There are people who will defend Mike Babcock to the ends of the earth for all he’s accomplished.
A Stanley Cup, two other Cup Finals, World Junior Gold, a World Championship, a World Cup, and two Olympic golds. That’s a Hall-of-Fame resume.
Of course, a lot of that success was right-place-right-time as well. Two of his three Cup Final appearances were with Red Wings teams that had several future Hall of Famers. The other was a PDO case. And most of those Canadian international teams could have been successful with a rock that had “Coach” painted on it behind the bench.
And the fact is this: The last time a team coached by Babcock made it out of the first round, it was the 2013 lockout-shortened season. And they still lost in the second round. Since then, Babcock’s teams have a postseason record of 12-20.
That obviously doesn’t erase all the success that will put him into the Hall of Fame, but this isn’t a Joel Quenneville situation where his team is struggling now because years of success put a lot of hard miles on a once-great core. (Especially because Babcock doesn’t have three Cups in his back pocket.) Instead, it’s a situation where Babcock wants the game played a certain way — which you could argue is, shall we say, outmoded — and the team isn’t built for that style of play.
There have been some “Is this team too skilled?” takes, which are silly on their face, but in terms of what Babcock wants from his guys, the answer is plainly “yes.” But a good, smart coach tailors his system to the guys he has, rather than trying to square-peg that round hole.
Asked after Saturday night’s brutal loss to Pittsburgh what the fellas need to do to get it together, Babcock reached into his bag of Old Time Hockey truisms and said they have to commit to working harder. The better question, then, is what he can do to fix the team’s problems, but one suspects the finding will be the same: This is a coach with no answers.
That is not to say the Leafs’ lack of success is entirely Babcock’s fault. Some players are under-performing (most notably Tyson Barrie). There have been some rather notable injuries (Tavares, Marner, and now Kerfoot). None of that helps.
And certainly the biggest problem for the Leafs is the quirk of the schedule that has them playing so many back-to-backs early on. Meaning Babcock, for all his other faults, can’t play Freddie Andersen, and the duo of Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo have to instead. Let’s put it this way, leaving aside all other considerations: The Leafs are 9-4-3 in Andersen’s games (a pace for 108 points). They’re 0-5-1 in backups’ games (a pace for 14 points).
Babcock doesn’t sign the goalies. He just has to play ‘em. That the Leafs can’t win with their backups is a Kyle Dubas problem. It’s hardly unique in the league — see also: Vegas (with no wins in their backups’ appearances, either) — but if they can get an even passable performance from those guys, the Leafs maybe have two extra wins and no one is having this conversation because Toronto is second in the Atlantic.
Another Dubas problem: Firing all the assistant coaches over the summer (half-measure) and putting offense-killer Dave Hakstol on the staff. Another Dubas problem: Trading Kadri and Gardiner and replacing them with lesser players to make the money work, which wouldn’t have had to be a thing if the whole Cody Ceci debacle hadn’t happened.
With all that said, the team too often looks like it has not shown up to play, and a coach who wants a team built to win a lot of 4-3 games to win 3-2 every night has to have better answers than “work harder.”
The team was built at philosophical loggerheads with how the coach wants them to play, and while they could use some individual improvement and a better backup (coming any day now I’m sure), the biggest problem is that players aren’t being put in a position to play to their strengths.
Nor, given Babcock’s history of being a hard case, can you expect him to change. Neither can his players. So if you can’t fire the players...
Anaheim Ducks: “Grant gets first hat trick, Ducks top Blues 4-1” kinda buries the lede on “John Gibson made 37 saves.”
Arizona Coyotes: Darcy Kuemper could have seriously injured Matt Tkachuk with his sleeper suplex and if any position player had done that he might get a call from Player Safety, but we all love it because he’s a goalie? Do I have that right?
Boston Bruins: Well if you’re gonna lose, at least get the point out of it.
Buffalo Sabres: By 2029, the Sabres will be 100 percent Rasmuses.
Calgary Flames: Lost in all that stuff about the near-goalie fight is the fact that the Flames lost their third straight and now have a run of six in seven on the road before the end of the month. Brutal stretch and they’re struggling.
Carolina Hurricanes: The good news for Nino Niederreiter is his on-ice shooting percentage is probably going to come up soon. That’s about it though.
Chicago: Chicago can think they’re going to be “dangerous” all they want, but if they get outshot by 89 every eight games for the rest of the year, they’re probably not going to end up plus-9 too often. Somehow I just don’t see that 106 PDO holding up. Call me crazy.
Colorado Avalanche: Yeah sorry but this is proof the league has too much of a “play through it” attitude. It’s total BS that the play wasn’t blown dead immediately.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Woof.
Dallas Stars: Let’s just accept that Benn and Seguin are gonna meander their way through the first six weeks of the season, get called out by someone, then go psycho mode for a month to even things out. Why not? It seems to be working.
Detroit Red Wings: “Because they’re the Red Wings.”
Edmonton Oilers: Should this Oilers team blowing a two-goal lead and losing in OT really be considered “stunning?” C’mon.
Florida Panthers: At some point we have to have a serious Bobrovsky-related discussion don’t we?
Los Angeles Kings: Saying “hmmmm” for a thousand years straight.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild are dead last in the NHL (albeit with games in hand) and they still have to hear this stuff too? Brutal.
Montreal Canadiens: You gotta love the local media blaming the refs for a home loss. Pathetic. Grow up.
Nashville Predators: Pekka Rinne simply has to be better.
New Jersey Devils: All I’ll say is, “Don’t hold your breath.”
New York Islanders: I know it’s the Flyers and all but spotting teams a three-goal lead probably isn’t the best way to get a cheap thrill.
New York Rangers: Maybe a good way for David Quinn to “instill confidence” in Lias Andersson would be to give him more than 3:55 of ice time, which is what he got against Florida on Saturday. Like, just scratch the guy. It’s embarrassing.
Ottawa Senators: Same old Senators.
Philadelphia Flyers: These guys, I think, probably just aren’t that good.
Pittsburgh Penguins: “Jim, I have half the Western Conference on Lines 1 through 8.”
San Jose Sharks: Potentially losing Tomas Hertl kinda puts a damper on the success of late.
St. Louis Blues: Nice to see it right away with a rookie.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Yeah Jon Cooper blew it with this one. That was definitely not a high stick.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Okay and is it good to concede first in 17 of your 22 games? No?
Vancouver Canucks: I know I’m having a hard time believing it, but it’s starting to look like maybe the Canucks actually aren’t one of the best teams in the league.
Vegas Golden Knights: Gallant for Babcock straight up who says no.
Washington Capitals: It’s literally incredible that no team has a better record since 1982 than the Capitals. I actually do not believe that.
Winnipeg Jets: When do we start the Hellebuyck Vezina campaign?
Play of the Weekend
Nathan MacKinnon going 200 feet is very good to watch.
Nathan MacKinnon wins it in OT. Ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/tZq3dx6Fju— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 17, 2019
Gold Star Award
Okay, Jack Eichel, four goals is a lot. Even if it’s against Ottawa.
Minus of the Weekend
Not that I’m the world’s biggest Jerry York fan, but Simmons, Matheson, et al are simpering bootlickers who would never have the balls to say what they said about York if he’d been an even middle-of-the-road Hall of Fame-level CHL or pro coach, instead of the greatest college coach of all time.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “BannedFromCDC” wants to sort some stuff out.
To Toronto Maple Leafs
2020 3rd round Draft Pick
To Vancouver Canucks
Uh... so, uh... ni-nice store. Uh, you know, when I was a kid this used to be a pet store.
Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
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