From The Star
It was nearly five months ago that a counter-intuitive forecast for the 2015-16 season began being voiced around Leafland.
Mike Babcock predicted “pain coming” when he signed an eight-year deal to transform the Maple Leafs last spring. And almost everybody expected the Maple Leafs, who were bad before they jettisoned leading scorer Phil Kessel in July, to be bad again his season. But when Babcock’s colleagues in the coaching community heard the highest-paid bench boss in the sport dramatically tamping down expectations in the centre of the hockey universe, some detected a disingenuous sell job.
“I think he’s set you guys all up,” Ken Hitchcock, the St. Louis Blues coach, said back in September. “His team is going to do a lot better than people think.”
Hitchcock wasn’t the only coach who expressed that sentiment. Which means Hitchcock wasn’t the only one who has so far been proven dead wrong.
As the Maple Leafs shake off their all-star-break indulgences and embark on their final 34 games of the season, they are in no way defying the ultra-low pre-season hopes laid out by Babcock and the rest of Toronto’s brain-trust. A year ago, after one of the most disgraceful campaigns in club history, the Leafs finished 27th in the league standings.
Under Babcock, so far, they’re running 28th. Heading into Tuesday’s resumption of play — when the Leafs will be in Boston to face the Bruins — there isn’t a team in the league with less than Toronto’s 43 points.
“I don’t think your record ever lies,” Babcock has said this season.
If that’s the case, Babcock’s record is a sobering bit of truth. And to his credit, he’s not dodging it.
“Our challenge as a coaching staff — we’ve got to get ’em to play better,” Babcock told reporters after Monday’s practice. “I think when you evaluate the coaching you can give them a pretty hard mark.”
For Babcock to admit that he and his staff haven’t made grade-A-worthy impact amounts to the very definition of pain; he wants to win every night, every period, every shift. Still, for a Leaf fan-base convinced the organization’s depth chart still needs to be further stocked with elite draft picks, the underwhelming results are a lottery-friendly recipe for progress.
Certainly they are a big reason why almost nobody seems upset about the ongoing struggles of the blue and white. The long-palpable angst of Leafs Nation has turned, in some ways, to apathy. There’s a feeling the club is in good hands. But as for the day when those good hands will be held accountable for their deeds — well, it remains a long way off. Last month Babcock started talking about a “10-year” process to transform the Leafs into Stanley Cup contenders. As in, he’ll need a contract extension before this thing really gets rolling.
If nothing else, he is making a case he’s the sporting world’s reigning grandmaster in the managing of expectations. And as for the business of coaching players? To be fair, there have been heartening signs during Toronto’s first four months under Babcock’s control.
Toronto’s puck-possession game, for one, is vastly superior than it was in the Randy Carlyle era. Under Babcock, the Leafs have transformed themselves from dregs-of-the-league game-chasers to a middle-of-the-pack possession squad that has the puck about 50 per cent of the time.
So they’re in more games. They’re playing with more structure. Their practices look a lot sharper and shorter. The players, to a man, are said to be more accountable to each other and accessible to the media than they’ve ever been. And management doesn’t need to be in the daily public eye because Babcock is a skilled handler of the onslaught of questions.
Still, Babcock’s advocates — folks who’ll have you believe the right coach, independent of other factors, can make a huge difference to an NHL team’s fortunes — had many believing he would give the Leafs a more perceptible uptick in performance, something observable in hard numbers. Handed roughly the same core of the flawed roster that, we were told, under-performed under Babcock’s departed predecessors, Carlyle and Peter Horachek, Babcock hasn’t exactly transformed the on-ice product in various league rankings.
Look at special teams, often thought to be a coach-driven area. The Leafs’ power play has actually devolved under Babcock so far. Last year it was 26th in the league; this year it’s 29th.
The penalty kill has improved, albeit only slightly. Last year, it was 22nd; this year it’s 19th.
How about the offence? A year ago, Toronto finished 24th in the league in goals per game; this year they’re ranked 26th. A year ago, the Leafs ranked 27th in goals against; this year they are 22nd.
That’s not exactly the first-year bump Babcock’s supporters prophesied. But Babcock, to be fair, hasn’t suggested he’s any kind of miracle worker. Again and again this season he has pointed out that the degree of success of any NHL coach is directly related to the size of his team’s stockpile of NHL talent.
“The key to having a long shelf life is good players,” he said last month.
“Good players create something out of nothing within the structure of the game,” he added.
“Good players make coaches better and other players better,” he went on.
“Good players attract good players, too,” he continued.
You get the point. The longer he lives in Toronto, the more he sounds like a general manager, which makes him sound a lot like every other hockey-loving citizen of the city. For now, at least, every other citizen of the city seems happy enough to share in his pain without pointing a finger his way.