Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Babcock, Hyman, Ozhiganov, Brown

It’s the middle of summer and almost the middle of the offseason. During the 2018-19 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost yet again during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to eventual the Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins. The team had a good chance to win that series, but lost Game 7. Memories of last season’s playoff loss have died hard for many people.

Related: Maple Leafs Rumors: Marner & Dubas Can’t Find Common Ground

Many commentators and fans believe that part of the problem with the team’s performance last season was the poor coaching of the now-iconic Mike Babcock. Has Babcock lost his skill? Is he too stubborn? Does he lack respect for his star players?

During the offseason, the stress has been on general manager Kyle Dubas to clear salary-cap space so the team can sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner. Dubas has done his job clearing salary-cap space, but to do so, some players had to be traded or some left the team. Regardless of everything he’s tried, Dubas has failed to lure Marner back into the fold – although that’s probably less Dubas’ fault than the fault of the Marner’s “team” of agents.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In this post, I want to touch on the topics above and share some of the turmoil that seems to be surrounding the Maple Leafs. For a team with so many assets, potential, and possibilities, a sense of dis-ease surrounds the team. No doubt that dis-ease is the result of the team’s unfulfilled potential.

Item One: Babcock Has Ruffled Some Feathers

Mike Babcock surely ruffled some feathers with his recent comments about Auston Matthews’ ice time, or lack of ice time, during the playoffs. When Matt Larkin of The Hockey News tweeted a quote from an upcoming interview with Babcock, the world of the Blue and White got exceedingly upset. The response was almost unanimous among Maple Leafs commentators and ranged from calling Babcock stubborn, to being a lousy coach, to spreading falsehoods.

The Twitter comment by Babcock was the answer to an interview question from Larkin about Matthews’ ice time. Babcock’s comment was that, like all other players on the team, Matthews had to earn his time on the ice and that, over time, his game and the team’s success would be best served if Matthews’ (and teammate John Tavares’ as well) ice time was limited to an average of about 19 minutes per game.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ 50-Goal Scorers

The commentators didn’t take Babock’s general point to task; however, they pointed out that, even during the playoff series with the Bruins, Babcock stuck to his guns about time-on-ice for his top two centers. Most were befuddled that Babcock, during the third period of Game 7 when the Maple Leafs were down by two goals, sent out the team’s fourth-line center but didn’t double-shift Matthews or Tavares.

Mike Babcock, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In fact, the commentary was so acrimonious that it’s worth reading a part of it verbatim. Here are Fansided’s Mike Stephens comments:

“Have you heard Mike Babcock take even a single sliver of blame for how the Leafs’ 2018-19 season ended? … But after one of the most abysmal coaching performances in recent memory, the profession’s high-paid member – who also happens to have built a brand on the concept of ‘accountability’, remember – has taken none of it. Zero. The guy with a pair of generational centres who willfully iced Frederik freakin’ Gauthier in the third period of a game seven while down by two goals instead has not taken even one step back and offered a sincere ‘my bad’.”

By the way, Stephens isn’t alone in the tenor of these comments. Other Maple Leafs commentators have offered similarly vindictive tones of disbelief that Babcock still believes he’s right about not playing his stars more when playoff games are on the line.

Given one of the city’s other professional sports teams, whose championship was delivered in part by utilizing the concept of “load management,” when star Kawhi Leonard’s playing time was “managed” by the Toronto Raptors during the regular season so he could play mega-minutes over the course of the NBA Playoffs.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Next Captain – So Many Options

We’ll see what happens to Babcock. I even saw someone ask the question this week: “Has Babcock coached his last game for the Maple Leafs?” I have to wonder if part of this general anger can’t also be traced to pent-up emotion that surrounds Marner’s status. I can’t speak for all Maple Leafs fans, but part of me simply is becoming more cynical about professional hockey every day Marner’s negotiations drag on.

Item Two: Connor Brown’s Good-bye Party Was Zach Hyman’s Wedding

Connor Brown knew he had been traded before he attended Zach Hyman’s wedding, but he didn’t tell Hyman. Instead, Hyman’s wedding also became a goodbye party for Brown. Because, as Brown said, he and Hyman are “pretty close and I’m not sure how he would’ve reacted,” Brown noted that “I told Mitchy, so he was helping me break it.”

Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Maple Leafs
Now-departed Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Brown noted that he’s looking forward to an expanded playing role for coach D.J. Smith with the Ottawa Senators. I find it interesting that Brown and Marner are so tight given that “Mitchy’s” new contract might be the main reason Brown is leaving the Maple Leafs.

Item Three: Igor Ozhiganov Leaves on a Sour Note

In a tweet obviously imperfectly translated from Russian, now-departed Russian Defenseman Igor Ozhiganov returned to Russia with something less than respect for Babcock, or his teammates, or something about the organization. It’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly, but anyone who reads the tweet gets the tone of the message. 

It’s pretty obvious Ozhiganov didn’t like his time with the Maple Leafs that much, suggesting that North American hockey was more about “ass-kissing” (licking?) than talent or skill. It’s tough to understand if he’s taking a shot at players, coaches, or how other players treat the team’s stars. Whatever, it’s clear that if Ozhiganov comes back to the NHL it won’t be with the Maple Leafs.

What’s Next?

I want to add one question to the lingering and quickly-becoming-tiresome question of when the Marner contract negotiations will be completed. That’s the question of who might be the next captain of the Maple Leafs. There was the beginning of a conversation this week putting forth Matthews’ name as a possibility.

I’m feeling pretty safe in my belief that it probably won’t be Marner.