The hell that was the playoffs has passed, and now it’s time to discuss what needs to happen moving forward.
Yes, I’ve finally had enough time to not write from pure hurt and hatred.
That’s it for a preface, let’s get to it:
Mike Babcock and some coaching thoughts
I’ve seen a lot of theories on Mike Babcock lately. Theories about why he plays the players he does and why he’s so set in his ways, I’m not going to touch on it. His coaching tendencies have been analyzed ad nauseam and he’s been lynched for just about all of those tendencies.
I don’t much care for any of that.
He’s the coach of the Leafs and I’ll hope for success from him moving forward. I remember the days of Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson before him, I take Mike Babcock every day of the week over those guys, so my only real concern here is who are you getting that’s better than Babcock? If you tell me Sheldon Keefe then I have this response.
I believe that Keefe could be a very good NHL coach, but the emphasis should be on the word “could” in that statement. Without history it’s impossible to say, and while I believe (as we all do) he’s the next guy in line if things don’t go well for Babcock to start the 2019-20 season, winning at a lower level doesn’t make me believe that you WILL win at the next one, it just makes me think that you deserve a chance.
Will that chance come in Toronto? With GM Kyle Dubas having already confirmed that Babcock will return next season it’s still not clear. Other teams will take note if Sheldon wins his second consecutive Calder Cup, but leaving his long time GM while there may be an approaching opportunity might not be what Sheldon wants to do right now.
I’m more interested in who is confirmed to be leaving at the moment.
It’s now come out that the Leafs have given permission to any interested teams to speak to Jim Hiller, which means he won’t be returning next season. I wish him all the luck in the world, but the Leafs should be better for this as the powerplay didn’t come close to living up to expectations. While Mike Babcock rightfully takes heat for this overall, the only time we saw a different approach was directly after Mike and Jim were seen having a heated conversation on the bench in early February. The powerplay was mired in a terrible stretch, brought on by a combination of predictability and a lack of creativity (which is nearly the same thing), and it was obvious that things had reached a boiling point.
D.J. Smith has been interviewed by the Ottawa Senators in relation to their vacant head coaching position and it’s been speculated that he could interview in Edmonton as well. In March of 2018 he was voted as the assistant coach most deserving of a head coaching position in an annual poll done through the NHLPA. It’s unclear if he’ll return to the Leafs, but my guess is he will also find work elsewhere by the fall.
Smith is a little different than Hiller if you ask me. While Hiller had all the tools you could ask for to succeed on the powerplay, Smith, without any natural PKing centres and a blueline that is lacking in proven penalty killers, entered the season in a less than optimal situation. Kyle Dubas was right to take blame for the struggles while shorthanded, and ultimately it cost them in the playoffs, but it’s not just those struggles that make me think Smith will be on the way out.
Is it possible that Kyle Dubas wants Mike Babcock on an island within the Scotiabank Arena?
Both Jim Hiller and D.J. Smith are “Babs’ Boys” in that they were brought in by Mike. Hiller was Mikes assistant in Detroit for 1 season before he followed him to Toronto, he coached the powerplay there as well. Smith, on the other hand, received his first NHL gig in Toronto thanks to Babcock. These are coaches that Mike picked for himself, and guys that likely think similarly to him.
It will be interesting to see who the new assistants are, and if they’re closer to the GM than they are the head coach. If their ties are close to Dubas then I believe the ice has already given way underneath Babcock, he’s simply hanging onto the proverbial edge before he sinks.
If the additions are Mikes choice alone then it at least tells me that Dubas is giving his head coach every chance in the world to succeed. If Mike can’t piece together a winning mixture of special teams with new assistants then he clearly did it to himself.
Which brings us full circle, right back to Sheldon Keefe.
While many believe (and I understand why) Keefe wouldn’t be interested in stepping in as an assistant coach for the Leafs, I’m not 100% convinced. There would be benefits to having him behind the bench at the NHL level.
First, whether you want to admit it or not, you have to think that Keefe could learn a thing of two from Babcock. Go ahead, say the game has passed him by, say he’s stubborn and doesn’t work well with younger players, it really doesn’t matter. The man has won everywhere, and, simply put, he helps to mold future NHL coaches (if my count is right there are currently 3 NHL head coaches that got their start under Babcock. All of Bill Peters, Jeff Blashill and Todd McLellan are former asssistants of Mikes). If you’re in the position of Keefe, and you want to stay in Toronto but think you’ve done all you can with the Marlies, then what better place to be than standing next to a future first ballot hall of famer? Not unlike Kyle Dubas learning the ropes from Lou Lamoriello, I believe Sheldon Keefe could pick up some things from Mike Babcock, and if after next season a better opportunity arises and Mike has entrenched himself back into the good graces of Leafs Nation, then you move on.
On top of that he could put his fingers on the pulse of the room before (if?) taking over. To see what is and isn’t working between the head coach and players might be of benefit to the head coach in waiting. If, in the end, he is given the head coaching gig, he could hit the ground running.
Just a thought. Time will tell. Just like it will tell with the captaincy…..
The BIG “C” (controversial opinion alert)
While Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, and even Mitch Marner have gotten some captaincy votes over the past year, it’s generally believed that Auston Matthews will be handed the C eventually.
Over the course of discussing other options I have always come back to one question:
If the captaincy is given to (insert player not named Auston Matthews) how pissed off will that make Auston Matthews?
The answer always tends to be “very.”
It’s that answer that truly concerns me. Your captain is supposed to be a selfless, team first, “do whatever it takes for the logo on the front and not the name on the back” type of player. If a player wants the captaincy so badly that it’s been openly discussed in the media that it could be damaging to the relationship between said player and his team, then is he thinking about himself or the team?
Here we have a player that, at 21 years old, has had difficulty with signing his ELC because he took the business side of things personally, has had an obvious rift with the head coach, has shown concerns about ice time and linemates, and has let it leak that if he isn’t named captain it would be upsetting to him.
Growth as a player and growth as a person don’t go hand in hand.
While Auston Matthews is the Leafs’ best player he still has room to grow. He just had an outstanding playoffs statistically, with flashes of brilliance at both ends of the ice. However, they were flashes, he wasn’t a steady presence, especially without the puck, and that’s what the team needs him to be if they want to win. With that said he has advanced tremendously since last season and that bodes well for the future success of this team in the playoffs.
As a person off the ice there is still much left to be desired. He’s young, he’s immature, and he needs Patrick Marleau to kick him in the pants. You can’t have Mike Babcocks authority undermined again with another visit to Arizona. You can no longer allow this grown man to act selfishly. What you need to do is send a peer to talk to him, to tell him about how he wasn’t happy when he was stripped of the captaincy in San Jose, because of course he wasn’t, but he didn’t quit the team! He needs a wake up call and Papa Marleau will be worth every penny of his 6.25M this season if he’d make that call. If he appears to turn over a new Leaf after that then I’d hand him the captaincy.
One other call that needs to be made is to Kyle Dubas about the state of the blueline……
I’m honestly tired of writing about this.
Maybe Kyle shouldn’t be so bullish about what is obviously lacking.
While players like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are on the way to help that just isn’t enough. If either one of those players falters in their development you’re down to just one potential top 4 defender coming in the near future. On top of that you can see by the progression of players such as Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott just how long it takes to fully develop a legitimate top 4 defenseman (Dermott isn’t even there yet). Even players taken in the 1st round need years to put it all together, so waiting is a fools game.
Morgan Rielly is the only player on the roster that can be called a legitimate top pairing defender. Jake Muzzin is the only other player that can be considered a shoe in for top 4 minutes across the league. While I commend Nikita Zaitsev on his playoff performance, he is a #4 on the best of days and Travis Dermott will be a wild card for the coming season after undergoing shoulder surgery that will keep him out for at least 6 months.
Those are the 4 regular defenders from the 2018-19 season that are signed next year, which means there are a ton of minutes to go around without any proven players signed to play them.
So who steps in?
Jake Gardiner will price himself off the roster, which is fine by me after back to back Game 7 collapses. Ron Hainsey will have to cut a team friendly deal to return, and Igor Ozhiganov is heading back to the KHL. Most aren’t against the return of Ron Hainsey as long as his minutes come down, and I find it tough to disagree with that.
You can plug Calle Rosen into your bottom pair, and it’s possible that Andreas Borgman could take another swing at playing in the NHL, but again, this leaves a lot to be desired when you’re talking about filling out the ranks on a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender.
The short and long of it is simple, if you walk into the season with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Ron Hainsey, Travis Dermott, Nikita Zaitsev, and Calle Rosen as your top 6 then you’ve failed miserably over the summer. In fact, if you haven’t added a sure fire top 4 right side defender then we could say the same thing.
So where do they go from here?
With a lack of cap room and some specific needs (especially on the PK), it won’t be an easy feat to add to this blueline. While there have been some rumours about big ticket defenders (for what it’s worth I don’t believe you, Chris Johnston***) in the Leafs crosshairs, I tend to think the more reasonable outcome will be patchwork additions while they watch their prospects grow. Some under the radar additions will be cheaper to obtain, and could be just effective enough to get them to the next level. Examples could be players such as Colin Miller, Tyson Barrie or Justin Braun, but in this case I really do hope Johnston is right when he speaks about fireworks within the Scotiabank Arena this season, because what the Leafs really need is one more defender that’s considered top pair calibre. Jacob Trouba or Aaron Ekblad types would be ideal, as both can play big PK minutes, help offensively, and log lots of minutes alongside Morgan Rielly. With a big top pair the pressure would be taken off pairs 2-3. Obviously to make it happen they would have to free up salary space, and that’s a big ask…..
Moving on from……
We’ll start this section by tossing out Nazem Kadris name.
Nazem has played just 6 of the Leafs’ past 14 playoff games as a result of suspensions. The ensuing interviews went as expected. With statements such as “I need to learn from this” and “I need to control myself” most are left with a bitter “what if” taste in their mouths. What if he played the entire series? Would it have put them over the top? What if he moves forward and doesn’t play with the same edge? Would that take away what makes him special?
But the big question is this: What if he does it in the playoffs again? What’s the point of having him here if he isn’t going to be on the ice when it matters most?
The benefits of moving on from Kadri are obvious. His point totals have fallen as he has been pushed down the lineup with the addition of John Tavares, but his value is still higher than that of a standard 3rd line centre. Opposition GMs could be easily convinced that with a change of scenery the points would return, besides, his contract is good enough that even if he didn’t eclipse the 30 goal plateau again he’d still be able to live up to it. After he receives his July 1st signing bonus he’ll be owed just 10.5M over the next 3 seasons as well, that’s good value for a budget team. Breaking free of a 4.5M forward that is playing on your 3rd line in order to open up space to add to your blueline just makes a ton of sense on paper.
My biggest concern would be finding a replacement.
Ideally they would add a player that can help the penalty kill, as mentioned earlier this is a major need right now, but also help on the scoresheet. You wouldn’t want to stifle the offensive contributions of the Leafs’ terrific winger depth, so having a centre that can capitalize when it counts is a must. Said player would also have to take up much less space towards the cap than Kadri’s 4.5M, or else it would all be for nothing.
The Leafs don’t have any NHL ready centres in the system…. at all, let alone one that fits this mold, so any replacement would have to come from outside. Free agency isn’t exactly teeming with options, but there is one player I would be willing to take a flyer on, and that’s Riley Sheahan.
Sheahan is a player that can shift from the wing to centre easily, and is good on the draw. He had his best offensive years while playing for Mike Babcock, and can log over 2 minutes a game while short handed. He’s a big body (6’3” 215lbs) and knows how to work the corners, and that sounds like a lot of what the Leafs need right now. They have the top end skill, it’s complimentary pieces like this that they are lacking.
The only downside right now is his lack of recent offense. He has surpassed the 30pt mark twice in his career, and posted 24pts in 42 games in the lockout shortened season, but registered just 19pts this past year. If he could regain his 30-40pt form it would be more than enough to justify his position on the 3rd line, but if he doesn’t it might mean watching a bottom 6 group struggle to produce offensively all year long. To top it off he’s a St. Catharines, Ontario boy, maybe he could benefit by playing at home?
William Nylander belongs with Auston Matthews, that much is clear to me. However, his stint down the middle in the playoffs gave me enough confidence in him to think an addition like Sheahan comes with less risk. If moving on from Kadri and putting a player like Sheahan in doesn’t work then you have a fall back in Nylander until you can find another option. All three of Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander can run the offense on their own lines, so while the team would miss the physical element that Kadri brings, it’s tough not to understand their reasoning if they decide to move on, because they do have a safety net currently playing on the roster.
After Kadri you start to get low on potential trade candidates that aren’t complicated. Moving on from Patrick Marleau depends so much on Patrick Marleau. He’s in the drivers seat with a full no movement clause. His contract was signed after he turned 35 years old, so buying it out doesn’t offer any cap relief, and his signing bonus is structured in a way that sees one installment paid in July and another in December, so that increases the actual dollars an acquiring team would have to pay. More than anything though, the guys in the room love him. He signed on to be part of a contender, and my instincts say that he’ll see that through and that management will let him.
Nikita Zaitsev, another player often mentioned in cap clearing conversations, is complicated as well but for different reasons. With 5 more seasons remaining at 4.5M per season, he isn’t living up to the potential Lou Lamoriello saw in him when he inked the Russian defender to a 7 year deal. Unless the Leafs are paying assets to move on from him, or attach him to any deal that sees an upgrade returning to the team, then I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.
Outside of Kadri you really only have the option to move on from Connor Brown and his 2.1M cap hit. It’s quite possible that by moving on from both it might just be enough to accomplish everything the Leafs want to this offseason. A healthy contract to a defender, and a couple of bottom 6 forwards with PK experience could be just enough to see the team take another step forward next year. We should also assume that some of the kids take another step forward, as they are still at an age where development is expected, because afterall, this is a development team……
At last years draft the first 6 picks for the Leafs were Rasmus Sandin (D), Sean Durzi (D), Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (C), Riley Stotts (C), Mac Hollowell (D), and Filip Kral (D).
Four defenders and two centres taken with the top 6 picks.
This is a good drafting strategy in my opinion. At this point in time they should go a little heavier at the centre position, because while the parent club looks good at the moment, the organization itself is thin down the middle. Teams will always look to trade for good centremen, so drafting and developing those is just good business. At the end of the day they can move to the flanks, give you tremendous depth at the most important forward position on the team, or will become good trade bait. Meanwhile, defense is the hardest position to acquire, so drafting and developing that is a must.
Other teams have implemented this strategy well, and while they don’t do it year over year, and I wouldn’t suggest the Leafs should discount players simply because they’re wingers, it does have some benefits.
That’s all for now, next up will be lead ups to the draft day and what the Leafs might want to do there.
***If you missed Chris Johnston on the Steve Dangle Podcast it’s worth a listen. All things Leafs can be found in the first hour here……