In the two-and-a-half seasons that Mike Babcock has been behind the Maple Leafs’ bench, his squad has transformed from a basement dweller contending for the draft lottery to a team almost, but not quite, ready to compete for the Stanley Cup.
The only man in history to win each of the coveted “Triple Gold” awards – Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal, and World Championship gold medal – Babcock generally makes the most of the roster that he has been given. Though, perhaps some of the loyalty shown by the bench boss towards grizzled veterans comes at the expense of younger players.
Indeed Toronto fans should consider themselves fortunate that in May 2015, the Leafs beat out both Buffalo and Babcock’s former team, Detroit, in the battle to acquire the coach’s services. Yes, the Leafs were subsequently blessed with the good fortune to win the Auston Matthews sweepstakes the following year, however Babcock has been always responsible for integrating the pieces of the puzzle.
The results, for the most part, have been favourable. Nazem Kadri is the epitome of a Leafs player who had struggled under the pre-Babcock regime in Toronto before flourishing under the coach’s guidance. Kadri had a career-best 32 goals in 2016-17 and has developed into a solid two-way centre.
Babcock’s influence is also evident on special teams. Once the bottom feeder of the league in power play and shorthanded situations, the Leafs have surged at both ends of the spectrum. As of the end of Tuesday’s action, Toronto was ranked sixth and eighth in power play, and penalty-killing efficiency, respectively.
Conversely, Babcock’s judgment comes into occasional question when the bench boss juggles the forward lines. In particular, both William Nylander and Mitch Marner – two of the Leafs’ young guns who are expected to be part of the foundation of an eventual Cup-ready roster – have too often found themselves relegated to fourth-line duty.
While such punitive measures are certainly commonplace, in the case of Nylander and Marner, the demotions have been unduly harsh, particularly for a pair of sophomore players who are still honing their craft in the NHL. Their offensive prowess comes as a risk-reward proposition; neither should be playing in fear of fourth-line exile for a single miscue.
If there’s a player that probably doesn’t deserve top-six minutes, it’s Leo Komarov. The Finn’s tenacity, as showcased during his assignment on the Leafs’ top penalty-killing unit, is best-served on a checking line. Playing Komarov at 16:32 per game through the first half of the season, the fourth-highest total among forwards, isn’t the most efficient use of a second-line spot when the player has generated only ten points through 41 games.
In terms of managing the blue line, Babcock has come under criticism for over-using Roman Polak, the 31-year-old veteran whose toughness is never questioned, but also whose lack of foot speed and mobility forces him into taking ill-timed penalties.
However, the coach has very limited options. Toronto’s bench isn’t ripe with high-quality defenders. Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey are the cream of the crop, but beyond them, the group that includes Jake Gardiner, and the injured Nikita Zaitsev is adequate at best, and not close to being championship –caliber.
Babcock correctly predicted that “there’s pain coming” when he assumed the role behind the Leafs’ bench, and indeed a last-place finish in his first year, 2015-16, was met with the requisite number of hardships. However, his guidance of the club into a playoff spot within twelve months earned him a Jack Adams Award nomination, and made him full measure for his $6.25 million annual salary.
At the midpoint of 2017-18 the Leafs have 48 points (23-16-2), the same number as they did at this point last season. For his efforts, Babcock gets a B-plus grade. He has assembled a lineup that can skate with the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, as evidenced by the fast-paced showcase hosted at Air Canada Centre on January 2, a 2-0 Leafs loss.
With a more consistent forward line setting, and a shift towards granting less ice time to underachievers, Babcock may be able to take advantage of the Leafs’ home-heavy second half (24 of 41 games at ACC) to gain home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.