By Andy Eide
What was a tranquil and pleasant Wednesday in the hockey world had a tub of kerosene thrown on it and sparked into a raging inferno by the afternoon.
The Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they had relieved head coach Mike Babcock of his duties. Toronto is in the midst of a five-game losing streak and the rumblings over the past few weeks hinted that this move might be coming.
Success is often related to expectations and the bar in Toronto coming into the season was high, perhaps impossibly so. Babcock was hired in 2015 and signed to an eight-year contract that he was four years into.
He took the Maple Leafs from perennial jokes to back-to-back 100-point seasons but was not able to steer them out of the first round of the playoffs. This despite a roster that is stacked with stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jonathan Taveres, and Morgan Rielly.
With the bulk of the NHL’s media headquartered in Toronto the dissection of Babcock’s reign with the Maple Leafs is in full force, as is the speculation as to how his replacement Sheldon Keefe will fare. Keefe is an interesting replacement, stepping up from the Maple Leaf’s AHL affiliate. He’ll have his hands full to be sure.
And now it’s time for Weekly One-Timers:
WOT 1 – When the Babcock news hit Tuesday it wasn’t long before media and fans here in Seattle started to speculate about him being the first coach of NHL Seattle. It’s easy to understand why he might seem attractive to take the helm in the fall of 2021. He’s won over 700 NHL games, taken three teams to the Stanley Cup, won one of those Cups, and has local ties thanks to his time coaching the Spokane Chiefs. Babcock is still owed a chunk of change on his eight-year contract and will be in a position where he can be picky. Will he want to wait out a full season and a half before coaching again? There are certainly teams, with veteran rosters built to win, who might jump on him before Seattle General Manager Ron Francis is ready to talk coaches.
WOT 2 – If Babcock does wait before stepping behind a bench again, is he a good fit for Seattle? He’s certainly a big name but his style may not work for an expansion team. NHL Seattle should steer clear. One of the issues in Toronto, as detailed in a worthy read from The Athletic’s James Mirtle, was that Babcock didn’t adjust his style to the roster that General Manager Kyle Dubas had put together for him. Dubas is an analytics heavy manager and his team is built for the modern game. Babcock is old school, with a preference to ‘grind it out’. There were questions – and complaints – about how he deployed his lines, handled the goalies, and a lot of talk about players being unhappy.
Dubas: "We're going to go through some changes, stylistically and with our systems, and it may not look great at times may not feel great at times, but in the long run it's to get the group to play the way that it's absolutely designed to play."
— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) November 21, 2019
WOT 3 – In Seattle, the yet-to-have-a-names appear to be embracing analytics and that might not mesh with Babcock’s style. Seattle will be pulling together a roster out of the expansion draft and entry draft. It will be made of players from other organizations, new to each other, young, and that will have to find cohesion quickly. Based on the reports coming out of Toronto from Mirtle, and others, Babcock is not the best choice to get a team to rally behind him.
WOT 4 – In other, non-Maple Leafs news, it turns out that the Arizona Coyotes are kind of good. After their 3-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Kings this week, the Coyotes find themselves three points off the Pacific Division top spot, with a game in hand. They aren’t lighting it up scoring wise, shooting just over 7-percent as a team, but have managed a plus-15 goal differential which is tied with Colorado as the best in the Western Conference. They’re only allowing 2.23 goals-per-game and are leaning on the goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Antii Raanta who have been excellent. The two have combined for the league’s top five-on-five save-percentage of .941.
WOT 5 – Arizona’s big off-season acquisition was getting Phil Kessel in a trade with Pittsburgh. The veteran sniper should help the Coyotes but he’s yet to find his groove. At five-on-five this year he has managed one goal and five assists. The good news for Kessel and Arizona is that he’s only shooting 2.2-percent which is woefully low compared to his career numbers and the 10-percent he managed with the Penguins last year. Arizona is winning now and as Kessel heats up, they may just become more dangerous.
WOT 6 – Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turned in a beauty of save this week against the Maple Leafs – who it seems we’re not done talking about. Former Portland Winterhawk Nic Petan thought he had a sure goal until the veteran Fleury dove back towards the net to glove the puck.
WOT 7 – It hasn’t been a great year for the New York Rangers but goalie Henrik Lundqvist reached a career milestone this week. Lundqvist beat the Washington Capitals to earn career win 454 which ties him with Curtis Joseph on the all-time win list. Lundvist sits in fifth on that list, a list that is led by Martin Brodeur (691). Next up for Lundvist is Ed Belfor, who is 30 wins ahead of the Rangers netminder.
WOT 8 – Since November 1st, one NHL player has scored 10 times, the most in the league. It must be Connor McDavid? Or his teammate Leon Draisaitl? No, it’s Ottawa Senators center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The 27-year-old is three goals away from tying a franchise record for most goals in a month and his 13 goals overall is just six scores away from his career best of 19 that he recorded in the 2015-2016 season.