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Photo Credit: © Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Doerrie: Ben Harpur and Jason Spezza Show Mike Babcock Still Hasn’t Changed

It’s become a one-liner; “Mike Babcock needs his toys taken away.”

This summer, most of Leafs Nation began to think that, with Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey gone, there would be no more “toys” left for Babcock to play with. “Toy”, in this case, is used to describe a certain player who either: a) shouldn’t be playing at all based on available talent or, b) playing someone way too high in the lineup.

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Hainsey and Zaitsev fell into Category B, while Ben Harpur is very much in Category A. Hyman is another “Babcock toy” who many would argue fits into Category B, but at least he contributes effectively to one of the NHL’s most potent lines. Harpur, other than being 6’7, doesn’t contribute to the outcome of the game in any tangible way in my eyes, at least in a positive sene. But do not be even remotely surprised if Babcock plays him over Marincin, or even Sandin.

A very large portion of the fanbase — and likely the front office, mind you — believes Babcock needs to change his line of thinking for the Leafs to be successful. I’m here to tell you that, unfortunately, he probably won’t. And unless Dubas sends Harpur to the AHL, therein taking the choice away from Babcock, he’s probably going to play far more games than he should.

Based on Babcock’s post-game comments in Ottawa, it’s become abundantly clear that he believes the lineup needs Harpur to “keep the flies off” Toronto’s young stars. Now, when talking about team toughness, sure, it would be great to have that kind of deterrent on the ice. But, ONLY if that individual is good enough to make the lineup in the first place.

Some of the NHL’s best deterrents of nonsense deserve such a spot — Wayne Simmonds, Patrick Maroon, Kevan Miller and Tom Wilson come to mind. They are each an absolute nightmare to play against, they defend their teammates and, most importantly, they contribute to the success of their team.

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Every single one put forth a positive Game Score/60 (via Dom) last season, too. Ben Harpur’s Game Score was -0.44/60. In 50 games last year, Harpur was a net negative on the ice, all while having the same number of fights as Maroon and Wilson. It is positive to have a deterrent in the lineup, albeit only if they can contribute positively, because, really, what’s more dangerous: a) taking a penalty, giving the other team a power play, because you are unable to match the skill or, b) playing a guy who contributes positively, maybe even a threat to score on the other end?

I’ll take option b, for those counting at home.

Speaking of those post-game comments, let’s look at that pre-season tilt versus Ottawa. Now, I’ll be the FIRST to tell you that pre-season games mean sweet f**k all, unless you’re really, really bad. In terms of positive contributions, Ben Harpur was the worst defenceman the Leafs played that night. Most teams ice half their opening night roster for the first five games, giving career AHLers (and even the goons), a chance to play and potentially injure someone (hello, Scott Sabourin).

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This is no slight on Harpur. I’m sure he’s a great guy. But, if you’re getting blown by down the wing by *checks notes* Connor Brown, that is no beuno. Connor Brown played on the fourth line of one of the best teams in the NHL last year, so what do you think is going to happen when Harpur gets caught out there with actual first liners in Drouin, Huberdeau or, god forbid, Boston’s top line?

Connor Brown is a good hockey player, but if he’s making Harpur look like an usher tearing tickets, that doesn’t bode well for the more skilled players of the league. And trust me, if he plays, that matchup will happen. In today’s game, Ben Harpur simply cannot defend effectively enough to warrant a spot in the lineup. And before anyone yells at me, this assessment isn’t based on one preseason game. It is based on watching him play in both the AHL & NHL over the past few years.

Now that we’ve established all of that, let’s tackle why Harpur is potentially the new “Babcock toy”.

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I say potentially, in this case, because Dubas has ultimate say over the roster, and he can — read: should — send him down to the AHL, removing him from any lineup equation. Unlike Zaitsev and Hainsey, who were both good enough to at least be in the lineup, Harpur is there because he’s 6’7 and can *maybe* penalty kill. Babcock has famously said that Freddy the Goat is “6 foot 5 every shift.” And that’s great, but he better have a smaller guy who can contribute more, if that’s available (ahem, Spezza – who is 6’3).

When Scott Sabourin slew footed Morgan Rielly (slew footing is a dangerous and suspensible offence, in my eyes), I basically expected Harpur to do something about it. Sabourin isn’t Brad Marchand. If he does something like that, he should not get away with it. But Sabourin went untouched, which begs the question: “Exactly what is Harpur contributing to the team if he’s not the deterrent to guys taking runs at Toronto’s stars?”

It wasn’t until Sabourin decided that elbowing Andreas Johnsson in the head was a marvellous idea that Harpur finally stepped in. In doing so, Harpur then picked up an instigator penalty which negated an opportunity the Leafs had in the offensive zone. To be clear: Harpur was PHYSICALLY ON THE ICE when a goon took a run at a Leaf and did nothing about it, so I’m not buying this whole “keep the flies off” narrative one bit.

What about Saturday in Buffalo, when Ristolainen thought that sticking his knee out on Tyson Barrie was a good idea? Not two games after Harpur fought a goon for taking two separate runs at Toronto players, did someone else take a run at a third. At what point does this, “he’s a deterrent because he’s 6’7 and is mean,” argument not hold any water?

For me, in the case of Harpur, it holds none. In fact, if Dubas does send Harpur to the AHL, I’m not convinced he makes Keefe’s lineup all that often.

This line of thinking is here old news; see Babcock’s use of Luke Glendening in Detroit. Not to mention that Babs loves his vets, but somehow has *already* put Jason Spezza in the doghouse. Spezza is a skilled player who will contribute in a bottom-six role, but Babcock already has his mind made up on Gauthier playing centre.

What’s interesting is this: when Babcock coaches internationally, he ices four skilled lines that can play various roles (PP/PK). Obviously, that’s a luxury exclusive to Team Canada, but, Toronto has an abundance of skilled players of their own, most of whom can likely fill those roles, or be taught how to. It is curious that Babcock would take a different approach to a formula that has been supremely successful. A three-week tournament is different than 82+ games a season, but he can’t be unaware that skilled players playing on the PK and always icing offensively threatening lines have proven to work in the past.

At the end of last season, there was a ton of frustration surrounding player usage; namely Marleau, Hainsey and Zaitsev. I’ll tell you that DJ Smith had a ton of say in how much the D played, so Babcock is not the only one deserving of blame. Let’s just say I wasn’t shocked to see Hainsey playing on the PP (!) in Ottawa the other night.

However, with Smith gone, the Ben Harpur experiment likely rests completely on the shoulders of this head coach. Many thought the Leafs needed to rely on their skilled players more than they did, including on the backend. There is no way anyone can look me in the eye with a straight face and say that Morgan Rielly wouldn’t be a better penalty killer than Ben Harpur. He might not be great, but he’s certainly a better option than Harpur. The same goes for Martin Marincin. For all of his faults with the puck — of which there are many — Marincin is an effective bottom-pairing defenceman in today’s game; he skates well enough to defend against zone entries, has good possession numbers, can PK and is also (for Babcock) BIG!

To me, once Dermott returns, there is nothing wrong with a bottom pair of Marincin/Ceci or Marincin/Dermott. Babcock loved Roman Polak, and I’m here to tell you that Ben Harpur is a taller version of Polak, only objectively worse. If he plays as the sixth D, it should be alarming.

Harpur making the roster means that one or both of Sandin and Liljegren will be sent to the Marlies. Let’s be very clear about this: both of those guys are objectively better hockey players than Harpur is right this second, and will contribute to the Leafs lineup more than he ever will. However, I don’t believe it is in the best interest of either player’s long-term development to play bottom-pair minutes, or sit in the press box on most nights. It is far better to send them down to average 20 minutes with Sheldon Keefe guiding their development.

Frankly, the last thing you want to do is stunt the development trajectory of your top prospects, particularly Sandin, since both players will be key pieces for Toronto in the very near future. In the AHL, Keefe can play them in all situations, including the PK, so that when they are called up, they can be trusted in that situation.

I want to make this very clear, however: this isn’t a Ben Harpur hit piece. Rather, Harpur is simply the evidence used to prove Babcock’s lack of systemic change when it comes to his line of thinking. The same argument can be made when observing his treatment of Jason Spezza, too.

Spezza has had years of NHL experience at centre — including being a star at one point. If Babcock is that set on Gauthier being in the lineup (and he shouldn’t be), then maybe play the young guy on the wing, and the veteran at centre, since the older and definitely more skilled guy is better at it. Doesn’t the tie always go to the vet? I think I heard that somewhere…

To be honest, it isn’t even a tie. Spezza is the better option up the middle, and if you want to use Gauthier as the face-off guy for the PK, then go right ahead. But to move Spezza over to the wing, and then make the comments about both him and Harpur (which were predicted by many), shows Babcock’s line of thinking hasn’t changed.

To Leafs fans, that should be very concerning.