With 24 games to go in the 2017-18 National Hockey League season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 18 points clear of the Detroit Red Wings, the team closest to knocking them out of the playoff race. So, yeah, we’ll be seeing the Leafs in the postseason come spring.
However, despite the sizeable cushion, there are causes for concern with this Leafs squad. Long stretches of underwhelming play, exacerbated by head coach Mike Babcock’s player selection, give one pause when deeming the Leafs true contenders.
To a certain extent, I get where Babcock’s coming from. He’s in the third year of an eight-year deal, so he’s got a lot of runway to develop this team. Playing players in specific roles – and, sometimes, not at all – may not produce immediate returns but will, ideally, set Toronto’s core up for sustained, long-term success.
However, it’s become increasingly apparent that Babcock plays favourites. Now, every coach – every boss, really – plays favourites, but Babcock is troubling in the way he goes about it. He seems to completely ignore objective analysis in favour of players he, for whatever reason, likes better.
Not only does this modus operandi have the potential to put the Leafs at a disadvantage on a night-to-night basis, it might just be setting them up for abject failure down the road.
Josh Leivo Locked out of Lineup
Josh Leivo has demonstrated, time and again, an ability to score at the NHL level. However, despite various injuries and scratches within the Leafs’ forward corps, he has constantly struggled to get into the lineup.
Leivo spent much of 2016-17, as he has this season, not playing (he only played 13 NHL games). Despite performing very well when called upon, Leivo fell victim to injuries and was also, at times, a casualty of the now-perennial Leafs roster shenanigans. But there was also some evidence to suggest Babcock didn’t appreciate his contributions as much as everyone else seemed to.
And this season? He’s played just 12 games – none since Dec. 31, while lesser-skilled players like Dominic Moore and, until recently, Matt Martin, continue to see regular ice.
Whether or not you believe he explicitly asked for a trade, many of Leafs Nation wouldn’t blame him if he did, and most are no doubt secretly hoping he gets to play somewhere soon, even if it’s not with Toronto.
Leivo Performs When Given a Chance
Last season, Leivo registered two goals and 10 points in 13 games. Hey, that’s an NHL player right there.
This season? One goal and three points in 12 games. That’s uhh… Not good.
The difference? Last season, Leivo’s most common linemates were Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. This season? Martin and Moore. So it’s no wonder his production, not to mention his advanced stats, have gone from awesome to anemic. Call me crazy, but I think most scoring forwards would struggle to produce when played in a fourth-line role. For the record, Leivo’s one goal this season came during a shift alongside Kadri and Komarov.
Things have gone from curious to downright befuddling in recent weeks, as Kasperi Kapanen was recalled to fill an open slot on the wing, leapfrogging Leivo in the process. Kapanen may well be a better player, but the Leafs are comfortably in a playoff spot and Leivo’s on a one-way deal; why wouldn’t the Leafs want to see what they had?
If they want to keep him, why are they letting Marlies take roster spots that he could fill? Kapanen is definitely an NHL player, but the Leafs have a plethora of great forwards in development. If Kapanen is favoured over Leivo, how many others are, too?
And if he’s not a part of the Leafs’ future (and it’s hard to see how he is), why wouldn’t they put him in the lineup and do everything possible to ensure he produces (which he would, given the opportunity)? He’d be a hell of a lot more attractive to teams at the trade deadline with some goals and points under his belt.
It’s hard for a player to demonstrate their value when they rarely play and, when they do, it’s with limited ice time, in a limited role, alongside players with a limited skillset. Small wonder the guy (maybe) wants out.
Roman Polak Flawed but Familiar
Roman Polak is a very satisfying hockey player. When he decides to throw his weight around, he absolutely annihilates opponents (though sometimes he does seem unaware of his own strength. See also: Gudas, Radko). He looks the part, too; Polak could be petting a puppy and still look intimidating, so I can only imagine what he’s like in a net-front scrum. He also plays a very simple game, rarely trying to do too much with the puck.
Plus, if any player has maxed out their “character” stat, it’s Polak; I was at the Air Canada Centre when, in a meaningless 6-2 loss to the Washington Capitals during the 2014-15 campaign, Polak took a Troy Brouwer slapshot to the face…and came back, even earning an assist.
However, it’s readily apparent the Leafs have other defensemen that can replace the 31-year-old rearguard in the everyday lineup.
Never a particularly quick player, Polak had offseason surgery after a brutal, season-ending hit in the playoffs last year. As touching as his recovery and overall character might be, it’s folly to ignore Polak’s deficiencies; the veteran is struggling to attain his former level of play, let alone adapt to the ever-increasing speed of the NHL.
Connor Carrick Cut out of Lineup
So why, then, is he often favoured over someone like Connor Carrick, who provides much more offense and is demonstrably better defensively? In the same amount of games and ice time, Carrick has better possession numbers (Corsi For of 51 percent, versus Polak’s 48%), so the Leafs spend more time with the puck when Carrick is playing. The Leafs also give up fewer scoring chances when Carrick is on the ice, at 211 (versus 260 with Polak), and also get a larger share of the total scoring chances (54% versus 50%).
Carrick is, admittedly, much more sheltered that Polak, starting over 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone. However, considering both players spend most of their time on the bottom pair and, therefore, generally face the same level of competition, the above numbers suggest that Babcock, based on who knows what, has gotten it into his head that Polak is better defensively than Carrick (and or that Carrick is a defensive liability), despite evidence to the contrary.
It’s not just Carrick; one can argue Andreas Borgman has performed better than Polak, as well, though he’s a left-handed shot and Babcock has a preference to play defensemen on their strong sides.
Regardless, the Leafs have long been rumoured to be in the market for a defenseman to improve the depth of their blue line. However, if such a player does arrive, is Babcock, based on nearly three seasons of evidence, really going to give up on his preferred player? Moreover, the Leafs, very clearly, already have players that can fill that role, even if Babcock doesn’t agree. Thus, such a transaction, which will likely come with a hefty price tag, is highly unnecessary and, depending on player deployment, might be altogether pointless.
Frank Corrado Finally Free
Even prior to this season, there were already eyebrows raised regarding the Leafs’ handling of certain players, most notably Frank Corrado.
After being claimed off waivers by the Leafs in October 2015, Corrado waited over two months to make his Toronto debut. He finished with 39 games played, the lion’s share coming in the second half with the Leafs in full tank mode. The team that was relatively competitive during the early part of the campaign came back down to Earth in the second half, finishing dead-last in the NHL. So it’s not as though Corrado had much of a chance to prove himself, as the Leafs were actively attempting to finish as low as possible in the standings.
That said, despite poor traditional statistics (which most Leafs had that season), Corrado acquitted himself reasonably well, finishing with a Corsi For of 55%, while the Leafs generated 53% of the scoring chances while he was on the ice. Admittedly, his Expected Goals For was a disappointing 47%, though it should be noted that most Leafs defensemen scored poorly in this measure, and also that Corrado did not have the benefit of playing earlier on in the year, when the team was competitive and even spent some time in the playoff hunt.
The following season, the Leafs again kept Corrado on the sidelines, this time playing him only twice. Granted, he didn’t perform especially well when he played, but when a player only plays two – non-consecutive, I might add – games all season, there’s no way he has a fair chance to demonstrate his abilities. Understandably, Corrado became frustrated.
To add insult to injury, Corrado was waived in February of 2017 after the Leafs picked up Alexey Marchenko off waivers. Marchenko, a roughly equivalent defenseman – and a member of the Red Wings organisation during Babcock’s tenure, played 11 games down the stretch for the Leafs.
Is Leafs’ Favouritism Justified?
This is not to say that any of this favouritism is altogether undeserved.
Leivo, underutilised or not, has been equalled or outperformed by others playing similar roles, with the added factor that said other players provide more versatility (Kapanen is a faster skater and can play the penalty kill, for example).
Polak, whether you appreciate what he brings or not, is, generally, a fairly predictable defenseman. He may not be particularly efficient or even particularly effective, but Babcock can throw him out there and have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to do. Carrick is significantly more creative with significantly more offensive upside, but with creativity comes uncertainty, and it’s reasonable to suggest Babcock isn’t comfortable with his bottom-pairing defensemen being unpredictable.
As for Corrado, he is, at this point in his career anyway, a bottom-pairing NHL defenseman, at best. He’s probably not going to provide some groundbreaking alteration to a team’s fortunes. However, he’s also a right-handed shot with some offensive upside, and would have been at least comparable to other defensemen the Leafs used last season, like Marchenko and Martin Marincin.
There are certainly arguments to be made for Babcock’s decisions. But that’s not any excuse for him not maximising the talent he has at his disposal and, at the very least, figuring out what the Leafs have in certain players. This stubbornness is starting to come off as petty.
Leafs’ Favouritism Risks Future Returns
Top-end talent not an issue for the Leafs. If they hope to join the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks in consistently icing contending teams, it will be the depth players with which they surround their talent that will become the critical pieces.
However, not only is roster favouritism affecting the Leafs in the present, it might also be jeopardising the future.
It’s already been suggested that players are reluctant to come play for Babcock. Yes, he’s a proven winner and yes, the Leafs have as good a chance as any team to win a Stanley Cup in the coming years, but the same arguments applied in Detroit, too, and some players still chose to avoid him. The NHL is equal, unpredictable and luck-based enough that any number of teams have a reasonable shot at winning. So who would want to sign in Toronto and risk being sidelined, if not outright humiliated?
This is no longer about gossip and hearsay. This is no longer about attitude or reputation. This is no longer about players complaining he doesn’t like them.
It’s now an actual set of behaviours that can be pointed to as evidence Babcock ignores objective analysis in favour of his own personal preferences.
With all this having been said, has any of it come back to bite the Leafs? No, it has to be said.
Not yet, anyway.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.