Here’s something you’re not told a lot these days. Mike Babcock teams have won three playoff series in nine years. Everyone knows that Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches in the league. But what this post presupposes is…maybe he isn’t?
You may think the medals cabinet in the Babcock house prove that he is. Except he’s got one Cup with one of the better rosters assembled in the past 15 years. And another Final with that same roster. There was the J.S. Giguere-engineered appearance with the Ducks, but that Ducks team didn’t even win a division. And sure, there are two gold medals. Then again, try and not win a gold medal with the talent at disposal in those Olympics. You could probably win one with the players left off those rosters if you really knew what you were doing. Let’s say the record isn’t as clean as you might think.
Sure, it’s not Babcock’s fault the Wings got old, Johan Franzen got hurt, and it turned out Ken Holland might have been just as born on third. Still, you’d have to ask what Wings team truly overachieved in his time there. The one that nearly toppled the Hawks in 2013? That would be the only argument. Every other team finished near the bottom of the playoff picture and were similarly dismissed.
So to the Leafs. His first playoff team there was a shiny new toy, and no one really minded a defiant exit to the regular season-best Capitals. But should the Leafs really have been losing to the Bruins last year? You could argue it was just goalies, as Frederik Andersen did his usual Game 7 scream at his shoes and Tuukka Rask merely had to remain upright. But look at the rosters. The Bruins were, and are, basically one line. The Leafs have been able to sport two or three for three seasons now, especially this time.
Which means Babcock will have an awful lot riding on this first-round matchup. Sure, there was no catching the Lightning this year. Maybe home ice will matter and maybe it won’t. But another first-round capitulation? There would be serious questions to be asked about the Leafs coach.
On the surface, there seems little more Babcock can do. This is the second straight season the Leafs are #3 in goals for, and with his kind of firepower that’s where they should be. They’re just off the top-10 defensively. Metrically, they’re one of the best offensive teams in the league. Babcock had clashed with his team last year about too-defensive gameplans, but seemed to let the leash out the second half of last year. Certainly their offensive marks suggest same.
The only quibble you can lodge is that defensively, they’ve needed Andersen to be pretty spectacular most nights. When it comes to expected goals against, the Leafs are 21st. But thanks to Andersen, they have the 4th-best save-percentage at evens. Babcock made his name on defensive solidarity, and won a Cup with Chris Osgood to prove it. On the other side, the way the game is now you do have to sometimes just let it out and hope your goalie bails you out. And Babcock has this blue line to deal with. It’s just not that good. Throwing everything forward and trying to keep it away from that defense as often as possible is the only way, even if it leaves gaps.
But this is Toronto, and no one’s going to want to hear about metrics and attempts-share if the Leafs don’t get to four on the playoff wins counter for a third straight season. And the Leafs may think they have all the time in the world, but contracts say they don’t. When Mitch Marner’s contract is signed this summer, the Leafs will start to lose a piece here and there instead of adding them. This team might be as loaded as they get, and certainly next year is probably it.
This is a twitchy fanbase and an even twitchier media. There’s also a coach with three rings to Babs’s one, who is from not too far away, just sitting at home right now. He’s about the only name that anyone would consider replacing Mike Babcock with. Unfortunately for Babcock though, he is unemployed. If the Leafs can’t find their way past the Bruins again, you can be damn sure the wind is going to whisper, “Q.”