Rosie DiManno: No one’s talking about firing Babcock now, with Leafs’ first-round master class in session
|Toronto Star 20 Apr 2019 at 17:10|
Players in their coach, coach in his players.
But these Maple Leafs have a covenant of faith with Mike Babcock, like never before. As he does with them, like never before.
Three playoff years it’s taken to reach this point: Toronto holding the hammer against Boston, entirely capable of eliminating the Bruins in Game 6 Sunday afternoon. A year ago they were fighting for their lives, chasing, catching up, chasing.
They’ve not always been on the same page. They haven’t even been on the same page within this series. Because the players, with tremendous speed and skill, want to go, fly. While Babcock wants them to play commandingly without the puck. And that’s so often been the rub since Babcock took the reins in Toronto — although we’ll ignore year one of the Babs era, which was merely a prologue, before the arrival of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner profoundly altered the team’s dynamics.
Babcock hasn’t relinquished his stubbornness. But he’s proven himself right, a wise mastermind, more frequently than not. And frankly, he’s changed too, evolved.
“You grow each and every year,” Babcock said Saturday, and he was talking about himself. “Once you want to be good at your craft, you’re always trying to get better. There’s lots of situations you like to think you handled well, there’s lots of situations you didn’t handle very well. Also, there’s a trust process. You build a relationship over time based on trust.
“You’re a coach, they’re a player, but there’s still an important caring process there. Your job’s to help them help themselves get to be the best they can be.”
There’s no doubt Babcock has altered how he relates to the players.
“From year one to now, yeah, for sure,’’ agrees Morgan Rielly, among the few Leafs who predate Babcock in Toronto. “His approach the first year was different, just because he looked at the roster and said, ‘I’m going to have to be different than I have been in the past.’ Because we weren’t good, that’s pretty much a fact. Years two, three and four, not as big a difference. He treats everyone the same way, he preaches the same way.
“Just because our team got to a point where he felt like we were good enough to compete and that he had guys who were going to be here for a longer period of time. He would act differently because he felt like he had to build a relationship. As opposed to that first year when he was just trying to get a feel for things, trying to move some pieces to a point where he was comfortable.”
The Leafs, circa 2019 playoffs, are ripened despite their youth.
“When I first got here, I think we had nine rookies,” recalls Connor Brown. “(Babcock) had to monitor all our moves on the ice. Now we understand more how we’re supposed to play. He gives us a little more leeway, a little more trust.”
In these playoffs, Babcock is justifying his gobs of money and his even gaudier reputation as a crack bench boss.
Somewhere between the scuffling, sketchy performance of the Maple Leafs down through the regular season’s concluding weeks and the trenches of the post-season, his team has rediscovered its structure mojo. That’s down to Babcock and his coaching staff. Yes, there have been lapses — penalty-kill breakdowns in Game 4, most harmfully — but those were fixed as the Leafs reoriented, reset, in Friday’s win.
Some of that credit, mind, must go to D.J. Smith, who orchestrates a penalty kill that snapped to attention in Game 5. “I don’t want to give away the tidbits,’’ says Brown, “but Smitty’s done an unbelievable job, changing our game accordingly. We hadn’t done him justice because we hadn’t executed his plan nearly good enough. That’s been on us. Last game was the first time we went the whole time without any brain cramps.”
That game was classic Babcock — the way he coached Team Canada to gold in Sochi. Which many of us hated, outcome notwithstanding. Playing the heavy side of the puck, defensive-minded, five men back in their own zone. In the playoffs chess match between coaches, Babcock has mostly outmanoeuvred and out-adjusted Bruce Cassidy.
Toronto was masterful in Game 5, a grinding wrangle of caution versus caution. It was not a thing of beauty, but it was prototypical Babcock.
“Everybody’s been acting like we played really, really well (Friday) night,’’ said Rielly. “During the game, I didn’t really feel that way. I thought we were playing well, but I don’t think we were really making a statement with our play.
“It’s weird. It’s not every night where you’re going to get everyone on the same page. That was one of those times where we all looked at each other before the game, kinda told each other: If we play the right way, if we do what we’ve been instructed to do, we’re going to probably win. It’s a commitment.”
At one point on Friday, Ron Hainsey leaned into Rielly on the bench and said: “This is what I was expecting in Game 7 last year, when it was 3-3.” Instead, that game went berserk.
“More structure, tighter,” noted Rielly of Game 5. “It’s good we proved that we can play that way, because we expect to be in more of those games.’’
Fact is, Babcock has hardly put a foot wrong. He mined gold in Game 3, sticking Andreas Johnsson on the power play in lieu of the suspended Nazem Kadri. He summoned an injection of energy from a reconstituted fourth unit. When Auston Matthews was held pointless through two games, Babcock counselled patience rather than question his will.
Just a couple of weeks ago, professional obituaries were being teed up for Babcock, that his job could be on the line should the Leafs crap out against the Bruins, eight-year contract notwithstanding.
It could all still go pear-shaped, of course, but as of this moment there’s zero pretext for flirting with the idea of a Babcock banishment. He’s clearly set the tone for a team that feels good about itself, confident and seasoned.