Friday, April 26, 2019

Why the Leafs lost: Is it Babcock's fault?

Leaf coach Mike Babcock

Another Toronto Maple Leaf season is down the drain.  Once again, the Leafs were unable to get past the first round of the playoffs.  For the third time in their last four trips to postseason, they were defeated by the Boston Bruins.  For the players, it's pack your bags and head for the golf course.  For coach Mike Babcock, the defeat means a flurry of criticism and calls for his firing.  For disappointed fans, it's time to debate what went wrong.

I'd like to add my two cents worth.  For the record, now that the season is over, here is my post-mortem report.  Here is my analysis of why the Leafs lost.  It's free and at no cost to the reader:

The season started off on a sour note with the William Nylander fiasco.  After a regrettable contract standoff, the 22-year-old Nylander was signed to a six-year deal with a total value of over $40 million.  He returned to the team in early December after disrupting the flow of the season.  To put it mildly, he did not earn his lucrative salary, not by a long shot.  His performance was a major disappointment.  He recorded a paltry 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in 54 games.  His seven-game playoff haul was one goal and two assists for three points. 

To William Nylander's credit, he did not make excuses for his underwhelming performance.  He acknowledged that his play was a disappointment.  As the Leafs were cleaning out their locker after losing to the Bruins, Nylander stated, "This year didn't show nearly to where I can be as a player.  I have higher expectations for myself going forward."  Words aren't good enough, though, William.  You had better improve or your whole future as a Leaf will be reevaluated.  This season, you let down the fans and the Leaf organization.  Your contract dispute was a distraction the team didn't need.

Willaim Nylander

I've written before that the Leafs are urgently in need. the leadership of a captain.  In my opinion, John Travares has earned that designation.  He should have been given the "C" by the All-Star break because he deserved it.  In 2019, he gave it his all.  He had a stellar season (47 goals and 41 assists) and he played in all 82 games.  He also scored 2 goals and recorded 3 assists in seven playoff games. He endured taunting from the fans in Long Island.  Through it all, he showed leadership and class. The Leafs should begin next season by appointing a new captain, preferably Number 91.

John Tavares

For the second time in a row, Nazem Kadri got himself suspended in a playoff series.  I don't dispute for a moment that Kadri really tried hard and that he really wanted to win.  Nevertheless, one has to wonder how he could have been as foolish and as selfish as to make the same error twice,.  Perhaps he just lacks the discipline to control himself.  The bottom line is that his suspension hurt the Leafs.  He couldn't help his team when they needed him because he was unable to play.

Nazem Kadri

Coach Mike Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas, did not appear to be on the same page.  I don't know if there was bad blood between the two, but they seemed to be moving in different directions.  There were remours of disagreement between then.

The Maple Leafs would have been better off retaining Curtis McEhlinney as their backup goalie.  Admittedly, there were reason for going with Garret Sparks.  Sparks is about a decade younger.  He'd been with the Marlies for a while and it can be argued that it was his turn.  However, Sparks was unproven in the NHL, while McEhlinnry was more experienced.  When a team is going for all the marbles, as the Maple Leafs were this year, it should go with what a player whose abilities are know, not an unproven entity.  The situation was especially important for the Leafs.  The back-up goalie had to inspire confidence so that the team could rest Frederik Andersen more often and lighten his load.  Sparks failed to do that and he was eventually replaced by Michael Hutchinson.  If the Leafs are ever going to win the Stanley Cup, they are going to have confidence in their backup goalie.  They are not in the rebuilding stage anymore.  They can't wait for a backup to mature into the role and eventually become the regular goalie.

Does Mike Babcock bear some responsibility for the Leafs' defeat?  Absolutely.  He can legitimately be accused of mismanaging his lines and of not giving Auston Matthews enough ice time. However, to put all the blame on coach Babcock is grossly unfair.  He should not be made the scapegoat.  There is plenty of blame to go around for this post season of missed opportunities.  Sadly, the Leafs had victory within their grasp and they were not able to reach it.  If they had gotten past the Bruins, anything could have happened.  That is all hypothetical, of course, and we'll never know for sure.  It's a shame, though, because the Leafs had put together their most talented team in years.  Unfortunately, they were outmaneuvered strategically and psychologically by the Boston team.

This is the season that got away.  Yes, there's always next year, but the Leafs should keep in mind that a professional hockey team can only get so many kicks at the can before it has to start rebuilding again.  With 31 NHL franchises (a new Seattle team will begin play in 2021) it's much more difficult to win a Stanley Cup than it was when the Leafs last hoisted the mug on May 2, 1967, almost 52 years ago . . .and counting.

- Joanne

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