Babcock’s Prediction: The Pain Is Here

It’s May 21st, 2015 and Mike Babcock is formally introduced as the 30th head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While greeted by a number of personnel from multiple media sources, Babcock sat beside president Brendan Shanahan and embraced his role as the boss behind the bench. Babcock stated that he was excited for the opportunity and challenge of coaching another Original Six franchise. When asked about the possibility of making the playoffs in a few years, he had a simple message for the media and everyone in Leafs Nation.

“I never came here to make the playoffs. I came here to be involved in a Cup process. And that goes from scouting, from drafting, from development, from analytics, from putting an off ice team together, an on ice team together so, I love to win. I have burning desire to win. But I also want to win in the end. I don’t want to just get into the playoffs. I want to win. I want to be here with these guys. We want to build a team off the ice and on the ice that the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs can be proud of…

“I got a big picture in mind. So does Shanny. So does Larry. So do the people on our staff and that’s where we’re going. But if you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming.”

Full Press Conference here:

And he was right. The pain came right away.

On July 1st, 2015, The Toronto Maple Leafs traded sniper Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins after a season filled with controversy, ranging from fitness to coaching issues. It was evident that change was on the horizon. And it started with trading away an elite scorer with some major concerns and a massive contract. With Kessel gone, the Leafs offense definitely took a major hit this year. The Leafs are ranked 26th overall, averaging 2.35 goals per game.

Months later on February 9th, 2016, the Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators. Like Kessel, Phaneuf was a big name with a huge contract. With Phaneuf gone, the Leafs blueline will rely on Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. That same day, the Leafs lost 4-3 to the Calgary Flames. While they faired well in a close game, the Flames were without Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. The score could’ve been way worse than what it was. A few days later, the Leafs were single handedly defeated by phenom Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers as they lost 5-2.

At this point the losses and goals against will start to increase. It’s safe to say that the Leafs and Leafs Nation are already feeling the pain that Babcock alluded to.

And this is just the beginning.

With 28 games left and a roster much like an American League team, the season can’t come to an end soon enough as the Maple Leafs plan for a proper rebuild is in full swing. The Leafs were already riding a three game losing streak before beating the Vancouver Canucks last night. The Maple Leafs are coming up against a powerhouse in The Chicago Blackhawks next game, the pain may not subside any time soon.

The Leafs now sit dead last in points in the league. They’re ranked 7th in goals against per game (2.80) and have a minus 24 goal differential which places them 27th overall in the league. The Leafs are definitely missing the scoring touch of a guy like Phil Kessel and they certainly will start to feel the effects of missing the contributions of someone like Phaneuf on the backend.

Is Phaneuf a Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson or Duncan Keith elite level defenseman in the NHL? No. But he was a having a good year. Babcock did a great job of coaching Phaneuf and showing his true potential. He is a solid guy who can still contribute in a top-four role. You can see the difference from Phaneuf’s play compared to past years. He was over worked since he came to the Leafs in 2010. He didn’t have the depth on the blue line like other teams did. Now that he’s with someone like Karlsson in Ottawa, that added pressure is off Phaneuf’s back so he can still contribute with depth on the blue line.

While the Leafs have some veterans like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, the Leafs also have a lot of young guys in Rielly, Gardiner, Frank Corrado, Jared Cowen and Martin Marincin, players who are still learning the ropes and how to be consistent in the league. With Polak possibly gone at the trade deadline and Hunwick’s contract expiring at the end of the next year, the Leafs blue line could be a lot different. It’ll be interesting to see what will become of Jared Cowen after his term in Ottawa has seen some ups, but also a lot of downs.

Again, I refer to Babcock… There will be pain.

This “pain” that Leafs fans have endured has been ongoing for a number of years, dating back to the Harold Ballard era. I, myself, wasn’t born yet, but I have heard a number of interesting stories from family and friends about those times that people wish never existed.

Players weren’t happy (especially the rift between Ballard and Dave Keon), Ballard interfered with coaches and then there was the lowest point in Leafs history (until now possibly) where they finished dead last in 1984-85 and almost again in 1987-88. The Leafs were one of the richest teams in the League and Ballard did a horrific job in managing and trying to improve the team after those seasons. Players were purposely leaving Toronto due to Ballard’s attitude and decision-making.

To this day, Leafs fans that lived through those painful moments still talk about the villainous Ballard.

The 1990’s came in with more of a positive vibe. Cliff Fletcher became the general manager after creating the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1989. He brought in the likes of Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Felix Potvin in pursuit of a championship. There was the controversial Gretzky high-stick and the addition of Mats Sundin in 1994.

From that point on and even into the early 2000’s, it seemed like the organization and the fans were able to get past the hard times of the Ballard era.

Guess again. Enter into the John Ferguson Jr. era and that’s when everything fell a part… again.

The Leafs have been a mess to this point since the 2004-05 lockout. JFJ went after names like Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Ed Belfour. All great players, but they were nearing the end of their career and were dealing with a number of injuries.

In the 2003/04 season we saw them trading away a number of draft picks for players such as Brian Leetch and Ron Francis all for a Cup run that would ultimately come to an end. They later traded the rights to up and coming number one goalie Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. And who could forget the possibility of drafting Logan Couture in 2007. But the Leafs gave that pick up and two others to the San Jose Sharks (those picks went on to be Aaron Palushaj [2007, 44th overall] and Craig Smith [2009, 98th overall]) for Mark Bell and Vesa Toskala.

This is my, as well as many others, version of the Harold Ballard era.

Since the lockout, the game has been shifting to a more skillful game with the introduction and faces of the NHL, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Since then the Leafs have traded away assets that have and possibly could’ve gone on to accomplish something in the NHL. Poor asset management has been the demise of the Leafs since that point.

If the Leafs held onto their 2004 first round pick (gave it up for Brian Leetch), they could’ve drafted someone like Mike Green. In 2007, they could’ve drafted Couture. But I look further down that list and there is Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Max Pacioretty, all high-end players that make a significant impact with their team to this day.

Fast Forward to 2010. The Leafs traded two firsts and a second for Phil Kessel. Those two first round picks ended up being Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. If we didn’t make that trade and we went with the “be patient approach” we could’ve had an elite centreman and a top pairing defenseman.

In 2011, the Leafs drafted Tyler Biggs 22nd overall, who hasn’t played an NHL game in his career. Leafs also picked Stuart Percy 25th overall. The Leafs passed up players like Rickard Rakell, Vladislav Namestnikov and Brandon Saad. All are seeing NHL time. Saad is a two-time Stanley Cup champ. Imagine those players in the blue and white? Now look at the product that we had from that year on. Huge difference.

Then came the David Clarkson contract. I’m going to the leave it at that. That alone was painful enough to endure considering his one 30-goal season.

Again, all of that is extremely painful to listen to and witness.

It’s fitting that the theme song for the piece should be “Pain” by Three Days Grace. The Leafs and its fans couldn’t seem to get enough of it because of all the poor decisions made by management. Blame could also lie in the people behind the bench.

Coaching has been another prime issue for the Leafs. Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle’s tenure were short lived after a number of failed seasons where the 18-wheeler continued to fall off the cliff every year. While the on ice product still wasn’t up to par compared to other teams in the league, management failed to provide them with the assets. They could only coach with what they had. But, it seemed like there was no effort to try and take charge and turn things around.

Enter Mike Babcock. Like Carlyle and Wilson before him, Babcock came into this team with nothing. Yet, there have been times this year where this Leafs team continued to compete to the end of the game, without a superstar on their team. The latest example was Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks, a 5-2 win. You can argue that Wilson and Carlyle had more to work with than Babcock and yet every player on Babcock’s team still manages to push hard every game. You put those teams up against each other and Babcock’s team might come out on top.

Babcock’s team seems like they are giving a 110 per cent effort every night. Even though they may have lost, it seemed like they were still in it to the very end. What was Carlyle’s and Wilson’s excuse for not doing anything to try and turn things around with a team that was way better on paper compared to Babcock’s?

From the coaching, to allocation of dollars, to decision making on players, the management and coaching has been atrocious throughout the years. Even when we had a player that could’ve been something, we gave them away. I present to you exhibit A, Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo. Steen has gone on to be go-to power forward on a great St. Louis Blues team. Colaiacovo was becoming a great defenseman, but was dealing with a number of injuries. What did we get in return? Lee Stempniak. That deal turned out to be a huge win for the Blues, considering the numbers he’s put up since the deal.

I could go on and on about the painful deals and decision made over the past (because there are more) but it seems like we’re starting to turn a new leaf.

With a management group lead by Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter and with Babcock behind the bench, the Leafs are definitely in good hands. The good times started in 2012 when the Leafs drafted Morgan Rielly, a potential top pairing defenseman in the making. That was followed up with William Nylander and Mitch Marner in the next two years.

The Leafs are finally doing things right, but the painful times will continue for another few years until our top prospects are ready to become top players. I mean, we’ve already endured this much pain for four decades; only good can come from the next few years.

Looking back on all the moves that angered Leafs fans everywhere, I constantly ask myself, and I’m sure you do too… “Why?” Why did we trade away a potential number one goalie in Rask? Why did Burke give up two firsts for a sniper when we could’ve had our own in the upcoming draft? Why did Nonis sign Clarkson to that ridiculous deal? Why was Ballard too stubborn to improve the roster after they were in the bottom of the league?

We all know the answers to these questions, it just baffles me how they we were able to come to the conclusion that this would help the team. Meanwhile, there were more reasonable and positive outcomes that could’ve been achieved. Management in past years were trying to cut corners.

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. How did they get to that point? They drafted and developed their own prospects to build a potential dynasty. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were all drafted and developed properly by the organization. They are the prime example on how to become a successful, championship caliber team in today’s NHL. And they’ve endured their share of painful moments in their history. Now look at them. They’re on top of the hockey world.

It’s now time for the Maple Leafs to be that next team to come out of the dark and be known as a top team in the league. Like Babcock said, “I look forward to the process, the battle, the pain, the fun, the journey. It’s going to be a long one, but it’s going to be a lot of fun…

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to coach Canada’s teams and enjoyed that immensely. Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map.”

The rest of the year is going to be a long one. A painful 28 games left and possibly another painful two or three years. But the Leafs appear to be in a good position to get a crack landing the first overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery and potentially draft Auston Matthews. Steven Stamkos is rumoured to become an unrestricted free agent and the Leafs are rumoured to be the front-runners.

Leafs fans have been hearing the same thing over and over again each year.

“We’ll be ready next year.”

“We got a good team this year.”

“We’re going to make the playoffs.”

It’s almost borderline cliché hearing those lines. But from management, to the coaching staff and to the players that we draft and develop, it may not be long before we hear that last line.

And that’s what fans want to hear with an excellent on-ice product. Playoffs. Championships. Success.

While it may not look like it, the Leafs are on the right path. This is the one management group that I feel comfortable and confident that they will get the job done. They got rid of cap- restraining contracts in Kessel, Clarkson and Phaneuf that were deemed impossible to move. They managed to only retain $1.2 million in salary out of those three contracts. If this was a past management group, they would’ve retained more than that. And that would’ve generated a hell of a lot more pain and anger for the fan base.

I know I’m sounding really optimistic, but that’s because I am. I’ve never seen a management group so determined to turn this team around and make it into a winner.

This isn’t Harold Ballard or JFJ 2.0. This is a group that wants to put an emphasis on winning. Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock all have a number of accolades to their name. They are building for the future through the draft and acquiring assets that could play a part in a championship title. They want what is best for this team and for fans. This is a team and fan base that suffered through the worst times imaginable in the sporting industry. Since 04/05 lockout, the Leafs have been the laughing stock of the league. Those times are behind us and it’s time for a new era for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The long, hard and painful road will soon be a distant memory. And for once, we can hear the line, “The Leafs appear to be a Cup contender,” once again.

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