesota Wild.

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EVEN THE MASTER — SCOTTY BOWMAN — WORKED THE BENCH FOR FIVE NHL TEAMS: ST. LOUIS, MONTREAL, BUFFALO, PITTSBURGH AND DETROIT.

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