TORONTO (Oct. 2) — In case you are wondering whether Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas became warm and fuzzy during the off–season, consider the message sent by the long–time, grizzled coach to his still–newbie general manager prior to the regular–season opener, tonight, against Ottawa. For no particular reason, Babcock has scratched veteran center Jason Spezza. No reason, that is, other than to emphasize his displeasure over Dubas signing the Mississauga native (now 36) as an unrestricted free agent in July.
And, to show — as always — who is “boss” on game days.
The figurative “up yours” is also likely a delayed reaction to the knowledge that Dubas wanted Babcock fired after the seven–game playoff defeat against Boston last April, only to be overruled by his actual boss, president Brendan Shanahan. Neither was this cozy relationship enhanced by Dubas unloading such Babcock favorites as Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and Connor Brown. Dubas made sure to extend the contract of Toronto Marlies coach, Sheldon Keefe, just in case Shanahan changes his mind at some point in the near future. Should the Leafs perform beneath expectation in the first 20 games of the schedule, that time could arrive sooner rather than later. In any event, scratching Spezza to make a point, internally, shows that Babcock is not–the–least intimidated by speculation of his eventual demise. Or, by the influence and authority that Dubas gained when he replaced Hall–of–Famer Lou Lamoriello as GM prior to last season. The coach, on several occasions, spoke cryptically about the apparent shortfall on the Maple Leafs’ roster; most–notably, after a 3–0 loss at Nashville last March 19, when he said: “You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you… don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”
JASON SPEZZA: CAUGHT IN THE UNSPOKEN CROSSFIRE BETWEEN MIKE BABCOCK AND KYLE DUBAS.
It was a dart clearly aimed at Dubas — just five years old when Babcock began coaching the Western Hockey League Moose Jaw Warriors in 1991–92; 17 when Babcock guided the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup final. The coach/GM impasse began a year ago, when Dubas pulled rank and awarded goalie Garret Sparks the No. 2 role behind Frederik Andersen — primarily for winning the Calder Cup four months earlier with the Marlies, a team managed by Dubas before his ascension to the Leafs. Babcock had no confidence in Sparks and wanted to keep incumbent Curtis McElhinney, who was put on waivers and claimed by Carolina. While Sparks struggled in 20 appearances with the Leafs (eight wins and a 3.15 goals–against average), McElhinney helped guide the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final (20 wins in 33 appearances during the regular season; a 2.58 GAA). Given his fine showing, McElhinney joined Tampa Bay as a free agent this summer (two years, $2.6 million) and will back up Andrei Vasilevskiy. Sparks was unceremoniously dumped by the Leafs in favor of Michael Hutchison prior to the playoffs; then dealt to Vegas (July 23) for David Clarkson and his dormant $5.25–million contract — used as salary–cap relief when Dubas finally inked Mitch Marner to a six–year deal (on Sep. 13). Babcock, therefore, emerged the “victor” in the initial battle–of–wits with his Toronto GM. More–such squabbles are sure to materialize among Dubas and Babcock, who haven’t been on the same chapter, let alone the same page, with regard to the Leafs.
This story, surely to be dismissed by all parties, will be overshadowed tonight when the Leafs announce their new captain (first since Dion Phaneuf was traded to Ottawa in February 2016) and by the season–opener against the Senators at Scotiabank Arena. But, it bears watching.
There is a dearth of serenity in the front office of the Blue and White.
KEEP EXPECTATION REASONABLE: Rasmus Sandin. The last name thrice bears coincidence. It is one vowel different than the leading scorer in Toronto Maple Leafs history (Mats Sundin). It begins with the same letters as the most–prolific defenseman the Leafs have ever owned (Borje Salming). And, all three players were born in Sweden. It could become, unexpectedly, a trifecta unlike anything in recent Toronto hockey annals. Sandin, chosen 29th by the Leafs in the 2018 NHL draft, was the story of training camp. He showed remarkable poise for a 19–year–old and earned a spot on the 23–man roster. But, let’s try to remember the difficulty of mastering the defense position in the NHL. Even Salming — alongside Tim Horton, the greatest blue–liner in Leafs history — went through peaks and valleys before becoming a front–line worker. As did the other two most–recent 19–year–old defensemen to crack the roster: Ian Turnbull (with Salming) in 1973 and Morgan Rielly in 2013. It’s a challenging position to play; more–so with a team that has long–been mediocre behind center ice and will, again, feature the skill of its young forwards. Sandin will not deliver the goods, consistently, right away. He’ll require patience and understanding from management, coaches and an always–jittery fan base. Overnight heroes abide in Leafs Nation. But, preciously few endure.
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Sentiment be damned – I have absolutely no problem with Babcock sitting Spezza if PK duties are part of his job description. Did any of you actually watch Spezza’s efforts on the PK in the pre-season? He looked like a fish out of water. Not sure he’s up to the task if PK is part of it. Babcock was right on this one.
But, he’s in tonight against Columbus. Must have been a dandy practice on Thursday. Sigh.
While I don’t view this Spezza situation as a big deal, Babcock is the biggest issue on this team.
This organization spends by far the most on analytics in the NHL, yet they have Babcock as coach?
Has this team ever put out it’s best lineup with Babs? He continually underplays the best players and overplays undeserving players. Marleau’s usage last year was ridiculous. He played so much more than younger, better players.
And in the playoffs playing Gardiner that much hurt in game 7. Hyman on 1 leg taking face-offs against Bergeron? Matthews chained to the bench while Gauthier plays in the 3rd period? The obsessive line-matching. ..
It’s not that he’s a bad coach, just simply not a fit with how this team is constructed. IMO, he should have been fired after the playoffs last Spring.
Ok Howard …. You’ve dragged me over to your side. Call me a convert! It does look like Babcock will be fired. It is 15 minutes in and Toronto thus far is playing terrible. The same old problems are cropping up. Toronto d-men are having a hard time bringing the puck up the ice – and given all the firepower Toronto has accumulated why isn’t the puck being shot at the net more often. I can see that Dubas is trying to replicate the offensive-high-flying-80’s Oilers but when the coach isn’t on the same page as the GM something has to give. Shanahan did not look happy in the box when shown on TV. Just to be honest – It was a bush-league, unclassy move sending Spezza to the press box against his old team on opening night. A move like that can cause a rift in the team. Babcock may be the Boss but its alot easier to get rid of a coach than trade 23 players.
Welcome to the ‘hood.