By Ken Campbell
The prevailing notion among critics of the Toronto Maple Leafs is that the organization is, always has been and always will be only interested in making money over everything else, including winning. It’s not even close to being accurate. It might have been the case three decades ago, but since then there has not been an organization in the NHL that has devoted more energy and resources to create a Stanley Cup champion.
The actual problem with the Leafs as an organization is not one of greed, but of ignorance. They desperately want to win a Stanley Cup. They just have no clue how to go about it. And after the firing of Mike Babcock less than five full seasons into his precedent-setting eight-year deal, it’s pretty clear this organization has snappier suits and lovely banners but is still mired in cluelessness when it comes to producing a winner. Even bringing in millions of dollars in revenues every time you open the door doesn’t buy you that.
Mike Babcock will take the fall for a team that has wildly underachieved and the reality is that he must accept some of the culpability here. But the fact remains that this represents an organizational failure of epic proportions on everyone’s part from president Brendan Shanahan to GM Kyle Dubas to the players, particularly the highly paid ones who continue to baffle those that watch this team with their lack of impact and uneven efforts.
Now it gets really interesting. One of the fall guys is obviously gone, replaced by longtime Leafs coach-in-waiting Sheldon Keefe. Now we’ll see how well Dubas and Shanahan deal with seats that are growing increasingly ever warm. Because they are the ones who are most responsible for supplying Babcock with the players with whom he has worked. Anyone who has watched this team over the past couple of seasons can plainly see it is a fundamentally flawed roster, one that will never seriously challenge for a Stanley Cup unless it becomes more balanced. A team that was already suspect in its own end got even worse with Dubas’ acquisitions over the summer, so nobody should be surprised when Tyson Barrie gives up the puck and allows a breakaway right down Main Street at a crucial time in the game. Cody Ceci, by all accounts, has come as advertised and it could be argued he has been an anchor on Morgan Rielly. The backup goaltending position has been a complete disaster and has given this team no wiggle room. The Leafs doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on skill and while you simply cannot win anything in the NHL without a core of elite skill, you can’t expect to throw your sticks on the ice and have your skill carry you to victory every game.
Some critics will argue, and they’re not necessarily wrong, that Dubas has accomplished astonishingly little in terms of moving the needle since gaining the keys to the executive suite, aside from overpaying a bunch of wildly talented players. It certainly doesn’t take a hockey genius to do that. But, hey, the Leafs have the second-best possession numbers in the league and six years after he was drafted, Frederik Gauthier is developing into a reliable fourth-line center, so like they’ve got that going for them. But this is a team that cannot defend and it isn’t near tough enough. Can anyone imagine the Leafs actually winning in the ‘big-boy hockey’ you see in the latter part of the playoffs? That’s toughness. It’s also exhibiting an ability to play through uncomfortable situations and asserting your will on the game, two areas where this team is enormously wanting.
So starting now, neither Dubas nor Shanahan gets a free pass. Neither do the players. Judging by his lapse in judgment this past summer, Auston Matthews still has some maturing to do. And even though he has worked hard to develop into a 200-foot player, there are far too many games where he goes long periods without showing up. William Nylander, for all his otherworldly skill, often doesn’t seem interested in even pretending to be a two-way player and displays little consistency of effort. John Tavares needs to be a difference-maker more regularly. Nobody seems to be able to understand where Rielly’s game has gone. The fact that they looked so lethargic at times – Saturday night in Pittsburgh is a prime example – is not on Babcock. A coach’s job is to give his players systems and templates and an identity. It is not to try to cajole millionaire hockey players into doing what they’re paid to do.
Babcock did do his part in all of this as well, some of which was born of stubbornness and ego. He took a team that was a bottom-feeder and, along with a huge upgrade in talent, made it a 100-point squad, but one that could not win a single playoff series. His coaching decisions and deployment of players left a lot of people scratching their heads. The lack of structure with which this team played and its lack of situational awareness could mean only one of two things – either he wasn’t communicating the message effectively enough or the players were not buying what he was selling. Neither is a particularly good place for a coach. The Leafs were dreadful on both sides of special teams, gave up the first goal in 18 of their 23 games and often looked lost in their own end. That’s on the coach.
So now we’re about to find out just how good a coach Sheldon Keefe is. His work in junior hockey and the American League – albeit with strong rosters – has been exemplary. Perhaps he will be able to get this team to play a style and display an identity that can win in the NHL. Maybe he’ll set this group loose even more offensively and encourage it to score its way out of all its troubles. But the Leafs are what they are at the moment and there isn’t much they can do with this roster because of salary cap restrictions. With a new driver at the helm, we will now truly find out if they are an 18-wheeler careening off a cliff or a team that will live up to its hype.