As people who definitely aren’t “insiders” and just write for a hockey website in our spare time, speculation isn’t really our thing in this corner of Leaf-land. Sure, we weigh in on trade rumours and posit what we think should happen with the team and such, but when it comes to the potential drama, we usually don’t have much to go on.
With that said, I firmly believe Auston Matthews told Mike Babcock and/or Kyle Dubas what’s what sometime in this past offseason. And by that I mean he likely went home after the playoffs and decided it’s time for new linemates, and more powerplay time, and then told Babs in a very matter-of-fact way these things were going to change for 2018-19. New year, new Matty.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t fully buy into those reports in May that Matthews and Babcock had some big fallout in the aftermath of last season, but let’s keep in mind these are human beings who’ve been told they’re gods at playing or coaching a game nearly their entire life. People are going to be at odds, and things are going to sour here or there. Players will want new surroundings and better opportunities.
I think it’s clear that something changed with this team in the last little while, and that’s evident in the fact that Matthews somehow had Zach Hyman removed from his line in July of all months, and that, by most accounts, the Leafs will squeeze him onto the team’s PP1 – one that was already set to feature Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Again, having to move these kinds of pieces around is a good problem to have, but I do feel like Babcock had to move them based on input by Matthews. Why else would Marleau and Hyman get flipped so easily when there was really no need of it at even-strength? Again, this was decided in July for some odd reason. Babcock played this off recently as “sometimes things get stale”, but I think those are Matthews’ words, not his.
The thing is, Matthews is one-hundred percent entitled to have a major voice about things like this. He’s produced an obscene amount in the last two seasons and essentially turned the franchise around, and as far as his opportunities with preferred linemates and powerplay time go, he’s earned a right to some new looks. Some more scoring punch on the top line? Here’s your good pal Marleau to play alongside. And we’ve mentioned this before, but Matthews hasn’t been anywhere near the top of the league in terms of powerplay time the last couple years and, as such, his numbers there are the only place he’s been pedestrian. I don’t believe he’s interested in running out on the second unit again while the team’s best special teams quarterback in Marner is feeding pucks to Tavares on the first. He wants in.
It’s apparently time for some changes, and I really believe Matthews let the team know it, not that it was brought about organically by Babcock. I don’t think this is particularly bad, or good, or anything. It just is what it is, they’ll be fine. But it is worth bringing up, because it seems so obvious. The Leafs have a lot of stars now, and Babcock gets paid an absurd amount of money to manage all these things. While most of the the on-ice stuff should be somewhat of a breeze considering where the team is now, for the coaching staff and front office, everything around it will only get tougher.