The Biggest Question Facing the Leafs

It’s over halfway through the season, and the Leafs have proven to be what most expected – amazingly average. Great offence at the cost of some disastrous defence. The coaching change has helped, but it hasn’t immediately paid off, as most rational fans could have anticipated. But it hasn’t helped enough – again, as most rational fans could have anticipated.

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This team has a couple of good pieces, and those pieces are the only things keeping them from being McDavid-level bad. Which is kind of the problem. The team isn’t good enough to contend, and not bad enough to get the pieces needed to contend. And with very few difference-makers coming up in the system, management finds themselves paralyzed.

It leads to the biggest question facing the Leafs:

Do you go all-in on Babcock or all-in on a rebuild?

You can’t have both. You can’t expect Babcock – this assuming he is an option – to come to Toronto if the plan is to fully rebuild. You can’t sell that to a guy that wants to win, and can do so in Detroit. If you try to sell him on the idea of guiding a young team to stardom, Detroit is still further ahead than Toronto, with Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, Larkin, Mantha, Mrazek and Ouellette, among others. 

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But you could maybe sell him on being that missing piece needed to get the most out of Kessel, Phaneuf, Franson, van Riemsdyk, Rielly, Gardiner, Lupul, and Kadri. Maybe. Even that is a question mark, but it’s an easier sell to a coach. But then you have to ask yourself – what are you trying to sell? And do you even believe in it? Do you think that Babcock – or any coach for that matter – can get a team with this roster to be a contender? The likely answer after watching this season is no.

So then what? You’re stuck. This team is a wild card team on its best day, and a lottery team on its worst. The truth lies somewhere in between, but that doesn’t help anything. In fact, that’s worse. That’s that typical Leafs territory – or “7-11” as Leiweke calls it, meaning it’s the one place you don’t want to end up at the end of a long night/season. Sure, a future building block might fall to you. Might. But if you want that sure thing, you have to be bad. You have to be real bad.

And being real bad is a tough pill to swallow for management. It not only means starting fresh, but it means you don’t get Babcock – or DeBoer, or Bylsma for that matter. With Horachek behind the bench now, things could be worse. But Horachek represents the educator style of coach, the kind that Babcock is known to be. This, a stark contrast to the motivator, which Carlyle embodied.

That makes Horachek a case study for management – can a different type of coach make this team not just better, but better enough. I think that is the question that lead to making the coaching change midseason. But if a Babcock-type coach can’t do anything with this roster, the question is kind of answered for you. Then the team is actually uncoachable – not that they refuse to listen, but in that they’re not talented enough to contend, no matter who coaches. And that’s on management.

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The Leafs are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Major changes have to happen one way or another. But before those major changes can be made, a direction has to be chosen – there is still that one giant problem to solve:

Do you go all-in on Babcock or all-in on a rebuild?

It’s the question that Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Mark Hunter have to ask themselves. Because you can’t have both.

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  • Jeremy Ian

    Right, the Leafs are between a rock and a hard place; they are not so bad that they should be blown up, but not good enough that they will contend.

    But does living between being hard surfaces mean we have to choose either-or? It’s stuff like this: “Do you go all-in on Babcock or all-in on a rebuild?” that creates a pseudo-debate.

    Sure, you can’t have both, but does that mean only one or the other? No smart executive in the world thinks in binaries.

  • Toronto’s not good, but they would have to be epicly, record-settingly bad to land McDavid or Eichel. Toronto’s about 20 points up on the bottom teams in the league. Edmonton is on pace to finish with 52 points and Buffalo with 56. Toronto has 47 points already, which means Toronto could only win three or four of their remaining 37 games to have a shot at the first overall pick and drafting McDavid.

    Toronto could send away every single player on the roster and call up the entire Marlies team for the remainder of the season and this still wouldn’t happen.

    • silentbob

      This is true they will not get a top 3 pick this year, and we can thank Shanahans delay is making a decision about direction for that, but rebuilding isn’t a 1 year thing. Sure they don’t get McDavid this year but who will they get next year or the year after that or the year after that?

      Look at the Kings, Hawks, islanders, lightning …. Most teams have to make 4 or 5 or 6 early picks to get 1 or 2 or 3 top players. Just because they won’t get a top 3 pick this year doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldnt start down that path

  • jasken

    Nice read but both are possible you know. Play out the season as it is Babcock contract ends. Babcock wants GM/Coach position on his contract fire Nonis hire Babcock as Coach/GM let him decide everything going forward.

  • CMpuck

    I’d imagine landing McDavid would actually cement Babcock coming to Toronto.

    If it’s an either or, I’d love to see the Leafs pull out of the Babcock sweepstakes given that Babcock is milking Toronto’s interest to inflate his asking price. Babcock needs Toronto to drive up the market more than Toronto should need Babcock (if we’re this desperate for a big name coach, that speaks volumes of this rosters limitations), I’d rather McEchiel be our white knight cause players actually get to play the game.

  • silentbob

    How much of an impact would Babcock realistically have? Are Kessel and jvr and lupul and bozak and kadri going completely change the way they play hockey because Babcock tells them too? I don’t see it.

    If we want lasting, meaningful, impactful change the ONLY answer is to rebuild. We need a highly level of talent among out top players but also a different culture and you won’t get that change until/unless they completely remake the locker room.

    Adam had it half right on Fridays podcast. They need to refocus around the Rielly/Nylander “timeline”, but to get the kind of players you need to be a top team in this league you need to draft them, you can’t trade for them like he suggested.