Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Babcock is safe, even if the Leafs are staring down another potential playoff nightmare

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Leafs are almost surely going to start a playoff series against the Boston Bruins about four-and-a-half weeks from now (April 9th or 10th to be more specific). It’ll most likely be in Boston, since the Bruins apparently don’t lose games anymore, and the narrative machine will kick into overdrive due to the recent history between these two teams. You know how it’s going to go.

“Is Freddie Andersen rested enough?”

“Will Nylander and Matthews show up after going relatively silent last year?”

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Stuff like that.

But I think questions over Mike Babcock’s future with the team will be the headline-grabbers. Coaches are paid to win, and if you can’t win in the playoffs, well…the heat gets turned up. And despite the love Babcock gets as the best in the game, he’s been behind the bench for just one (1) playoff series win since 2011. He’s due.

The thing is, there’s a decent portion of the Leafs’ supporting base that is starting to get frustrated with Babcock, even with the team’s success this season. I suppose people expected more in the Tavares era. Line combinations and deployment on the back-end are two things that get everyone up in arms on a night-to-night basis, but being run over by Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins again in the playoffs is going to tip some people over the edge to “Fire Babcock” territory.

But could Babcock actually be in danger of losing his job if the Leafs get pumped in the first round? Are the criticisms of him totally warranted?

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To answer the first question: No. I can’t see how Babcock gets fired this summer, no matter how poorly the playoffs go. Toronto will play Boston, and that’s the context in which he has to be evaluated again if things go south. I don’t want to make excuses for this team a month ahead of the playoffs, but the Leafs (and Bruins for that matter) are in the somewhat unique position of being perhaps the 2nd best team in the entire league next to Tampa, and having to play the 3rd best in the opening round. Stack them in whatever order you want, but there’s a strong argument that those two are 2-3, especially given how weak the Western Conference has become.

With those points in mind, I don’t think Toronto has a front office that would overlook something like that. Someone like Dave Nonis or Brian Burke probably would, but I think this current group has a pretty firm grasp on how the league operates and which teams are among the true contenders. Turfing Babcock would be a panic move, and Dubas doesn’t really do panic, at least from what I can gather.

But circling back to what the bigger picture criticisms of Babcock are, I’ve compiled a quick list of things that can be true at the same time, at least as much as a narrative in sports can really matter or be “true” or strongly argued:

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  • Mike Babcock has some blindspots in how he deploys lines and pairings.
  • Auston Matthews could probably use a little more ice time.
  • Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev play minutes that are too difficult for them.
  • Mike Babcock got out-coached by Bruce Cassidy in the playoffs last year.
  • Mike Babcock is a coach who can adjust and evolve.
  • Mike Babcock is not adjusting and evolving fast enough in the eyes of many.
  • Mike Babcock is a big part of the reason John Tavares and Patrick Marleau joined the Leafs.
  • Mike Babcock is going to feel some heat if the Leafs go out in the first round again.
  • On balance, Mike Babcock is a good coach.
  • Toronto might not have the personnel on their blueline to avoid getting crushed in a matchup war in the playoffs.

Some of those things are coaching criticisms, others represent a lack of urgency from management, and there are some that are a bit of both. This isn’t to say I firmly ascribe to all of these or that I believe either group is doing a poor job overall, I just want to point out the nuances we probably gloss over when we’re trapped in a bubble of focusing on this one team in particular and screaming about everything on the internet.

Of course, all of this discussion gets quickly thrown out the window if the Leafs finally get through the Bruins in the playoffs next month. And they’re capable of doing so, no question. That series will be essentially a coin-flip going in.

It’s just, if it flips the wrong way again, people are going to start looking for answers about another first round failure, perhaps throwing a target on Babcock, and putting far too much focus on the two words “first round”. But if you take a step back and consider the potential opponent and everything else, in reality it’s difficult to see Babcock ever really being in trouble.

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  • killerkash

    There are clear upgrades needed throughout the lineup to bolster the lack of grit and toughness both upfront and on the blueline. But, the skill level on defense is also in need of an upgrade. Another 1st pairing dman to play with Rielly and someone besides Zaitsev to play with Muzzin on the 2nd pairing. Two of Zaitsev, the big O, Dermott, Marincin, Rosen and Holl should be enough to make up the 3rd pairing and provide injury depth. In fact, Dermie could be slotted with Muzzin on the right side but that still leaves a gaping hole on the top pairing and neither Lil’s or Sandin are ready yet.
    No matter which way you slice it the Leafs have a problem back there on the right side and no cap space to address it and/or player(s) to correct it.
    A trade or 2 could provide some much needed size and muscle up front as again, there’s nothing within the system to provide those elements at present.
    Both of these glaring needs is not the fault of Mike Babcock. It’s the management’s job to provide the players necessary to build a winner and the coach’s job to assemble the best lineup and get the most out of them. It’s also management’s job to sign players to contracts that allow room under the cap to address ALL of the teams personnel needs.
    As it stands now, there’s not enough cap space to even retain all the current players, let alone add to the group. The only means or tactic available to address these shortfalls is through trade(s). Dubas has backed himself and this team into a dark corner for the foreseeable future. Let’s call an ace an ace and a spade a spade. Dubas has failed…..

  • Looking for info

    I agree with the article. Let’s not forget this team was in last place just a few years ago. I believe they know what they need to go deeper in the playoffs but aren’t going to give away a bunch of draft picks for rentals. I think you will see them evaluate what they have and what they need this playoff season and make necessary move s in the offseason. Plus they needed to get key players signed to see what they have for cap space before committing to anyone in a trade that has term left. Babcock may do some things differently but don’t we all. He is a smart man who surrounds himself with excellent coaches and they will get this figured out.

    • Ty

      he’s played so many rookies since he’s been here and a lot of them developed quite well under his coaching. Also some non rookies improved like Kadri, Gardiner, Reilly, even Anderson. Think of all of the guys that were rookies under him. Brown, Hyman, Marner, Matthews, Kapanen, Johnsson, Dermott, Goat, Moore, even Zaitsev and Oz can be considered rookies to the NHL. Some of the fringe quys didn’t pan out like Panik, Corrado, Carrick, Percy, Leivo on this roster. Don’t want an Oilers situation where these young guys are lost and overwhelmed.

        • Ty

          Holl, Sparks. It’s the fringe talent that
          doesn’t get as much playing time which is kind of warranted for fans paying for a commercial product. They have to make themselves stand out somehow on the roster. A minimum is working hard, playing the right way and improving continually which Babs constantly states.

          • Brandon

            Thos are the players I’m mainly talking about. I think they need to be played here and there to train with some NHL competition. I agree that with roster players, he has had some success.

  • FlareKnight

    I tend to agree he’s safe. But that’s just for this offseason. I don’t care if they go up against Tampa in Round 1 next year. If they somehow fall in 4 consecutive first round series then Babcock is in trouble. There’s accepting circumstance and there accepting that results matter. If the goal is to win the cup then failing to beat even one tough opponent becomes unacceptable.

    But that’s an issue we may not have to deal with. So no point worrying that much about it. Let’s hope more that the Leafs can win round 1 this time.