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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Babcock situation must have been a lot worse than we thought

“Source: ~90% of the Leafs were relieved to see Mike Babcock go” is what James Mirtle of The Athletic tweeted out on Thursday morning before the Leafs got ready for their first game under new coach Sheldon Keefe. If that doesn’t tell you that things were much worse under the hood of this team than was let on, I don’t know what does.

The thing is, I’m at least a little surprised. Not so much that players were getting frustrated by Babcock – because I did think it was clear they were quitting on him – but that so many of them seem outwardly glad to see him go now that the team has moved on. We knew Dubas wanted to fire Babcock in the spring and that things weren’t lining up between the two, but even that seemed like it was maybe patch-uppable. Not even close, evidently.

In the Leafs’ first game with Keefe behind the bench the entire broadcast on Sportsnet was dominated with commentary about how, in the morning skate after just having their coach of the last four years fired, the players were all happy with a jump in their step. There were clips of Mitch Marner having a laugh on the bench, and absolutely none of the typical things we see about players feeling sorry about letting their coach down. Morgan Rielly was the closest to contrite about the whole situation and even he didn’t seem too bothered. Travis Dermott seemed downright giddy in the pregame to have Keefe behind the bench.

It was a bit weird. Weird how obvious it’s becoming in the last day or so that this group of players absolutely tanked their own performance to get rid of Babcock. There’s been leak after leak about how the locker room felt about it, with rumblings that players were upset on Jason Spezza’s behalf after Babcock gave him the run-around earlier this season, and then Tyson Barrie’s fall off a cliff offensively that clearly the others knew was eating at him. No one wanted to play this style anymore. I knew it wasn’t good, but didn’t think it could be this bad, because…well, Babcock was still employed.

But maybe it should’ve been obvious. Let’s think about it: Auston Matthews is the star on this team and has 60-goal potential, and in the last two summers Babcock has had to make a special post-season trip to visit him in Arizona to apparently make nice. There’s been an ongoing narrative about their falling out, no matter how minor, for the last 24 months, and Matthews’ own comments from last night about why they looked sharper right away seem to confirm all of that.

“I just think a little bit more freedom. We weren’t really just giving up the puck. I thought if something wasn’t there, we’d just kind of come back and hang on to it and we’d all come up and support each other and we didn’t have guys all over the place.

So I think that’s something that kind of opens up stuff for us because we’ve got a lot of guys that can skate and that are skilled with the puck and can skate through the neutral zone…

He wants us to utilize our skillsets, he wants us to play free. Not that it’s just a free-for-all for everybody, but he wants us to compete and utilize the God-given talents that we have. And we go out there and compete and hang on to the puck.”

That’s a pretty damning commentary on the style Babcock had the team playing this year, and it’s been said a number of times in the past couple days that the former coach was set on trying to have the Leafs squeeze the game more this season and grind out low-scoring wins. That obviously didn’t resonate in the slightest, but the new style Keefe and Dubas have agreed upon seems to have already started striking a chord.

“That style that we played tonight, you’ll see a lot more of it. You know what, we’re going to make some mistakes and we’re going to look silly sometimes, but we’re going to be rewarded for it a lot more than I think we won’t be.”

That quote is from Tyson Barrie, and I think if he had said the same thing a week ago, Mike Babcock may have shot him out of a canon into the sun. For everyone else with eyes on this team, those are hopefully new words to live by.