“He’s got 20 games,” said a well–known figure in the National Hockey League. “If the Leafs aren’t playing up to par by mid–November, Babcock’s gone. Count on it. There is lots of appetite for change in Toronto.”
— BETWEEN THE POSTS: Aug. 11, 2019.
TORONTO (Oct. 27) — I don’t think the Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to get Mike Babcock fired. Such a plot would be giving the players far–too–much credit. But, who really knows? As I mentioned in my previous blog, it is difficult to remember a talented Toronto club performing as indifferently through the first month of a season as the current edition. It didn’t happen under Roger Neilson… or Pat Burns… or Pat Quinn, the troika of bench–bosses that have guided the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup semifinals since 1967.
Why is it happening — amid abundant skill and youth — under Babcock?
And, more compellingly: how much longer will it be allowed to continue?
I said it earlier in the week and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe this is Babcock’s mess. In the 21st century, there is no particular reason for a coach to “motivate” young, high–performance athletes. The “forty–million–dollar men” — John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — need to look in the mirror. Until it cracks. Matthews, Marner and Nylander should stand there a bit longer, asking why they refuse to step up and compensate while the captain recuperates from a broken finger. The Pittsburgh Penguins have two superstars (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin), one of which (Malkin) has suited up only twice. The Leafs have five superstars (Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Nylander*, Morgan Rielly), four of which have played every match. And, Pittsburgh has gotten to 14 points one game quicker than Toronto. Many of the Boston Bruins’ top performers are significantly older than their Leaf counterparts. Yet, Zdeno Chara (42), Patrice Bergeron (34), David Krejci (33 and injured), Tuukka Rask (32), Brad Marchand (31) and Co. are 7–1–2 after 10 starts. Why are the youthful Maple Leafs beginning games so sluggishly and falling apart in the back end of consecutive–night encounters (outscored, 3–0, by the Canadiens in the final 20 minutes)? Especially in October, when legs should be fresh? Where is the commitment to something that even resembles team defense? Where is the commitment… period? These are questions, quite frankly, without answers.
*Readers are questioning, justifiably, my designation of William Nylander as a “superstar”. I base the argument on salary and what might transpire were he willing, now and then, to get his nose dirty. Skill is not an issue.
THE LEAFS WERE FAST ASLEEP IN THE FIRST PERIOD AT MONTREAL SATURDAY NIGHT, FALLING BEHIND BY A PAIR OF GOALS WHILE GETTING ANNIHILATED ON THE SHOT–CLOCK. WHAT GIVES WITH THIS PATTERN? ROGERS/CBC
“You can’t give up two breakaways and a two–on–one in a game that close,” Matthews said after the unsightly loss in Montreal. “That’s on us. To give up odd-man rushes, breakaways… I mean, it’s one–on–one with the goalie there, so we’re not giving him much help. That’s on us, it’s not on him.”
Thanks for the bulletin, Auston. We’ve heard it before. When will you and your ‘mates convert words to action? If not until another person is standing behind the bench, then — yes — the Maple Leafs are maneuvering to get Babcock fired. And, they will ultimately succeed. In the meantime, they’ve come across as a bunch of fat cats early in the schedule, lazing about in cruise control with their millions tucked away. How dreadful it would be for the Leafs and their large posse of supporters if it turns out the club assembled nonchalant, apathetic personalities in the National Hockey League drafts of 2014–16. There is marginal playoff evidence, to this point, that Nylander, Marner and Matthews can ramp it up when required. To suggest it’s too early for such an assessment may be true. But, it’s also valid that every watt of illumination shine on the trio, given their collective skill and newfound wealth. It’s time to strap on the work–boots.
There are other early–season issues, to be sure. The Leafs clearly are not playing for back–up goalie Michael Hutchinson — and phooey on the consecutive–nights excuse. There is absolutely no reason, so early in the schedule, for the young Toronto skaters to be lapsing into exhaustion in the late going. Yes, Hutchinson is, necessarily, a cheap option ($750,000) as No. 2 on a team strangled by cap constraint. For the second consecutive year, general manager Kyle Dubas has underestimated the value of a support netminder — particularly with his coach insisting that Frederik Andersen play the front end of back–to–backs. Hutchinson, thus far, has drawn the tougher opponent, without success (Andersen, apparently, needs to play the first game, which accrues another unanswerable question). As with all front–loaded teams in the salary cap era, there’s a large gap on the Leafs between elite and support personnel. Which further necessitates that Matthews, Marner et al show up for work. And, of course, there’s a near–complete dearth of grit and backbone on this club. The star players can be molested with impunity. But, we understood that going in.
So, yeah, Mike Babcock probably does have another two weeks, at most, for his club to begin performing to standard. Unless it already is. If that’s the case, a coaching change will be irrelevant.