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MAILBAG: Who s keeping Mike Babcock accountable?

MAILBAG: Who s keeping Mike Babcock accountable?
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That’s a test a night. Colorado is struggling a bit now, but Boston has been steadily gaining on the Leafs while Tampa just keeps pulling away.

It seems inevitable that Toronto and Boston meet in the playoffs in the first round, the good ol’ two vs. three matchup. Home ice, if it means anything, will mean it in April. Winning now could be the differnce.

That’s just a thought for you heading into the weekend as we dive into the Mailbag where Mitch Marner’s contract, William Nylander’s production, Jake Gardiner’s play all get your attention.

Might take you all weekend to read. Takes me all week to put together.

TO THE MAILBAG:

QUESTION: I know that you already know this but if Marner goes into a slump which could happen or gets hurt ... also could happen … I would say that his agent should think about what he could sign for NOW…he is having a great year to date!!

Really enjoy your thoughts regarding the cap and the Maple Leafs… I am an old-timer… been a long time since 1967 but maybe in the next year or two it could happen (Stanley Cup) barring injuries etc.etc.

Respectively submitted,

Bob M

ANSWER: Thanks Old-Timer. When do we get to start calling ourselves “old-timer?” I can’t wait. Get to say whatever you want and have everyone say, “That’s okay. He’s an old-timer.” I suppose Marner is taking a risk in that he might suffer a career-ending injury. But I’d say the risk is worth it.

QUESTION: When will the media start holding Mike Babcock accountable for the Leafs poor performances?

The Maple Leafs have never had such a collective group of talented players ever, yet the PP has gone south, the defence is suspect and teams have figured out how to neutralize the Maple Leaf strategies?

Babcock keeps saying things like " we have to fix that" or" they were better than us " or "good teams learn to win every night"

Well, Babs how about developing strategies to beat your opponent, instead of doing the same thing every game.

Other teams know how to beat the Maple Leafs because they have now become too predictable.

The honeymoon is over and its time for Babcock to be held accountable for the inconsistent play of his very talented players.

Dan W

ANSWER: My colleague, Dave Feschuk, likes to keep Babcock “accountable ” as you call it. The heat will be more on Babcock in the playoffs. If the Leafs go out in the first round again, all bets are off. There are those who believe he should have won more than one Stanley Cup in Detroit with all the talent he had there.

QUESTION: Hey Uncle Kev,

Hope the Holidays went well and that you’ve fully recovered from your flu…I’m glad it’s not digital or a lot of Fans would have it as I know you have a lot of contacts out there….

So, to pay you back for enduring such lousy timing for a flu, over Christmas for Gosh Sake….Let me query you this….

If you replaced Coach Babcock for the remainder of the season, what changes if any, would you like to see or would you do to help the Leafs get to that next level of readiness for the playoffs? I’m not going to say win round 1, 2 or 3 or the cup….a wrong injury or series of them or just bad puck luck and the whole season would be for naught. I’m referring to having the team be the best it could be going into the defensively driven playoffs, what would/could you do if you were the bench boss? No offence intended on Mike either, respect the man a lot, just wondering what you’re seeing from your vantage that you’d like to see ‘differently’? You see more than we fans could ever hope for….

Again, the only reason I subscribe, tell your bosses,

John L in Kingston…

ANSWER: Thanks John. As coach, I would tweak the power play. Take the reins off Mitch Marner, for one, and let him skate the full offensive zone to try to break the box. ... I’m not sure much could be done with personnel — that’s the GM’s job — but I’d play Marner and Matthews together once in a while. ... I’d also give Kadri the duty he had last year — playing against the other team’s top lines. He’s a better player when he has that role. Frees up Matthews and Tavares.

Harold B.

ANSWER: Thanks Harold. Not sure I agree with all your points. But yes, Marner is due a rich payday. I still believe Nylander needs time. I don’t think we’ll see the real Nylander until February.

QUESTION: Recently I have seen 2 situations where there was a dispute over whether a puck was over the goal line while in a goalie’s catching glove(one involving Anderson) . In both cases the call went against the goalie as the puck was clearly visible in the white catching mitt .Should goalies all not wear black gloves ?

David R

QUESTION: How about a trade to Carolina for Dougie Hamilton if Carolina willing. One such trade could be Gardner and Nylander for Hamilton. I believe that would free up about $4 million after paying Hamilton. Carolina would get their much needed forward as well as a replacement on defence for this year and free to negotiate for Gardiner’s future. We would get the impact defenceman we need. This would give you enough to sign the young players other than Mathews and Marner.

John H

ANSWER: It’s an intriguing idea. But your math is off. Hamilton’s cap hit is only $1.2 million less than Nylander’s. That won’t be enough to keep Gardiner. It might help keep Kapanen though.

QUESTION: Hi there Uncle Kev. Question first. Do you think the best way to handle the pending RFA’s, specifically Matthews and Marner is lock them in a room together with only their agents and have the Leafs give them a total number of bucks available and say ‘Guys here it is, make it work.’ Any chance of this to make it all work out? Other than that. Hyman back, Kadri will fire up, stud goalie about to return, what’s not to like about this team?

Thanks, Father Joe

ANSWER: If only negotiating worked that way. I’m all for all players being free agents every year, committing to a team, and then locking them all up and tell them to divide the salary budget amongst themselves.

QUESTION: Hi Kevin. The Leaf s 1-3-1 power play alignment seems to have a very glaring inherent flaw: when the shooter misses the net, there s no coverage on the opposite point to keep the puck in. This means less zone time due to missed shots on goal, as a good portion of the PP seems to be devoted to puck retrieval and o-zone entries. Is this weakness something that Babcock can coach around, or is it time to consider a more traditional PP setup with 3 forwards and 2 D? I suppose it doesn t have to be an either/or proposition too, perhaps mixing things up a bit and becoming less predictable is a good strategy moving forward? Teams seem to have recently figured out that the Leafs favour the down-low plays and cross-ice passes too.

I am also curious about the Leafs current depth chart in goal. It obviously took a hit at the beginning of the season, losing both McElhinney and Pickard on waivers. I believe Sparks is a RFA at season s end, though he could be back in the understudy role again next year. Hutchinson seems like a stop-gap for this season and neither Kaskisuo nor McAdam seems to be showing much consistency with the Marlies this season. There are two recent intriguing draft picks in Joseph Woll and Ian Scott. While raw, knowing that these two tenders are on the way, is goaltending something that Dubas needs to address in the off-season?

Thanks as always!

-Dan in Scarborough

ANSWER: I’d like to see changes in the power play, not in personnel, but in strategy. They are very static. Take the reins off and let Marner create. Set him up behind the net to break the box. Seems like a simple idea Wayne Gretzky invented that no one copied.

As for goaltending, I share your concern. They’re high on both Woll (Boston College) and Scott (tearing up the WHL), but they’re at least two seasons away. Both could turn pro next year. I imagine one will be with the Marlies, the other with the Growlers.

QUESTION: Good morning Kevin,

Interesting that your article was published before last night s game , within which Jake did not comport himself particularly well.

Despite this seasons success thus far, I don t believe the club is quite there yet. So yes, a move of JG to another team, considered a contender, would make sense.  Taking back futures also makes sense. 

I feel we are still in need of about five players ( I know , sounds crazy )  

Without this progression I don t think we compete with the top four or five clubs in a seven game series.  We are far too easy to play against all over the ice, and not defensively sound,despite having all this talent and being a very good hockey club . 

Enjoy your columns.

Kind regards, Jeff O

ANSWER: FIve players may be a lot, maybe three. But all support players, right? Remember when the Leafs need a No. 1 centre, a top goalie, a game-breaking defenceman? Those were the days, eh? At least they ve added players in the right order.

QUESTION: Hi, Kevin. I m a long-time reader of your column, always a good read.

I ve been a fan of "My Leafs" since 1951! Nylander is beginning to worry me and Marleau seems to have lost a step or two. Maybe the All-Star break will help him. Something has bugged me about the NHL for years. When there are coincidental minors, the teams each play a man short, yet when each team is given 5 minute majors, neither loses a man.

How stupid. Can you imagine how great it would be to play 4 on 4 for the full five minutes in the middle of a game ? It would add a lot of excitement to games. Also, players might think twice about getting into a fracas, knowing this result. What are your thoughts?

Murray A.

QUESTION: I don t understand this.

I keep reading about how much money these guys are going to make and it is mind-boggling! Heck...they haven t done anything (when it matters) to justify throwing all that money at them.

They are good regular-season players, yes. But they haven t produced sufficiently when it counts...during the playoffs.

The more money these guys are demanding, and the stupidity of NHL team s management willing to pay, is really starting to put me off of hockey altogether.

Cheers!

John C

ANSWER: Excellent point, John. But playoff production — frustrating though this might sound — doesn’t really factor in to contract negotiations. Those are based on regular season numbers, especially for restricted free agents. Playoff pedigree might count for unrestricted free agents, or a reason a team goes after a player in a trade. But contracts are based on regular-season performances. The thinking, I guess, is that anything can happen in the playoffs. Good regular season performances get you there.

If money is turning you off though, baseball and basketball players make a whole lot more. Four Raptors earn more than John Tavares, for example. And Russell Martin makes $20 million to do exactly what for the Blue Jays?

QUESTION: Hi Kevin,

Shanahan s comments in October suggesting the kids (Matthews, Nylander, Marner, etc) take less on their next contracts so that the Leafs can keep the band together got me thinking — should he have given that speech to Kyle and kept Lou around for another year or two to make sure the aforementioned kids get signed to (more) reasonable cap hits? Lou is a hard a**, shrewd negotiator and I d bet Nylander would have signed for less AND been around on Day 1 of training camp instead of (hopefully) showing up sometime in January.

I have been resistant to the suggestion that Marleau isn t giving the team all they had hoped for and that his final year (next year) will hurt the team, but he is looking a bit off . I still believe in him and his skill-set+experience...super valuable come April/May/June(?)! Can the team send him to Robidas Island (wink wink, nudge nudge) next year until say March (to save cap space), then activate him so he can get his legs back in time for the playoffs? I m guessing he came here to help win a Cup so I m not sure how eager he would be to waive his NMC and take a trade elsewhere.... but I REALLY don t want to lose Kapanen or Johnsson... but the cap crunch is coming! (Me, I d have never promised Nylander I wouldn t trade him and he d be packing his bags sometime before July 1 - Kapanen looks to be at least 80% of Willy...and he won t cost $6.97mm/yr!)

Lastly, I don t think the Leafs need a goon, but they definitely need someone who will push back and help "keep the flies" off the skilled guys. Someone like Darnell Nurse. Maybe a rental like Wayne Simmonds. I know if I was playing the Leafs I d be bullying them too!

You re the best...can t wait for the mailbag every Friday!!

Thanks as always, Bill L

ANSWER: Thanks Bill. I can’t wait for the Mailbag either, for what it’s worth. Yes, I do think Lamoriello would have dealt differently with Nylander. It’s quite likely even Marner and Matthews would be signed by now. That said, let’s see how Lou deals with Mathew Barzal next year. ... Marleau promises to be a big talking point come June. Robidas Island is an idea. But the way he’s revered, both by Babcock and his teammates, I can’t see that happening. As I’ve written before, best case scenario for the Leafs: They win the Cup this year, and Marleau retires with his name on it, saving the cap space and the future.

QUESTION: Maple Leafs are vulnerable to a strong forecheck which most teams are figuring out. Forwards collapse in defensive zone leaving opponents’ D uncovered at the points where they can hammer puck on goal. Cost them two goals against Preds. Is this a coaching strategy? And if so as makes little sense. Your thoughts?

Enjoying the Star on line. A long-time suffering but somewhat optimistic Leaf fan.

Bill P

ANSWER: Most teams these days struggle against a tough forecheck. Thus the love for Zach Hyman and even Kasperi Kapanen and when he gets to play Connor Brown. They make life very difficult for defencemen. What I’m saying, the Leafs aren’t the only team like that. Big, brawny, stay-at-home defencemen who can play tough in their own zone don’t really exist any more. The idea is to get possession and get it out, not to hammer players. But when they can’t get the puck, they – like most teams – are in trouble. So it’s not exactly a coaching strategy, but the result of the kind of defencemen teams value more.

QUESTION: Good morning Kevin. Toronto always needs a whipping boy. Nylander is Nylander. He is a soft perimeter player. He is very fast and shoots a lot but hates contact. He doesn’t strike me as terrifically different than last year. Yes, the shots were going in but the Leafs were also ambushing a lot of teams with their skill.

Real world, Sam Pollock would have made the trade. He would have targeted a defenceman.

The current defence is ok when the opposition is weak but when pressed they panic. The stretch pass (get a goal for mom; kids) is a cheap lazy play. It is designed to turn the game into continuous breakaways and teaches forwards to be lazy about participating in defensive zone work. Good teams defend against it by waiting and turning the play over and over. It makes me crazy when the other team scores and you see that none of the forwards assured possession before looking for a stretch pass exit. Speed is only an asset if you maintain possession.

Gardiner is better but his hockey sense is poor. He constantly turns the puck, is on the wrong side of the puck, or avoiding hits. Sadly he gets minutes as the other D are immature. Great teams have three Rielly’s, not one.

This team is out of balance and didn’t need another gunner. They need to learn a complete game.

Cheers, Rick

ANSWER: Sam Pollock would have traded Nylander for that gunner of a RHD while also securing the first overall pick two years hence when Alex Lafreniere is eligible, and probably would have plucked two top executives from the team he was dealing with while getting a more favourable deal for his farm team. All over a nice lunch in which he would have convinced his three top players to take a pay cut to keep the good times rolling. Pollock’s ability to rob teams blind is pretty much the reason hockey failed in Oakland all those years ago. But we digress. No one disputes your conclusion, that the Leafs need to learn how to play a complete game. They have 40 games to figure that out.

QUESTION: Nylander is a one-dimensional hockey player. He was blessed to play with Matthews his first two years, that padded his weak stats. Toronto should have done nothing but try and trade him after Nov. 1st, only if to make a statement concerning FA’s moving forward. How could any player demanding $6M, come back so desperately out of shape? Do you believe Nylander can still be traded, with any team, now with this outrages contract, or are the Maple Leafs doomed to keep this overrated, soft dud?

Scott M.

ANSWER: But how do you really feel about Nylander? I guess you’re not buying the “he needs time” theme. I still believe that. February, after the eight-day break when everyone will have had too much time in the sun. There’s out of shape, and game shape. He wasn’t out of shape. He was in training camp shape and everyone else was in mid-season form. I’ll give him that. ... Yes Nylander can be traded. But he won’t be.

QUESTION: Hey Kevin, hope you are well and truly recovered from that nasty flu, I have known a few others that have also been knocked out with it.

Our boys in blue seem to be making some pretty nervous. Perhaps it is simply the sampling of which game action that I catch on the TV, but I m still not convinced that this team has the collective commitment to finding a way to win, in whatever manner necessary, when the opposition finds a way to take away the high end offensive skill that the Bud s possess. Individually they can be spectacular, and they do have great sequences of team play, Matthews didn t become the player that he is by being lackadaisical in his approach or commitment to the game.

There does, however, seem to be an over reliance on the team s offensive skills to cover off the "other" 50 mins of the game, at least from the player s perspective.

Perhaps this is just what "learning to win" is.

Have you heard any of the Leaf s braintrust speak of either the progress down this road or articulate some kind of timeline that they feel is reasonable to give the guys time to figure it out?

Thanks for what you do,

Doug from B-ford

PS- if you see him pass on a greeting for me to Mark Z, still expecting to run into him at a racetrack sometime.

ANSWER: Yes, and thanks all, I’m over that flu. Was terrible. Wish it on no one. I think management ultimately wants to see how this season plays out before they decide whether this team has what it takes. Winning a playoff round would go a long way to removing the question marks surrounding this team. Or at least changing the conversation a bit.

Regards, Tom C

ANSWER: Tom, your point is made loud and clear.

QUESTION: Sure, takes time to get back to form. Nonetheless over-rated and over-paid. He had 61pts in consecutive seasons reflects playing with Matthews. Had only scored 20 goals per season. Only two goals in two combined years of playoffs. His performance is replaceable, Lindholm, Johnson, and Kapanen are proof of that. He s a third line perimeter player.

Big rookie GM mistake by Dubas, should have traded him to fill the glaring weakness on D. Lamoriello would have signed him for less or traded him for the much needed D. Signing him will cause big problems for Dubas in signing others.

Vicky M

ANSWER: Points made. Do you know Tom C?

QUESTION: Jeff O Neill said it best when he said “This guy is not worth the attention he is getting”

There are lots of players twice as good as Nylander making half the money. For the life of me I don’t know why they gave this nobody such a large contract. When are the Leafs going to stop this nonsense. Get rid of him and trade him now.

Regards, Eric F

ANSWER: TomC, Vicky M, meet Eric F

QUESTION: Trade Jake Gardiner? He is too valuable as a player. Highly skilled, fast and a grinder. Trade Nylander instead. He is useless.
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