The Toronto Maple Leafs cleaned out their lockers once more Thursday morning — or at least stood in front of their stalls again to reflect on another season. You never really know how much cleaning is being done.
Two springs ago they spoke there after over-shooting expectations and last year they mused over having just about met them, while this season the Leafs were digesting the abject failure of losing in the first round for a third season in a row and missing out on an opportunity presented with their championship window wide open.
It’s for that latter reason that many were bracing for some strong words, harsh criticisms and serious finger pointing as all the key members of the organization addressed their performances and the disappointment of having to wait another 12 months to try again.
Those hoping to watch the world burn, though, have been made to wait.
If there was a general theme that weaved through the discourse between the players, coach and management, it was support for one another, an appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices (Zach Hyman, geez), and a continued belief in the vision and direction the franchise began to chart out once Brendan Shanahan first came aboard.
Dubas says his conviction in his vision for a skill, speed, talent-first team hasn’t been shaken.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) April 25, 2019
This was especially true when probing the most scrutinized relationship within the Maple Leafs structure.
Head coach Mike Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas projected unity with their comments, and suggested that the apparent divide either existing or forming between the two is a media-made construct.
“It’s real good. It’s really good,” Babcock said, asserting that he and Dubas know what their relationship is, and how that differs from how it’s portrayed.
“Mike and I talk every day — sometimes longer than each of us wish I would imagine,” Dubas laughed.
It seemed telling, though, when comparing the fronts put forth by both the coach and general manager.
Babcock wasn’t willing to outright accept any responsibility for the team’s shortcomings, while Dubas shouldered far too much of it.
When asked about what he could do from an individual standpoint to influence a better result, Babcock responded, “there’s always things,” before immediately pointing out other teams’ similar realities and then lumping in the entire operation to complete his long-winded answer.
“We knew who were playing, and we really prepared. We started the series, they adjusted, we adjusted back, they adjusted, we adjusted back,” he said. “When I look back at the series, Game 2 and Game 6 for us were our weakest games. Game 6 we started so well, and then we froze there for about 30 minutes. You can look at Game 7 all you want, but that one there, to me, was the slipped opportunity.
“I thought we played really well in Game 7. I thought we played pretty good until the score was 3-1, to be honest with you. The puck went in our net and didn’t go in their net. But we were organized as a group.”
Conversely, Dubas placed the onus on himself with every opportunity he had. From William Nylander’s struggles to losing the special teams battle in a series they controlled at 5-on-5, in addition to something as specific as the Leafs’ inability to find traction down one in the third period in Game 7, Dubas demanded that he be held accountable.
But who was he kidding?
Though not perfect in his first season, Dubas constructed a roster that was indisputably talented enough to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and at the very least improve on last season’s point total. And Babcock would certainly agree with that statement, given that he called the additions of John Tavares and Jake Muzzin moves that made the Leafs “a real hockey club.”
Yet the progress stalled.
Fans shouldn’t be too hung up on the irritating but also understandable tendencies Babcock showed throughout the regular season. There’s reason to not run Auston Matthews into the ground or to saddle Tavares with duties on the penalty kill, and you have to believe that, over time, the Leafs would see the certain advantages swing in their favour based on the talent and structure the coaching staff had drilled into their games.
But they can be angry over the stubbornness and inflexible attitude Babcock displayed in the playoffs, where there wasn’t enough time to remain rigid and hope the victories balance in their favour.
What was he saving Matthews for when the Leafs were chasing a Game 7? Why was the second power play pouring over the boards at the first loss of possession for the top unit? Why did the fourth line follow them out? Weren’t they being saved for the next shift?
Dubas is as process-driven as any voice in the Leafs’ organization — and he didn’t need to retweet Daryl Morey to prove that fact. But surely he saw the need for more in-game alteration with the season on the line than to simply have Matthews and Mitch Marner flip flanks on the power play.
Even if he wouldn’t admit it.
“When you’re evaluating a micro event, you start to get in trouble when running a franchise,” Dubas said, when asked if he was satisfied with the coaching in Game 7. “I know everyone would like me to give a condemnation or massive vote of support for one single game, but when you have an 89-game season and a year’s long track record, I think it is best to make the decisions as an organization to focus on that.
“I thought our coaching staff did a good job this year, and with our group in Game 7 of the series. I thought we started fine, we allowed the goals but played really well into the middle of the game and in the third period we couldn’t gain any traction.
“That falls on everybody, starting with me.”
Dubas wouldn’t say with certainty that Babcock would indeed return for his fifth season on his eight-year contract that pays him at the very height of his profession, but was done a favour when the question was posed with Nazem Kadri’s name lumped in with the coach’s.
There will be an evaluation process, said Dubas, which he expects to start with him and his own performance when he sits down with Shanahan over the coming days and weeks.
And those conversations will continue as the hockey operations team endeavours to address their shortcomings after their most disappointing postseason exit to date.
“There’s not anybody staunch in their stance that everything we’re doing is great, and we can’t change it,” Dubas said.
“We know we have to improve.”
While it felt like Dubas was trying to throw some off the scent with many of his comments Thursday morning, this one stuck out.
We know he’s open to improvement, to new ideas, to forward-thinking, to optimization.
But what about Babcock?
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