After coming out with two victories in a row to start the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have now dropped three consecutive games, a distinction they held just twice all of last year.
While falling to the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the defending Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay Lightning in the first month of the season isn’t the biggest cause for concern, fingers are already being pointed at what has been a disappointing opening five games.
Now in the fifth year of an eight-year deal, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is certainly feeling internal and external pressure to right the ship.
Here’s five reasons why this upcoming year is a make-or-break one for Babcock:
1. The Leafs don’t have a playoff series win under Babcock
At the crux of it, Babcock’s Leafs have repeatedly failed to perform in the postseason.
In three trips to the playoffs under Babcock, Toronto has fallen to their opponent all three times — twice against Boston, and once against Washington.
Even if the Leafs could pull the argument that they’re facing tough competition as all three of their opponents have been top-5 regular season teams, at some point, enough is enough. Assuming the Leafs can make it back to the playoffs without too much hassle, the main sticking point with Babcock’s future in Toronto is likely to see if he’s able to finally give this team its first series win since 2004.
2. He’s running into the same issues repeatedly
Last season’s series loss to Boston highlighted a recurring problem with Babcock: playing the wrong guys too much, and an unwillingness to trust his star players in a larger role.
This year, it’s been more of the same. Although it’s early, John Tavares is averaging under 19 minutes a game for the first time since his rookie season. Similarly, Auston Matthews has yet to play 20 minutes a game this season, a number he touched in just 19 of his 68 games last season. 35 centres played at least 20 minutes a night more often than Matthews last season, which seems like a misuse of one of the league’s top scoring options.
Defensively, the Leafs haven’t been able to take a leap this year yet either. Averaging 33.1 shots against last year per game for the league’s eighth-worst mark in that category, they’re currently bleeding 32 a night so far. Frederik Andersen returning to form (currently a .876 save percentage in four starts) could make up a bit of ground to keep the puck out of the Leafs’ net, but it’s been a tough start to the season nevertheless.
3. It wouldn’t really cost the Leafs too much to fire him
Although Babcock’s contract is the richest in NHL history for a head coach at $6.25 million per season, the Leafs and their ownership group in MLSE haven’t been afraid to spend money in the past. If the Leafs were to get rid of him after this season and lose out on $18.75 million, it’d be a rather small dent in the $1.5 billion dollar value of the team, with reported revenues of $232 million through 2018.
Not every market would be able to shed a contract like that, but with the luxury of one of the league’s biggest pockets, Babcock’s large salary isn’t necessarily a forerunner to job security.
4. He’s not likely to get a *much* better roster
Up front, the Leafs have one of the league’s top offensive cores. Auston Matthews and William Nylander are locked up for the next five seasons, with John Tavares and Mitch Marner signed for the next six.
On the back end, however, is where the uncertainty for the future begins.
Babcock does have three quality veterans to work with in Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, and Jake Muzzin, but the latter two of which are in their final contract years with the Leafs.
With the Leafs moving each of their first round picks in both the 2019 and 2020 drafts, free agency and the trade market are the main avenues in which general manager Kyle Dubas can help out Babcock.
And as it’s looking like Dubas’ key responsibility in the 2020 offseason will be to either retain or replace Barrie or Muzzin, the Leafs are stretched pretty thin in the immediate future in their ability to give Babcock many better pieces than he’s been given already. In short, if he can’t achieve success with this roster, it’s unlikely he’ll ever have anything much better to work with.
5. The grass could be greener on the other side.
Although cross-sport comparisons don’t always pan out, it takes just a passing glance at the Leafs’ arena co-inhabitants in the Toronto Raptors to see that there’s potential merit in moving on from a long-term coach. Dwane Casey was let go in the spring of 2018 after seven seasons (and coming off a Coach of the Year award).
Casey’s replacement in Nick Nurse came in as a relative unknown, but one shiny NBA championship later, all doubt was gone that it was the right move from the Raptors’ front office.
Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe has been repeatedly tagged as an option to take the job if Babcock does get let go, but as the NHL head coaching axe has yet to claim its first victim of the season, there’s no telling as to who might be the next possible candidate might be.