Maple Leafs’ Management: Trouble in Toronto?

Starting with the team’s March 11 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs had lost four of five games. The bleeding only ended when they beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 on March 20 in Buffalo. Unless you’re the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, most teams have a tough stretch or two during any season, so losing itself isn’t a problem.

However, there were two issues with these games. First, the games weren’t even close. The team started slowly almost every game and gave up 26 goals in those five games, scoring 15 themselves. In short, the Maple Leafs played poorly against less than stellar opponents. The Ottawa Senators, of all teams, soundly beat them 6-2 in Ottawa. Second, the team lost four of five at a time when it should be fitting the pieces together, but obviously isn’t.

Related – Maple Leafs’ News: Losing Streak, Rielly, Kapanen & Duszak

Is Something Stewing with Maple Leafs’ Management?

Just prior to the Buffalo game, Elliotte Friedman titled his March 20, 31 Thoughts’ post: “Can Maple Leafs’ marriage between coach and GM last?” Friedman had an interesting interpretation of some of coach Mike Babcock’s comments in the wake of the Maple Leafs’ recent skid in the standings. Specifically, Friedman wondered if something was going on behind the scenes that could be detected in Babcock’s recent comments.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

In his provocative post, Friedman reviewed the Maple Leafs’ chances to win the Stanley Cup by looking at the March records of recent Stanley Cup champions. His research found that every team that won the Cup during the past 10 years had compiled a winning record after March 11. He noted that the Maple Leafs’ skid didn’t fit that pattern, and he hinted that the future might not bode well for the team.

Friedman then highlighted comments Babcock had made about the team. Specifically, Babcock questioned the depth of the organization when he said, “You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Related: Maple Leafs’ Lessons From the Last 8 Games

I can only see one way to interpret that comment. It was a direct critique of current general manager Kyle Dubas because, after all, Dubas’ job is to build organization depth. Babcock said it pretty clearly: that depth wasn’t there and he didn’t have the players to win. He then went on to compare his team to other teams, who “have done a better job when different players are out than we have.”

Who Was Babcock Talking About?

Is Babcock talking about the addition of Jake Muzzin at the trade deadline? His note about Muzzin, as cited in Chris Johnston’s Jan. 31 Sportsnet article, was a curious “There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work.”

When I first read Babcock’s statement, I simply thought he was talking about his need to play Muzzin, a left-shot defenseman, on his off-hand. But, perhaps I was wrong. Was Babcock talking about Muzzin in general?

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In another Johnston Sportsnet article, on March 7, after the Maple Leafs had lost in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in Vancouver, Babcock noted that the skilled ‘5-foot-9 line’ of Trevor Moore, Tyler Ennis, and trade-deadline-acquisition Nic Petan he used during the game hadn’t been a good idea. As Babcock noted, “I couldn’t use it as much in D-zone, you know what I mean?”

Again, at first, I thought Babcock was commenting on his own coaching decisions and was second-thinking his choice to replace his trusted center, 6-foot-5 giant Frederik Gauthier, with Petan on the team’s fourth line. Now I am wondering if he wasn’t commenting on, and disagreeing with, Dubas’ decision to trade for the speedy and skilled Petan.

Babcock also noted after that game, “Everybody loves players, that’s great, but you’ve got to be able to use lines and everyone’s got to have a role and someone’s got to penalty-kill and someone’s got to be able to take face-offs. So I didn’t think I gave our team, with that line-up, as good an opportunity as I might have wanted.”

Other Writers Also See Differences

My THW colleague Joe Felice, who covers the Maple Leafs, saw the emerging differences between Babcock and Dubas more quickly than I did. His recent post suggested that Babcock had gone “Maverick.” And Felice asked, “Is there anyone in the Maple Leafs organization Babcock didn’t call out with those words? For sure, it calls out Dubas, the players, the scouting and development staff.”

Friedman and Felice both suggest that Babcock and Dubas are not on the same page this season nor do they have similar future visions for the team. I’m starting to believe they’re right. When Dubas traded for Petan at the trade deadline, he noted that Petan played the kind of hockey the Maple Leafs wanted. Obviously, Babcock disagrees.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nic Petan Buffalo Sabres Zach Bogosian

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nic Petan and Buffalo Sabres defenceman Zach Bogosian (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Specifically, Petan scores a goal against the Sabres in his first game; then his second game is the Canucks game Babcock noted. Then Petan sits. He’s only playing now because Gauthier is out with a foot injury. Still, Dubas extended Petan’s contract to two years and $1.55 million. Hmmm. What’s up?

Is This Typical Mike Babcock?

On Dec. 6, about two weeks after I began covering the Maple Leafs for THW, I researched and wrote a post on Babcock titled “Coach Mike Babcock: Pedigree or Problems?” In that post, I noted Steve Simmons’ report that those who knew Babcock and had worked closely with him described him as “focused, relentless, detailed, driven, dogged, harsh, and honest.” He coaches every day, often every minute. (from “Relentless? Obsessive? Driven? What makes Mike Babcock tick?”, The Globe and Mail, 4/23/18)

Related: Sparks Speaks and Says What Needs to Be Said

So, as Maple Leaf fans, we are left with a number of questions. Is this Babcock’s way of coaching? Is this him working relentlessly to shape the team in his own vision? And, does he share a vision of what the Maple Leafs should look like with his general manager? Finally, with the playoffs approaching, is Babcock starting to look at his team and wonder if it has the punch, size, grit, or personality to go anywhere in the playoffs?

Friedman’s comments hint that Babcock and Dubas do not share the same vision. Felice’s post mirrored those comments. If they are correct, as my THW colleague Brian Joyce noted in his March 15 post, and the Maple Leafs don’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs, perhaps it’s time Dubas looks at the tough decision of removing Babcock as coach.

The Toronto Raptors did it with coach Dwane Casey after last season, and we’re not yet certain how that will work. Dubas might be faced with a similar decision, although Maple Leafs fans hope that decision won’t be soon.