Leafs in the Fall …

Let me do something that I don’t do all that often — outside of playoff series predictions — and talk about a sport other than curling. There are multiple reasons for this. First, I had originally planned to continue talking about Richard Carrier’s post on Goal Theory that I started here but the next section is incredibly long. I’ve also run into a number of things that have taken up time and so find myself the day before the post is supposed to go up trying to find the time to write about something. There is something smaller that I thought about writing about but it fits better on Mondays and is something that I can’t write at work while waiting for my system to finish installing again because of incompatibility issues so that I can prove that something works that I proved worked two months ago but the people who I need to prove it works to didn’t bother loading it then but are now doing so when they have something like two days before things are supposed to be completed (but I’m not bitter).

Oh, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are collapsing in a dramatic and interesting way which it would be worth my commenting on, especially since they just fired superstar coach Mike Babcock and brought in the guy that the GM has always wanted.

Now, let me wax nostalgic a bit about my experience with and feelings for the Maple Leafs. When I was growing up there weren’t all that many hockey teams in Canada. The Oilers, Flames and Canucks were newbies with the Jets following on a bit later, and so the two big teams in Canada were the Leafs and the Canadians (or Canadiens, depending on whether you took the English or French translations). And since those teams were huge rivals, you could pretty much only like one or the other. Since I lived in Ontario, by default I became a Leaf fan. But then the Ottawa Senators entered the league, and geography dictated that I become their fan. Also, they clashed nastily with the Leafs when they started having early success … against almost any team but the Leafs. And at the time, the team had a lot of players that were easy to dislike. So I started disliking the Leafs, and since the Canadians at the time brought in a lot of former Senators I started liking them more than the Leafs. So for a while I disliked the Leafs and was happy when they lost. This has faded a bit since they’ve gotten players that aren’t as annoying, but I still fairly often feel a bit of satisfaction when they don’t do so well, mostly because they get a lot of attention in Canadian media and I hate pretty much anyone who gets that. It’s no coincidence that I started warming to the Canadians after long-time booster Dick Irvin Jr. stopped doing so many broadcasts.

So, anyway, onto their issues. They’re having a bad season. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. At the beginning of the season, many picked them to contend for the Stanley Cup, while, for example, everyone picked the Ottawa Senators to make an excellent run at winning the lottery for the first overall draft pick by finishing last in the entire league. So, as of the day I write this (Thursday), if the Senators win their game in hand they would actually be ahead of the Leafs in the standings. In fact, if all the teams below them in the standings won all their games in hand the Leafs would be second or third worst in the conference. They are currently outside of the division playoff spots and out of the wild card spots, and again the teams below and ahead of them have games in hand. That’s not where they expected to be at this point of the season, but it is amazingly consistent with their record over the past calendar year. This is not what they want to be, but this might well be what they are.

And so, they decided to fire the coach, Mike Babcock, who was brought in in 2015 to an incredibly rich contract and much fanfare, and to be fair did manage to get the Leafs to the playoffs when they had had much trouble doing that before he arrived. However, he never managed to get past the first round, which is obviously going to be disappointing for a team that hasn’t won the Cup in 51 years. Also, he wasn’t the choice of the new GM Kyle Dubas, but of the previous group, which can be an issue but didn’t have to be … except that Sheldon Keefe was a favourite of the GM and was in the system waiting in the wings. And, oh look, Keefe is Babcock’s replacement. Surprising, that.

Anyway, at first I had thought that Babcock had definitely had to go, and I still think that way, but now I’m a little less inclined to blame it all on him. The reason I think he had to go was because he was clearly not on the same page as the GM and wasn’t very shy about expressing that. He often made almost passive-aggressive comments calling out Dubas for not giving him what he wanted or needed. The worst, though, was this very pre-season when Dubas, dealing with a team that was tight up against the salary cap and so needed to pick up some pieces for bargain prices, made what seemed like a decent deal in signing Jason Spezza to a one-year contract. This seemed pretty good, as Spezza was a seasoned veteran, willing to play cheap to redeem himself and/or play near home, willing to play a third or fourth line role and, while having slowed a bit due to age, still had some offensive talent and so if an injury happened to one of their top two centres he at least could fill in there or on the power play to provide some offense. But even in the pre-season, before Spezza even got to play, Babcock seemed down on the deal and down on the player. And he kept Spezza as a healthy scratch a lot, a decision that only looks even worse since Spezza has been one of their better players lately. Babcock might have had reasons to want or to prefer other players to him, which is fine … but he seemed to be openly challenging Dubas on this decision, and that wasn’t going to last for long.

Now, I was wondering if Babcock was just using his superstar status to push Dubas around a bit, figuring that the powers-that-be would choose him over the newcomer. However, if Keefe was always in the wings, then maybe Babcock’s plays were done to force the confrontation instead of just his trying to get his own way. In any case, there did seem to be a lot of internal politicking going on that had to be resolved by either Babcock or Dubas leaving. Or possibly both.

That being said, from a player personnel standpoint the Leafs are not in good shape, although I’m not sure how much of that falls on Dubas rather than on the management team as a whole. Dubas did seem to make a mistake in the trade that brought Barrie to Toronto for Nazem Kadri, but the thing is Kadri, while definitely a serviceable and cost-effective player, probably had to go even if Toronto didn’t have cap issues. Kadri had been suspended in the past two playoff runs and arguably both times that suspension had a hand in them losing those series. He was made redundant as a good second line centre relegated to the third line role behind their two superstar centres (more on that in a minute). And other teams would be willing to take a chance on him and so he was marketable. Dubas may not have made a good trade, but trading Kadri was itself a decent move.

No, the big problems start from one of those superstar centres and that signing: John Tavares. I’m not going to say that he isn’t a good enough player to command the contract they gave him. He probably is, and if the Leafs hadn’t given it to him someone else would have. I’m also not going to say that he isn’t living up to the contract, because he probably is or, at least, is close enough that we’d want to wait and see how the rest of it plays out. No, the problem with the signing was that he was a player the Leafs didn’t need. Many people at the time compared the situation to Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh and talked about all the success they had, but the truth is that Toronto already had their two superstar salaries in the system: Austen Matthews and Mitch Marner, the equivalent to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They also had a perfectly good second line centre in Kadri. Where they needed improvement was on defense mostly. Spending that much money on John Tavares meant that they were going to have three superstar-salary players on their team, in a world where there is a salary cap that they’ve run up against. Dubas did show some wizardry at getting the team under the cap, but they have no room to change things if things don’t work out and arguably didn’t actually fix their problems with what they did this summer.

You can gripe about Matthews’ and Marner’s contracts, but those ones were expected. However, they probably also overpaid for William Nylander, who is another big contract on the team, leaving them with three massive contracts and one pretty hefty one as well. I keep seeing that they are spending almost half their cap on four players, and Nylander is usually included in that one. To have it even come close to paying off, he has to be their fourth best superstar-calibre player, and he may not be there yet. When he held out, it might have been worth trading his rights to shore up the defense or other areas, especially since Kapanen played relatively well when Nylander was holding out (and took a more modest deal to stay). Dubas had said that he could keep all his players and that he would, but that was a ridiculous thing to say and getting Nylander back didn’t help them much last year. I’m not knocking Nylander as a player, but he was always going to be their fourth best forward at absolute best, and when your first three are getting paid superstar bucks you probably can’t afford to pay that much for your fourth best forward.

But again, it’s hard to say how much of that is Dubas’ fault and how much is the management team, including Brendan Shanahan, looking to make the big splash and not risk looking foolish for not being able to do so.

It’s possible that Keefe will get the team playing a run-and-gun offensive style that might work. At least he might be faster to change things up if they aren’t working than Babcock seemed to. At the end of the day, though, due to the salary cap issues the Leafs are not a deep team now and are unlikely to be a deep time any time in the near future, and so injuries like they’ve experience this year and are likely to experience in the playoffs may well sink them. And that’s even assuming that the top-heavy offensive style they seem to be built for can even work in the playoffs.

The Leafs are going through a bad time right now … but it’s pretty much all their own doing.

4 Responses to “Leafs in the Fall …”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    I want the Devils to get Babcock. Just dear God, get rid of Hynes. We have a mountain of talent on the team and he clearly has no clue what to do with it.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Wait, wasn’t it having a mountain of talent and not using them properly what got Babcock fired [grin]?

      I don’t follow hockey as closely as I used to, but from what I hear the Devils should be doing better than they are.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        We got the number 1 draft pick for the second time in three years, our MVP forward is actually off the injured list, we got a new all star caliber defenseman, we got a KHL all star, and our perpetually injured goalie is finally off the DL.

        Every single one of those players has underperformed except the draft picks (Hughes and Hischier are great). The goalie was so bad we released him. We have seven wins. Hall clearly wants to be traded.

        Just…get rid of Hynes! He’s a disaster.

  2. More Chess Observations | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] not really. But the reason for a chess post today is the same reason I had a hockey post last week: stuff I’d want to write is long and work and other things are getting in the way of me […]

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