Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to bring respect back to the Toronto Maple Leafs crest. It will be your duty to provide the fan base with a hard-working, respectable team. During this task of creating a new and honourable culture, it is imperative to lose as many games as possible in the first year. As the losses mount, you must find a way to somehow raise the value of the assets on your roster.
Good luck, Mr. Babcock. This message will self-destruct in 67 seconds.”
The success this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be judged by the points accumulated or on the scoreboard at the Air Canada Centre. As we’ve already seen, wins will be fairly rare. The franchise has a different set of objectives and goals this season. There is a commitment to the future in the “Big Smoke,” for possibly the first time.
The Leafs have investments, some large and some small, and how they maximize those investments will no question play a vital role in the reinvigoration of a downtrodden team. A company, though not admittedly, with the intent on bottoming out while somehow selling off its parts at better than liquidation prices. The games in the NHL are not only played on the ice. High stakes poker is being played in NHL front offices all the time. It truly is a stock market of sorts, and in Toronto, the roster and the worth of individual player in part lies in the hands of power broker, Mike Babcock.
I don’t wish to give off the wrong impression, I don’t believe for a single second that the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs concerns himself to any great degree with trade values. He’s said in the past he has no interest in being a general manager and the Maple Leafs have enlisted yet another power broker to handle the action on the trading floor. Babcock, at heart, is a coach. His business card says so and it’s what he was born to do. His job is to get the most out his team, as a group and yes, as individuals. Do I believe there have been conversations between coach and management on how to handle certain situations in regards to specific commodities? Most certainly I do. But dancers dance, singers sing, and coaches coach. While the organization focuses on the long term with Babcock in tow, his primary goal is to have his team play solid hockey. If the residual effect of his excellent coaching is restoring value to assets, all the better. When he signed on to coach this summer, he knew the obstacles and challenges of the mission ahead. Last year the market crashed. Can he salvage our stocks?
Let’s start out with a guy like Tyler Bozak. The subject of much debate, Bozak has been deemed almost untradeable. The analytics seem to point to the fact he was dragging down his line mates, number 42 failed the numbers test miserably. Beyond the numbers he always passed the eye test for me and I have to admit there is a touch of vindication seeing his usage under yet another coach, especially one as respected as Babcock. Some say he’s been relied on specifically to effect his value, though I just don’t subscribe. He has an “A” on his shirt, is a go to guy in the dot, and with his possession numbers raised to respectability (CF% 52.33) a market for Bozak could very well be forming. Now settle down, don’t get wound up if you’ve seen enough of Tyler. So have I. I’m not going to sit here and tell everyone how good or misunderstood Tyler Bozak is or was. He’s a serviceable NHL player, that’s about the size of it. One would have to believe Toronto does not have the centre in their plans going forward. But don’t be shocked if a team looks at what he is bringing under Babcock and is willing to make an acceptable offer of a second round pick or prospect. So with Bozak possibly dealt, what does the future look like down the middle for the Leafs? Leading our discussion to the Buds most interesting asset at centre, how could we talk about Bozak without then talking about Nazem Kadri?
Kadri, who has pulled way out in front this season as Toronto’s most polarizing player, has become possibly Babcock’s favourite. He’s used words like phenomenal to describe Kadri’s start to the season, despite a lack of production. The forward is among the league leaders in shots on goal and has done everything asked of him by Coach Babcock. The opportunities are there and he’s creating, just not finishing. Some suggest that will even itself out, while others suggest the coach is once again making statements in an effort to boost stock. Babcock is a man of principle, his comments are very likely genuine. Personal opinion of Kadri aside, this a stock I assume Toronto will hold on to as it sells off its portfolio. Unless of course the opportunity to sell high is too appealing. One never knows and as the deadline approaches expect this topic to warm up to record temperatures.
So with the Leafs poised to be an extremely active trader at the deadline, let’s take open the folder and look at some of the other stocks we may see exchanged on the trade table, and how they have benefited from the Babcock effect. Joffrey Lupul, the often injured winger with the $5.25 million per-season contract considered unmovable by most, was dangerously close to finding himself a healthy scratch early on. His survival of such fate could very well be asset management with involvement of the GM. In a league starving for goals, Lupul is on pace for somewhere in the 20+ area. Despite the price tag, Lupul can find the net and could be that guy another GM views as a player who can score that big playoff goal when the pressure is on. He’s shown that ability to be somewhat of a game breaker in the past. Personally, I don’t think Lupul is a Babcock type player due to some of his defensive deficiencies, but he’s managed to get production from him while possibly doling out a little longer rope than he’s had with others. It’s paying off, with the ultimate payday possibly coming at the deadline by freeing themselves of his contract and providing future cap space. Who knows, maybe Toronto can even pull in an asset in return.
In the case of the guys on one or two year commitments, the “Expendables,” they sort of are what they are. Paranteau has stayed out of the doghouse early and may be of interest for the same reason as Lupul. There’s some skill and offense there. The attractiveness here being his friendly cap number and term. Boyes would fall under the same category, and you could argue his value lies in asset protection. The importance of taking up a spot while the kids mature should not be overlooked. Though like Matthias, neither have seen their stock rise per say. However there’s a body of work established that should garner the Leafs a couple picks so long as they simply maintain a semblance of their games. These players also know a role with the 2017/18 Maple Leafs isn’t in the cards for probably any of them, yet the maturity and willingness to come in and work hard to help the coach reinforce the attitude an effort he wants should be acknowledged.
During this complete sell off, there are assets the bankruptcy division, lawyers, and accountants have advised the company to protect. James van Riemsdyk seems to be taking the next step as a complete player under Babcock and although there is much work left to be done, he should be a piece on this team when they turn the corner. Morgan Rielly? There’s very little to say, really. He’s Toronto’s best and brightest star in the making and will be Babs guy on the back end for I’d guess the duration of his coaching stay in Toronto. Jake Gardiner’s future remains to be seen, but the picture is a little clearer. Babcock has taken the reins off a bit and may find a way for him to reach his full potential. Cue the theme music from the story title. I’ve been in and out of love with Gardiner and if I’m to be honest, I’ve liked most of what I’m seeing from him this year. That being said, we could be witnessing a case of Babcock restoring value and the sellers selling. This deadline is going to be the most intriguing we’ve seen in years and it doesn’t end with Jake “The Snake.”
One of the toughest decisions facing the rebuild may be what to do with Leo Komarov. Of all the stocks, none have risen more than “Uncle Leo’s.” Playing on the top line, Komarov might actually hit the 20 goal mark. All the while being one of the league’s top possession players with a 59.9 CF% 5v5, an incredibly reliable defensive forward, and as physical as they come. Who wouldn’t want a guy like this on their team heading into the playoffs, a tournament Toronto won’t be involved in. But if you bought in when Komarov was a penny stock, your faith is being rewarded. I see Leo as a staple as we go, but make me an offer and we’ll talk.
Now not every stock and bond has risen under Babcock. The goalies have been, how to say this kindly, not great. The season is young though and hopefully their play improves, as Reimer is coming on a little but the market is non-existent. We don’t want anyone kitty barring the door anyways, remember the mission. Read the standings page upside down (see Matthews, Auston or Chychrun, Jakob). Roman Polak has struggled under the coach and won’t garner the same return if he were to have played stoically in a top-four role. His circumstance, including a few healthy scratches early, only proves to me the coach isn’t dwelling on asset management, he’s thinking about coaching the team to play his style. Arcobello wasn’t getting the job done so he was sent down. Peter Holland wasn’t prepared to compete the way the coach expects him to every night so he’s taking a knee. Marincin has been below average and the 4th he was acquired for might not be retrieved. Worst case scenario, he’s buying time for the strong defence on the Marlies roster to cultivate. The coach is keeping his word, that there will be accountability and this team will work. That’s not all he’s keeping his word about either.
Mike Babcock didn’t shy away from making a bold statement in his early tenure when it came to the man with Toronto’s largest contract (aside from his own). According to Babcock, Dion Phaneuf would have his best season in years. I’ve always been a supporter of Phaneuf. First being hopeful he was the stud advertised, as we saw in spurts. Ron Wilson at one point called him the best defenceman in the league by a country mile. Maybe it was comments like these, which led to my own missed assessment of the rear-guard, and with the letter “C” came massive expectations. A $49 million price tag did nothing to help the demands put on Phaneuf. I wore my rose coloured glasses when it came to the Leafs captain. Then my fandom soon turned to a form of sympathy upon the realization he was not capable of performing the tasks asked of him in relation to his salary and stature.
Words that still resonate with me when it comes to the Leaf whose jersey I still don (though it spent more time on the hanger than back the last couple years) are from a conversation I had out on the lake one afternoon with then Maple Leafs coach, Randy Carlyle. The first thing I asked and wanted to know above all else was, more or less, what’s the deal with Phaneuf? What’s he like as a leader. His answer, in summary, “Dion is just one of the boys.”
Carlyle went on to say Phaneuf’s maybe been put in situations a little unfair and has had too much on his plate. But looking down the bench at the time it was understandable the coach’s dilemma. Who else was there to lean on? Now it seems as though Phaneuf finally has someone to lean on, someone who is treating him as he should have treated all along, like “one of the boys.” Phaneuf has seen his usage change, his load lighten, while his production and effectiveness has increased. With that in mind something else has increased as a by-product. His value.
Whether his perceived value has been restored enough in the eyes of a team desperate enough for a top-four defender to overlook the fact he’s overpaid, or to the Maple Leafs themselves as he settles in to a less is more role here in Toronto, remains to be seen. One thing for certain, when it comes to Phaneuf, Mike Babcock is keeping his word. He was clear and concise in his proclamation that Phaneuf would have his best season in some time, and yes Phaneuf has gotten off to great starts in the past before watching his play go off the cliff with the other several 18-wheelers wrecks we’ve witnessed. There’s a different feel this time around. The difference for me is simple and can be found behind the bench. The coach sees a flawed yet honest player who he’s not hanging out to dry anymore. Phaneuf doesn’t carry the hockey acumen between the ears or does he have the wheels to be relied on as the Leafs every situation horse on the blue line. In retrospect he never should have been asked to fill that role, or given the payday he received. The emergence of Morgan Rielly and the play of Matt Hunwick is allowing Phaneuf to just blend in and play his game. So through a slight drop in minutes, a shift in perception, or it could even be trick mirrors, Mike Babcock is on schedule to do exactly what he said he’d do with Phaneuf. In turn, he is maximizing this asset. A task that many, including myself, assumed would be tremendously difficult. If not impossible. The Maple Leafs may just get the return on Phaneuf they dream of. The other option, he becomes a stable defender on a rising franchise. Either way, the stock is being handled beautifully.
Here we are, approaching the quarter mark of the year and the man many view as the best coach in hockey has the club right where they hoped to be. Playing a game that sees them control the puck much more than we’ve seen in recent memory, a system that when the proper talent is inserted should prove to be formidable. Mike Babcock is pouring the cement. The foundation he promised to build, construction is underway. The Toronto Maple Leafs are gaining the respect back of their fans after the way last year went down with honest efforts on a nightly basis, with only a few exceptions. It would be tough to argue the current group isn’t working their tales’ off. The instances when the work hasn’t been there, Babcock has taken it upon himself to clean it up.
As the Maple Leafs plan unfolds and the losses mount, bringing the Leafs closer to another cornerstone piece at the draft, player stocks are miraculously on the rise. Mike Babcock chose to accept his mission, this mission impossible. So far…mission accomplished.