TORONTO (Nov. 19) — After the all–hands–in pursuit of Mike Babcock over the summer, it may come as a shock that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is reconsidering its commitment to the veteran coach.
“He simply isn’t doing what we asked of him,” said an MLSE spokesperson who requested anonymity. “All of this winning is terrible for the franchise. If the Leafs get as many as three points in the weekend games [at Carolina Friday; at Boston Saturday], we’ll almost certainly make a change. Eating his $50 million won’t be fun, but the team and the draft comes first. We want high–end picks for the next couple of years. We need to be in the thick of the [draft] lottery. Anything that will help us grow balls is of utmost importance.”
Once into the Babcock dialogue, it was difficult to stop the MLSE spokesperson.
“We specifically gave Mike a raggedy–ass team and he’s blowing the whole thing to shreds. I mean, think about it: We trade Phil Kessel and sign a cluck like P.A. Parenteau. We hang onto Dion Phaneuf and keep him as captain to ensure that he can lead the club as he did in the second half of last season. Hell, the only guy doing his job is [goalie] Jonathan Bernier. We gave him two years and more than $8 million so he’d kick out soft rebounds and allow three–bouncers from center–ice. The Board is seriously considering to renegotiate with [Bernier’s agent] Pat Brisson and double our commitment. The rest of them? Feh!”
These angry remarks come with the Maple Leafs on a 5–2–2 run in their past nine games for a 6–9–4 overall record and 16 points. Suddenly, there are five teams — Edmonton, Columbus, Carolina, Calgary and Colorado — beneath Toronto in the National Hockey League standings. “It’s incredible,” said the MLSE employee. “At the end of October, we were 1–7–2 and situated just perfectly — on pace for nine wins. Mike was doing a phenomenal job. Our players were tripping over one other; throwing the puck away; taking stupid penalties — all of the things for which we chose to pay him so handsomely. And, now… this.”
When I contacted Babcock for a response, he seemed resigned to his fate.
“I haven’t slept a wink for the past two weeks,” he confessed. “I don’t blame the Board for being upset. Winning is just brutal. A couple of times, I’ve held secret practices that were closed to the media so we could review all the sloppy work I’ve been emphasizing. And, those practices were great. Stumbled all over the ice — the way I drew it up. So, I can’t figure it out. And, then, we’ve got guys like [Dave] Feschuk in the [Toronto] Star writing all this complimentary gibberish about me. If I had known back in May this was going to happen — even for a short time — I’d have taken Terry Pegula’s offer and signed with Buffalo.”
I asked Babcock about using James Reimer so frequently in this destructive hot streak. The perfect answer would seem to be right in front of him on the bench: Bernier. “I know, but damn… I remember watching that Game 7 in Boston on TV a few years ago and I was sure Reims would collapse by now,” he said. “Eventually, he’s going to fold and it’s my responsibility, as coach, to bring that out in him. I just wish he would stop praying so much. I think all that religion is hurting the team. I’ve asked the trainers to paint over the Gothic stuff on the back of his mask, but they’re also devout. I’m not sure I have an answer right now.”
The MLSE spokesperson insisted that patience on the Board is running dry.
“I’m telling you, three points this weekend and Mike’s gone,” he asserted. “I’ve spoken to Brendan Shanahan numerous times about the direction of the team. He’s also distraught and has begged Mike to get the club playing like it was in October. Maybe going to Carolina will be the answer once again. If you remember, we were something crazy like 10–1–1 before we traveled to Raleigh last December. At that time, we were trying to win, because David Nonis and Randy Carlyle had convinced the Board we could make the Stanley Cup final. Somehow, we lost to the Hurricanes and went into that horrible death–spiral. Mike and I watched a replay of that (Dec. 18) game a few nights ago and I’m convinced he has a good strategy for Friday.”
Though not tipping his hand, Babcock also expressed confidence.
“Don’t worry, we’ll lose,” he said. “I had Bernier stay out after practice yesterday with Reims. They worked together on coughing up fat rebounds. I then had Naz [Nazem Kadri] flip some harmless shots from behind center–ice. You should have seen those pucks bouncing in on both sides of the net. I’ll go with James again in Raleigh, hoping he can finally get it right. If he screws up and we win again, I suppose I’ll have no choice but to use Bernier in Boston. I’m not counting on it, though. Reims, to me, looks ripe for the picking.”
JAMES REIMER (IN BALL CAP) AND JONATHAN BERNIER HAVE DONE LOTS OF SOUL–SEARCHING THE PAST TWO WEEKS IN AN ATTEMPT TO GET THE LEAFS FLOUNDERING LIKE THEY WERE IN OCTOBER, WHEN THIS PHOTO WAS SNAPPED AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. TORONTO STAR
When prodded about the MLSE threat to fire him, Babcock replied, “How would I argue? They brought me here to fu– up this season and next. We started beautifully the first month — it was exactly the ‘pain’ I eluded to in my introductory news conference. Then, for some reason, the players stopped listening. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve often wondered why we traded Kessel. He was perfect at doing that. Now, the Penguins are getting all the benefit and we’re stuck with some has–beens and never–will–be’s. It was a ridiculous deal. But, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s my job to get these guys looking like fools again.
“It shouldn’t take much longer.”