They Need to Turn Over a New Leaf
Mike Babcock, who says his Leafs have to find a place to hang their hat, reached Abe Lincoln-stovepipe-deep until his 11th selection, Andreas Johnsson, won a shootout and a few seconds of relief in Philadelphia on Saturday night.
A point is a point in races now separated by one or two of them. But winning a skills competition after getting outplayed only fuels a skepticism that has grown in Toronto from three consecutive first-round defeats. Skill, everyone knows, the Leafs have–Matthews and Nylander were invisible Tuesday night for two periods and then made plays 30 seconds apart to beat the Kings-and the game in Philadelphia was an example of the Leafs winning the hard way after taking their usual easy way. No hiding from 5.9 million persons in the Toronto metropolitan area, give or take the handfuls who prefer the theatre or the curling rink, the Leafs were outplayed in the game.
All that credibility that Babcock brought with him from Detroit four seasons ago erodes with stupid penalty after penalty, mindless defensive zone play as typified by that of William (Oh, Was That My Guy?) Nylander on a Flyer go-ahead third-period goal, and a general sense that a young nucleus as talented as there is in the NHL plays with a sense of entitlement.
Adding to that perception is the highest-paid coach in the league by a large margin entering Year Four without a single playoff series victory, or, as he said himself, a hat rack. With 14 years having passed since the last playoff series win and 53 since the last Stanley Cup, life in the league’s greatest fishbowl is often not fun and even more often not fair. Everybody has an opinion, even Alexander Ovechkin, who, after beating the Leafs twice in a week, lectured they have to change their mentality or never be rewarded with playoff success.
Said the Great Eight: Take it from me, someone who learned the hard way sacrifice leads to bliss. Reformed smokers, drinkers and hockey players who have had an epiphany and now have a ring are not always enjoyable company, but they speak the truth. Babcock–what else could he say- even endorsed the counsel of Ovie. A job breaking down film and hauling out the bag of pucks for practice is just a call to Babs away, should Ovechkin need a little walking-around money after netting No. 895.
It certainly looks like Babcock can use some more help. Getting young millionaires to buy in is why they pay him the biggest bucks ever paid an NHL coach; so far without results to mimic those of Barry Trotz, Craig Berube, Ken Hitchcock and Mike Sullivan as coaches who have gotten young adults with big egos and expensive cars to buy in for the greater good.
Of course until the Leafs finally make a conference final run, even a 110-point season will be unredeemable for good will in The Big Smoke. At this stage, it has to happen in the playoffs, so human nature being what it is, the Leafs, like the Lightning, might stay in cruise control for another month or two. You could even make an argument, like the Blues did a year ago, that pushing the pedal to the floor too early is unwise. But non-postseason qualifiers a year ago in Buffalo and Montreal are improved and Florida and Philadelphia might be. So waiting into February to push the button is asking for disaster.
And anyway, considering the daily scrutiny in a place that is both Hockey Heaven and Hockey Hell the more likely Leaf problem is the extra poundage on their backs from the failures of previous generations. A championship by the Raptors hasn’t provided any diversionary screen, if anything has piled on more weight. With their get-out-of jail-free card– the return of John Tavares from a three-week absence–about to be played, the cynicism could even increase. It’s a dirty job, convincing a market of hockey sophisticates that you can roll up your sleeves and win dirty.
The Leafs went 3-4 without Tavares yet emerged from his absence with a 7-5-3 mark for the season, not so bad and not so good, actually almost exactly the league norm.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are scoring above a point-a-game pace, yet the Leafs are only keeping their heads above water, which for all the evidence of the team stars looking away when the opposition attacks, suggests there is indeed, another way of looking at this team. It’s problem may be as much on the bottom of the roster as at the top.
The 1976-77 Canadiens, the Leafs are not, nor ever will be if/when Matthews. Marner, Kapanen, Hymen, and Nylander grow up. Par for a closely-bunched top two thirds teams of the 2019-20 NHL, Toronto has eight good forwards just two better than average defensemen-Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci–and a good goalie, Frederik Andersen After that, like the rest of the league, the Leafs have a bunch of minimum-salary guys, because that’s all that cap room allows.
When you become a perennial disappointment, a shortage of character can easily become confused with a shortage of support personnel. It is true that defense wins in the playoffs and, the regular season is practice for the essential sacrifices. But key as was Berube getting through to Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues won it all because they had unusual depth on defense for this era.
The Blackhawks had to change their supporting cast twice to win three Cups in six years, an amazing feat by Stan Bowman, plus a tribute to the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews-Duncan Keith core and coach Joel Quenneville. In the pre-cap days, teams that had assembled intriguing nucleuses could make big moves – Butch Goring, Reggie Leach, Craig MacTavish, Kent Nilsson, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Bryan Trottier– to get over the top or to stay there. With a core of Marner, Matthews and Nylander needing to be kept intact, the Leafs maxed out to the ceiling to sign Tavares, and the best they have been able to do since as a supplement is a serviceable Jake Muzzin.
It goes back to success in the draft, of course, to have a supply of energy coming from guys still on entry contracts, the way to buy time for core players thrust into huge positions of responsibility before they are fully matured.
A select few, like Matthews, can perform against men at age 18, and many more can’t be held back at 19 or 20. But being an almost instant franchise player demands, at minimum, keeping your pants on in shopping malls.
Five decades since the last Cup, desperate fans in the toughest hockey market there is are having a hard time doing the same thing. So while stars, young and old, never can do enough to satisfy itchy Twitter fingers in practically any market, spoiled rich kids can, at the very least, not demonstrate their immaturity with mindless, puerile, stunts.
Boys will be boys. Our point exactly when the about-to-be named captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is already having his adulthood questioned by a demanding and frustrated fan base. Indeed, the Leafs need a place to hang a dunce cap.