Given the news of the past few days that a 24-team play-in tournament was proposed by the NHL and approved in principle by the NHLPA, it’s tough for Toronto Maple Leafs fans not to think about their next possible opponent, which would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The matchup would feature a classic offensive team (the Maple Leafs) vs. a classic defensive team (the Blue Jackets). Although I’m guessing more hockey pundits would pick the Maple Leafs in that series, the Blue Jackets have the NHL’s fourth-best defense and strong penalty killing. As well, the Blue Jackets have shown they are built and coached to play traditional playoff hockey. Ask the 2019 best regular-season team – the Tampa Bay Lightning – who the Blue Jackets relentlessly shot-blocked out of the Stanley Cup’s first round last season.
Add the pressure on an unproven, first-time playoff head coach in Sheldon Keefe against savvy Columbus head coach John Tortorella, and you have the makings of an exciting behind-the-bench rivalry. Can the plucky underdog (Columbus) with nothing to lose give the pressure-laden Maple Leafs a battle?
As hockey-starved fans ponder the possibilities, in this post I’ll share the news and rumors I’ve been reading to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date with what’s happening with the team.
Item One: If Mike Babcock Was Maple Leafs GM, Would He Have Fired Himself?
Last week, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote a far-ranging post that included a reference to Mike Babcock’s recent presentation to a group of online participants at a seminar sponsored by the Friends of McGill (University) Hockey. Fox noted that he “kinda missed the Babtalk.” Babcock’s been keeping a low profile after being fired by the Maple Leafs, but he was still Babcock.
Included in the topics Babcock discussed were (a) team-building, (b) managing superstars, (c) team culture, and (d) internal competition.
Babcock is old-school in his thinking, and I have no issue with much of what he said. He dismissed the kind of team-building activities one would find at a weekend business seminar (ropes courses, camping, canoe races, etc.); instead, he noted that team-building isn’t about events, it’s about people. In hockey, personal sacrifice for the good of the team leads to better play and more accountability – that’s team-building.
Babcock thought managing superstars was easier than people think because “the best players want to be the best players. They want to be great. They want a partnership with you.” Naming former Maple Leafs players, he noted that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have different rules because they have different skillsets. Because of their drive, they seldom need reminders when something goes wrong. However, they need “parameters.” For him, superstars form “partnerships” with coaches.
Third, Babcock noted that a team with the right culture will “want to be together.” He used the metaphor of “family,” noting that teams create a “family culture where everyone can be important. Everyone’s accountable. Everyone’s committed. In the end, those are the pictures that go on your wall, because the ones that you didn’t create that in, they didn’t win.”
Finally, Babcock believed great players and great teams have an “inner competitiveness.” They want to “compete against one another.” He added, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-on-one, small-ice game, a two-on-one, a forward versus a D, a line competition, it doesn’t matter. But they want to compete. That’s where the fun is.”
Reading the transcript of the seminar, one point he kept making was the need for accountability. That’s where the title for this item came from. It made me wonder whether if Babcock was the general manager of the Maple Leafs team he was coaching this season, would he have fired himself? It’s not meant to be disrespectful; in the NHL, accountability is simple, it means winning, and Babcock’s 2019-20 team wasn’t.
Item Two: Mike Babcock Named in the Top 16 Coaches of the Expansion Era
As long as we’re talking about Babcock, let’s give him credit. On May 13, the NHL released its “Super 16: Coaches of expansion era,” and Babcock was ranked seventh. Scotty Bowman was voted the winner.
It’s a well-deserved honour and his resumé is solid. Babcock coached the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 2008 when his team defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. In the 2009 Stanley Cup Final rematch, the Red Wings lost to the Penguins in seven games. Somewhat forgotten is that he also coached the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003, but they lost in seven games to the New Jersey Devils.
In total, Babcock has 700 career wins (eighth all-time) in 1,301 games (13th all-time). His winning percentage coaching the Ducks, Red Wings, and Maple Leafs is .608 with a record of 700-418-164 (with 19 ties) in the regular season. In the playoffs, he has a .549 winning percentage and a record of 90-74.
Item Three: Would the Maple Leafs Trade Mitch Marner?
In a mailbag post last week, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox was asked if he thought the Maple Leafs should trade Marner to the Dallas Stars for Miro Heiskanen. Fox wisely thought that wouldn’t happen; in fact, he used the phrase “Planet Make Believe” when answering that question. Interestingly, Fox believed the decision would be made by the Stars who simply wouldn’t part with their 20-year-old budding superstar.
That’s a good assessment of Heiskanen. Other analysts also believe the Stars wouldn’t trade Heiskanen at any price – including for Marner. That said, I don’t think the Maple Leafs would trade Marner either, even if they need help on defense and with their salary cap. Rumours and trade speculation are bound to emerge, but this one won’t happen.
Still, I keep hearing such rumours. While the logic makes sense and the Maple Leafs would consider trading a forward for a defenseman, it won’t be this forward for this defenseman. That said, the Stars are thought to be willing to move strong offensive defenseman John Klingberg (who’s contract is $4.25 million). Although moving Marner for Klingberg would save the team $6.5 million in salary cap, that won’t happen either. Klingberg’s good, but he isn’t Marner.
From the Maple Leafs’ perspective, getting Klingberg for Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson would make sense, but it’s tough to see the Stars making that trade without some added value. I don’t think the Maple Leafs will be making a trade with the Stars anytime soon.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Honestly, although there’s been news, nothing has been finalized, which leaves Maple Leafs fans waiting to see how the details of the proposed playoff plan will work out. In the meantime, there’ll be lots of conversations – over the phone or on Zoom – where fans outline reasons why one team will win over another. Other than what’s happening on the ice, that’s one of the joys of hockey.
My call? If this series between the Blue Jackets and the Maple Leafs happens, the Maple Leafs will win their first Stanley Cup playoff series in more than 16 years. Then, they only need to win four more rounds. The fun begins – or not.