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Dave Feschuk: Stubborn Babcock passes on change with Leafs special teams falling short

Dave Feschuk: Stubborn Babcock passes on change with Leafs special teams falling short
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The chronically tortured fan base is starving for it. The players have been dreaming of it. But let’s not kid ourselves: At this point it’s Mike Babcock who truly, truly needs it.

Nobody needs the Maple Leafs to set off the civic celebration that would accompany a Game 7 victory in Boston Tuesday night more than the 55-year-old Yorkville resident in the expensive suit standing behind the Toronto bench. This is a coach who desperately requires tangible proof he’s not yesterday’s man.

John Tavares has had success on the faceoff dot against Patrice Bergeron’s Bruins. More of that could go a long way in Game 7.  (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

Because for all of Babcock’s regular rationalizations about why he’s doing a fine job — and all his assumptions about the many years he’s got left at Toronto’s helm — the numbers to the contrary are piling up. Perhaps you’ve heard a few. If the Maple Leafs don’t win Tuesday, their coach will have lost eight of his past nine playoff series. If the Leafs don’t finally vanquish the Bruins at TD Garden, Babcock will have lost five of his past six Game 7s. His lifetime record in seventh games will sink to a dismal 3-7.

You look at those numbers, and if you’re one of the ruthless capitalists whose company is paying Babcock an average annual salary of $6.25 million U.S. you wonder: Where’s the value added?

Not that he can’t make a case for himself. Babcock goes to bat for Babcock nearly daily in his media briefings, pointing out roster flaws and player shortcomings. But here’s what has become clear through six games, and what Babcock doesn’t say. He’s coaching the better team. He’s got the superior goaltender. Toronto’s forward lines are deeper and faster than the ones at the disposal of Boston coach Bruce Cassidy. If the Bruins have an edge on the back end, Morgan Rielly has been the best blue-liner in the series. And the Maple Leafs have been in command of the proceedings three times — up 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.

Give credit to Babcock for having his team ready to “start on time,” as he likes to say. As a preacher of the merits of preparation, as a basement-to-playoffs turnaround specialist, he’s unmatched. But as Game 7 approached, he’s left close observers with plenty of questions about his ability to match wits.

Why, hockey people were still asking Monday, did he pull Frederik Andersen in Game 6 with the Maple Leafs down a goal but yet to establish deep offensive-zone pressure? Why does he keep rolling out Patrick Marleau despite Marleau’s invisibility? Why does he still insist on rushing his top power-play unit off the ice so the likes of Tyler Ennis and Marleau can get their turn? Why won’t he occasionally load up a line with, oh, his three top players, if only to blindside Cassidy with the element of surprise? Why does he seem to consider mind-numbing predictability a strategic virtue?

And maybe top of the list: Why does Babcock refuse to address the chronic problems on Toronto’s specialty teams?

Toronto’s power play, which began the season with a seismic bang, is going out with a relative whimper, scoring in just two of six playoff games and making good on just one of its past seven attempts.

And as for the penalty kill, according to NHL.com, going back to 1985-86 there’ve been 424 teams whose playoff runs lasted at least six games. Toronto’s 2019 penalty-kill percentage, an embarrassing 56 per cent, ranks 423rd out of 424. The Leafs’ 2018 penalty kill ranks 421st. Their 2017 work ranks 407th. Those numbers are Babcock’s numbers.

The only other Maple Leafs team that was comparably bad was the infamously inept 1988 squad coached by John Brophy, which ranks 419th. That team, just to illustrate the kind of company Babcock’s Leafs are keeping here, made the playoffs in the old Norris Division days with a 52-point season. On the night in 1988 when the Detroit Red Wings blew out those Leafs 8-0 at Maple Leaf Gardens, scoring two power-play goals en route, fans infamously littered the ice with pucks — pucks emblazoned with the Maple Leafs logo that are usually coveted souvenirs but were tossed back in disgust.

So the penalty kill’s historically brutal. And sure, some of it’s come down to bad luck and bad bounces. But some of it’s been predictable, too. Zach Hyman, a heart-and-soul grinder who appears to be nursing an injury, has lost 76 per cent of the draws he’s taken on the kill, most of which have come against the great Patrice Bergeron. Hyman is 5-for-21 in the dot short-handed. While he’s been getting eviscerated, the Bruins have scored a remarkable seven power-play goals.

Faced with those facts, a lot of coaches would make an adjustment — by, say, tapping the more accomplished John Tavares to take some faceoffs — but don’t expect it here.

On Monday Babcock was asked if he’ll consider taking a different approach to his game plan in Game 7.

“No. One hundred per cent the opposite of that piece of advice,” he said.

In other words, he’d rather lose doing things his way than win doing them somebody else’s. He’s happy being a winner, sure. But you can get the idea there’s nothing more important to him than being right. Looking at Babcock’s recent playoff win-loss record suggests he’s either often wrong or totally due. A fan base that hasn’t honked a horn in series-winning joy in 15 years can only hope he’s the latter.
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