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Mailbag: Mike (Babcock) and Molly (The Drug)

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All that and more in this edition of the mailbag.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Honest to God: we don’t know.

For the first few episodes we used “Like Bullets” by Snowden, but that one’s actually copyrighted, so we stopped. As per my colleague Arvind, he Googled “royalty-free rock” and he found this somewhere, and we’ve used it ever since. He doesn’t remember where it came from. Thank you to whatever entity produced this song.

What a lovely question. I’d rather miss the playoffs. The hope dies faster that way.

Can a desert be “teeming” with wildlife? I know plenty of things can live in the desert but deserts are by definition inhospitable. I wouldn’t think the animal population would get to the point of teeming. Plus, those are prepared foods we’re discussing; if they’re fresh and still recognizable as such, that means there are people on the island. Presumably if people live on the island and have refined culinary processes at their disposal they have settled there semi-permanently, and that makes it more likely that there is some kind of beneficial resource there.

This is a dessert island. Defence rests, your honour.

Apparently there have been a lot of players who wore #16 for the Leafs, and yet weirdly, plenty of them only wore it for a year or two before switching to something else. Tim Horton was #16 in 1952-53, but he was #7 for the vast majority of his career as a star defenceman/doughnut chain. Similarly, Gary Leeman and Russ Courtnall had some great Leaf moments, but they were wearing something else for most of those. Other guys (mostly Rod Seiling) had their best moments for other teams, while wearing #16.

Also, half the names on the list are guys who played one season in the Ballard years named like Biff Blamp or something. I don’t know who they are and I’m not going to pretend I do. I respect my readers too much for that.

With that out of the way:

  1. Mitch Marner
  2. Eddie Olczyk
  3. Darcy Tucker
  4. Clarke MacArthur
  5. Nikolai Borschevsky

Mitch is already the leader at this spot, I think definitively. The battle for second is a little more arguable, though. Olczyk was extremely productive with Toronto, putting up 112 goals and 253 points in his three full seasons here, but he also did this prior to the invention of goaltending and the Leafs were too mediocre to do anything in the playoffs during his time on the team. That isn’t his fault, but for a nebulous idea like “greatest” it impacts it a bit. Still, I’m giving Ed the edge here based on undeniable production.

Darcy Tucker, despite what Tom might tell you, was a legitimately good all-around winger in his day; he produced enough to be a legit Top Six winger in the Dead Puck era and he was, if you’ll allow me my eye test, a tenacious, high-energy player. I loved him as a kid. He also threw some of the dirtiest hits I’ve ever seen. Take that as you will.

I’ll always have a soft spot for the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line, which was a bright spot in dark times for this team. Nikolai Borschevsky is here entirely due to this interview.

Grouping these two together:

I would say the chances Babcock is fired mid-season are the same as the chances the Leafs totally take themselves out of playoff contention by about February, which I’ll guess is a 10% shot at most. After this season, they are about the same as the chances the Leafs fail to win a playoff round, which I’m going to unscientifically put right around 55%.

It’s probably not quite this neat in practice—if the Leafs have a spectacular regular season and their playoff loss looks like a fluke, or if there’s some incontrovertible excuse for their failure (knock on wood, because this basically means Freddie Andersen got hurt), Babcock might survive. But I think basically he has this year to show he can get some playoff success and he’ll live or die on that.

The playoff losses are a huge driving factor in all of this. If the Leafs lose in the second round last year instead of the first the whole conversation is different. That’s not to say all the criticism of Babcock is unfounded by any means, or that there aren’t issues to address, but he has no slack from a segment of the fanbase because of the playoff frustration. Really, not much that could happen this regular season was going to make Leaf fans genuinely happy; there was only the possibility for things to make us sad or for us to be waiting for the real action to start.

Everyone on Leafs Twitter absolutely needs to get laid.

I almost never have soups. This is going to be an immense struggle for me. But I am dedicated.

  1. Chicken noodle soup
  2. Soup I had at a wedding one time
  3. Tomato soup
  4. Soup I had in Quebec one time, I think the name was French but it may just be that I was in a French province
  5. Getting hit by a car
  6. Soup I had at another wedding (bad)

It seems fairly evident to me that the Leaf players described by these soups are:

  1. Zach Hyman
  2. Mitch Marner
  3. Ilya Mikheyev
  4. Frederik Gauthier
  5. Vesa Toskala
  6. Cody Ceci

I believe these answers speak for themselves.

Thank you for this good excuse to rant about something that has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. People like point shots because they’re often big, booming slapshots that make a loud noise and look cool when they go in, and they used to be a bigger part of the game. But point shots are, obviously enough, generally worse shots because the’re farther from the net. They come from defencemen almost all the time, and...

Defencemen who shoot a lot are always overrated. Their offence is usually cannibalized from other players, which is how you end up with defenders putting up a lot of goals on powerplays that are lousy in general (e.g. Shea Weber in Montreal). Even at even strength, virtually every scoring forward finishes on their shots at a higher rate than even the best offensive defencemen. I don’t think people necessarily get how extreme this is.

Here’s an illustration: of all the defencemen to put up at least 20 goals total over the last five seasons, Shea Weber is the best by a wide margin at finishing on his shots (he shot 9.3%; no one else shot better than 8.5%). Expected goals bear this out; Shea Weber consistently shot notably better than we’d expect from his shot location.

The problem is, being a defenceman, his shot locations are worse and he isn’t expected to get many goals, especially at 5v5. Because they’re closer to the point. That 9.3% shooting percentage means that his SOG went in at the same rate as the 296th-best forward in the same span (Dale Weise).The very best shooting defenceman finishes at a rate akin to a tenth forward, just because he’s normally away from the net.

Now, that’s not totally fair. Point shots are sometimes intended to generate rebounds or tips. And even if you don’t rely on them too much, having the threat can be useful because it makes the defending players try to cover or block it; Arvind likes to compare point shots to long two-point shots in basketball for this, in that just having the threat of one makes it easier to take other, better shots freely. But the modern NHL has developed to the point where goalies are really, really hard to beat when you give them time to react to the shot. I’m damn near at the point where I would actively avoid defencemen who score a lot of goals because, even when they’re very good, they’re going to be overvalued in free agency or trade.

I don’t think Babcock trusts Tyson Barrie to play tough competition. He trusts Rielly to do it only when he has a more conventional defensive partner. He doesn’t like having Muzzin play on his off side, nor apparently Rielly. He doesn’t have enough confidence in Justin Holl or Travis Dermott to do the job yet...and by process of elimination, that leaves you with Rielly-Ceci. To be clear, I think this is a problem, and maybe the best criticism of Mike Babcock.

There are some problems with the power play but I think Rielly is the best choice for the PP1 job. Katya laid out why in a piece here.

Their team save percentage is 24th in the NHL at 5v5. People don’t like this because it sounds like an excuse, but I’m sorry, it really does matter. The Leafs need Freddie Andersen to be an above-average starting goalie and he usually is. This year he hasn’t been yet. Further to that, Michael Hutchinson has really struggled, and the team has gotten a total of one point from the four games he’s started. If we’re talking about why the record is what it is, from a descriptive point, that’s a big part of it. A few extra points and we’re jockeying with the Bruins for first in the Atlantic instead of the Sabres for second; while I have some concerns about Hutch, I still think that save percentage will trend upward soon.

“Okay, but Fulemin, the team doesn’t look like a contender.” I hear you. Three things about that:

  1. I think the team missing Tavares for a stretch is underdiscussed in all this—he’s still, in my humble opinion, our best player, even if his start to the year wasn’t as dominant as we’re used to. The Leafs were the best CF team in the league at the time he went down.
  2. The team has changed its system. No one seems to discuss this because the burning desire for most of the fanbase is for Babcock to be thrown off the boat, but the stretch passes of last year are way down, to my eye, and the Leafs have moved to a more conventional, shorter breakout that is more about carrying and less about long-bombing through the neutral zone. (I’d guess new assistant coach Dave Hakstol has something to do with this.) You would expect this move away from high-risk, high-reward to lead to the team being relatively better at shots but somewhat worse in expected goals, and that seems to be what’s happening, although xG for this year is still messy. Whether this is a wise change, I don’t know, but I’ll allow some time for it to play out.
  3. Okay, but shouldn’t they still be better than this?

This is the real question. Yes, I think they should. If the Leafs had a coach I had no feelings about one way or the other, though, I would be saying “wait and see.” That is still about what I’m saying. If the team is scuffling for another couple of months, that is more concerning and indicates something deeper. The team ought to be rounding more into form now as injuries clear up, Freddie shakes off the rust, and the system becomes more ingrained. I think the above are legitimate reasons for patience but they are not indefinite excuses.

I’m reading this as incorporating all the players on the team, not just the ones who are likely to be waived (I’m guessing Martin Marincin, Nick Shore and Nic Petan are gonzo.) Who does Zach Hyman stay over, if push comes to shove?

Anyone on the team who makes a higher cap hit than Hyman is more valuable than he is, except Cody Ceci. I would absolutely cut Cody Ceci to keep Zach Hyman, but then, that isn’t saying so much. You also definitely have to keep Travis Dermott. I don’t 100% know that he’ll live up to our hopes for him but he’s too important.

Really, it gets interesting when you compare Zach Hyman to two players not unlike himself, dogged forechecking wingers: Ilya Mikheyev and Trevor Moore. I still think Hyman is more useful than Moore, but Mikheyev genuinely gives me a lot of pause, partly because they’re so alike and because Mikheyev makes less money this year. I’ll say I keep Hyman but it’s very close.

I’m guessing this might have something to do with those systemic changes I mentioned. But who knows? Anyway, escape room time:

The theme should be that the room will fill with a suffocating poison gas unless the team can work together to escape a confined space. This is obviously meant to help prepare for the Boston Bruins. Also there will be a weird escape room employee who licks your face occasionally.

I recognize this as a Harry Potter reference but I do not know what it means. Oh well: Nic Petan looks like he might be a terrific AAAA player and Trevor Moore is exactly one notch above that in a different style, so it would be hard for any number of Petans to displace him, whether through a levitating spell or otherwise. That said, it’s hard not to think that a team like Ottawa could find something to do with Nic.

Nik Lidstrom was the best defenceman of all time. I honestly am very close to saying he would, given a bit of time, figure out how to play off-hand well enough to be a quality NHL defenceman even so. But I probably have to take Justin Holl if he gets to play AHLers.

Oh boy.

F—Pat Quinn seemed like a nice guy and in his prime he was pretty good looking. Also the team succeeded under him, and really, with this category you’re looking for someone to succeed under, right?

M—Kyle Dubas. No, he’s not perfect, and I would still absolutely take him over any GM this team has ever had. I mean that.

K—Could it really be anyone but Dave Nonis?

The offseason after a year they underperform. If you were going to do it you (generalized you) should have done it last April. If you’re keeping him, give him actual run at the season.

I mean, substance abuse is bad in any event. Between the two, MDMA is lower on the harm/addictiveness scale and it makes you love everyone. For a while, anyway.

Gonna be a real buzzkill for a paragraph here: astrology is nonsense, y’all. And while I try to be live-and-let-live and acknowledge everyone is irrational in different ways, including me, I can’t help but thinking there’s something pernicious in a pseudoscientific binning exercise that basically cedes your will and personality to a star chart. Sorry!

However, I am committed to answering the questions. According to the site I Googled for this question, Virgos are hard-working, serious, thoughtful, and critical thinkers. This sounds a lot like John Tavares to me, whereas I’d expect Auston Matthews to have a sign that was flashier and more mercurial. He doesn’t though, he has the same one Tavares does because their birthdays are three days apart. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Not too much. It might have nudged a little upward; I used to have him as a superior fourth-liner, and now I think he could be a legit third-liner on a good team. Always good to have guys who can play up your lineup, needless to say.

Before this year I would have suggested a shorter breakout pass but that already seems to be being integrated with the Leafs. I’m not a Marlies expert, but we do have a couple of those on staff.

Hardev’s piece here looks at the Marlies through the first ten games, and I think you’re best-served to read that if you want to know how things are going with Keefe’s team. The crux of it is that they’re not as good as their record and they’ve been outplayed rather extensively throughout the year. You can prefer Keefe to Babcock or not, but anyone who thinks he’s going to fix every anxiety the fans have is dreaming. I know everyone will insist they don’t expect him to be a cure-all, but to be blunt, I don’t believe them. I see Babcock blamed for damn near everything short of the Kennedy assassination, including some things that are very unlikely to be his fault, and by definition those will not all go away with a new coach.

Anyway. Species suggested that it’s genuinely hard to know how Keefe would handle players on the calibre of Tavares and Marner. The Marlies have a more even ice-time distribution than the Leafs appear to, but that may well be a function of their talent distribution. We’re in the dark a bit there.

  1. Blue Edition
  2. Green Edition
  3. Classic Red Bull
  4. Yellow Edition
  5. Red Rain, the dubious knockoff that is sometimes on sale for like 98 cents
  6. Diet Red Bull
  7. Red Edition
  8. Holiday Spice Red Bull
  9. Being murdered
  10. Coconut Red Bull

It is. It’s so versatile and yet so powerful. Rare combination of strengths.

If you expect something disappointing, and then you start thinking you won’t even get the disappointing thing you expected, it’s like getting punched in the stomach twice. That is what Leafs Nation is going through at the moment.

The first thing that comes to mind is basically what happened to the Nordiques: wish for your franchise to win a championship, and have them win it immediately after being relocated somewhere else. Damn, that shit sucks.

A few other possibilities:

“I wish for the Leafs to draft a Norris-winning RHD”—it’s Sean Durzi

“I wish for Toronto to beat Boston”—it’ll end up being in a contest for City With Most White Guys Who Pretend To Be Irish (I am also the punchline to this joke)

“I wish for Mike Babcock to be fired”—hey, you know who’s unemployed right now? Randy Carlyle

Marincin gets eaten first. I don’t even think he’d get mad about it. He’d take one for the team. (Arvind, when I was discussing this question internally: “He’s the MarMartyr that died for our sins.”) Same with Gauthier.

After that it’s a question of speed vs. size. Muzzin is slow but he also seems like he would have strange naturalist skills that would enable him to stay alive. As for who’s the last Leaf standing, I’m saying Mitch Marner, for the reason Katya gave: “Too stringy to eat. Too selfish to self-sacrifice.”

Yes.

I think it’s an open question which of the two is a better player. Tkachuk has great underlying numbers, he scores goals even when you account for some shooting regression he might have coming, he has sandpaper to go with his talent, and he plays the rarer wing. Marner has electric powerplay ability, is less likely to get suspended, and is a better playmaker. But Tkachuk costs $3.9M less a year. Marner is also under contract for three additional years, but even if Tkachuk gets a fat raise on his next RFA deal, it may well be less than Marner’s current AAV. Even if it’s not, you’ve freed up a significant amount of salary during what ought to be the Leafs’ window.

(It’s worth noting that even if I thought the Flames would do this deal, which I don’t, they don’t have the cap space to complete it unless they unload additional money.)

Seldo is being a smartass. No one likes a smartass, seldo. (The answer is Harold Ballard in a leisurely Sunday walk.)

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

I think you’d have to fire Mike Babcock for some of this, and I’ve talked enough about that by now.

Re Ceci being replaced with Holl, I think Babcock would do this if Ceci were getting crushed in goals, chances, or some similar number the team has. He isn’t. (Little aside—the Leafs absolutely do track this stuff and Babcock has referenced it publicly, and virtually every coach has been trying to do something with scoring chances since Roger Nielson started tracking his version of them in the late 1970s. Don’t come at me saying Babcock only uses his Saskatchewan eye test.)

Despite my opinion of his overall play, Ceci is above water in pretty much everything: 51.46% CF, 56.93% goals, 52.26% expected goals, 52.26% scoring chances. As much as we justly complained about him, Ron Hainsey was also well above water in goals and chances last year and I suspect this is why he stayed on Rielly’s pairing. Justin Holl took a year and a half just to get to the point where Babcock wanted to play him at 3RD; he’s not going to displace a more conventional defensive defenceman unless said defenceman is doing really poorly.

Whether Babcock is fired or not, I would be very surprised if any NHL coach took Marner off PP1, unless that unit shoots 0% for like a month.

Uh, this is a modern stats blog, we don’t do pluses and minuses.

  1. Gary Roberts
  2. William Nylander
  3. Nikolai Kulemin
  4. Phil Kessel
  5. Sergei Berezin

Gary Roberts almost single-handedly willed us to a playoff series win over the Sens that was one of the highlights of my youth. William Nylander was the beginning of me actually feeling genuinely excited about this team again, after a stretch of constant disappointment. Nik Kulemin just worked his ass off every game and his line was so much fun. Kessel was one of the most truly electric players I’ve ever seen, warts and all. Berezin was a lesser version of the same thing. Honourable mentions go to Dmitri Yushkevich and Alex Mogilny.

If we’re combining Leaf genes I want us to aim higher than any combo involving Colton Orr, no matter how punny the name is. I respect the name though.

It’d be nice just for something different, honestly. As for paths, well, eh. If you wanna contend you got beat some good teams sometime.

What’s your odds on an apocalypse in the next 10 years? I’m thinking of buying something expensive, and that would be a great way of getting out of the payments.—Rickap

Hard to lay odds when I can’t collect on the bet, to be honest. Or if I did, the currency would have to be redeemable in the post-apocalyptic nation of Omega Toronto.

I would say the smart prediction is always against a full-on apocalypse unless the meteor is actually visible in the sky outside. Humans as a species are persistent and adaptable, and (duh) every prediction thus far of their total or near-total demise has been wrong. Now, a string of disasters that devastate the population and cause untold misery? Uh...I hate to be a downer, but I’m not sure I’d bet against that.

Pick one of each of the Star Trek races below for the following nine non-player hockey positions: Head Coach, General Manager, team President, player agent, head of the NHLPA, NHL Commissioner, intermission panel member, between the benches colour commentator, team stats analyst.

  1. Andorians: Notable for their aggression, but with a strict code of when to actually apply it. Strong auditory senses.
  2. Vulcan: Exhibit no emotions and strive for total logic in decision making.
  3. Romulan: Similar looking to Vulcans, but are highly emotional, and noted for an underlying paranoia and xenophobia.
  4. Bolians: Notable for their congeniality. They thrive in service jobs with frequent interaction with others.
  5. Human: You know what a human is, I hope.
  6. Klingon: SMASH!
  7. Ferengi: The manifestation of late-capitalism, with a strict personal code to self-enrichment above all else.
  8. Bajoran: Highly spiritual with strong faith their lives are guided by higher powers who provide them insights into possible futures, and therefore they have strong convictions in their decisions, with some limited evidence this may be true.
  9. Zakdorn: Known as the best strategists, often thinking many steps ahead of their opponents, but can be arrogant. They are usually correct about everything, but when they are wrong, they are very very wrong.—Species

The sophistication on these Star Trek questions is just out of control at this point. Species knows full well I’ve never seen Star Trek, too, but here we go:

  1. Andorian—between the benches, so they can hear random player swearing
  2. Vulcan—team stats analyst, for obvious reasons
  3. Romulan—I mean if we’re going by industry standard this absolutely has to be intermission panelist
  4. Bolian—player agent, sounds less likely to complain to the papers
  5. Human—coach, since I’m assuming our players are all still human and can thus relate
  6. Klingon—head of the NHLPA; maybe we’ll actually get rid of the hard cap this way
  7. Ferengi—NHL commissioner (this is basically what I think of all team owners anyway)
  8. Bajoran—team president, since this seems very big picture
  9. Zakdorn—general manager; we need the odd Chiarelli decision in the mix

Out of Hyman, Kappy and Johnsson, who are you ok losing to Seattle. Which of those three would you want to keep the most? What would you offer Seattle to leave alone X?—Bruceki

Painful though it is to me: Hyman makes the most sense. (He’s a UFA right when they’re doing the expansion draft anyway, but putting that aside.) Kappy is the most valuable. I won’t have to strain myself in this scenario since I’ll be able to protect two of the three; currently our forward protection list is Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Kerfoot, Kappy, Johnsson. But in some other scenario where I have to spend assets to make them pick one of the other two options, I’m not willing to spend very much at all. If it’s any more than a mid-round draft pick I tell Seattle to pick who they want and I’ll live with it.

If you were on a government watch list, what would it be for?—NotARealOne

Honestly that question earlier in this article where we discussed eating a bunch of people probably didn’t do me any favours.

Are we there yet?—Adzbass

No, and if you keep asking I’ll turn the car around.

What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked?—TomK421

I got asked to answer a question with interpretative dance once and the answer (which was only text, sorry) was the most fun I’ve ever had on one of these. It is the fourth question from the bottom in this mailbag, from KiwiLeaf. I have the soul of a dancer, I guess.

How much are you paying the athletic for them to keep putting your tweets in their articles?—rc2080

Absolutely nothing. On an unrelated note, Ian Tulloch is a very smart and handsome hockey writer.

You’re walking in a forest and you found a black suitcase. Inside it, holds 1 million dollars 1 perfect Norris-calibre RHD and a piece of paper stained in blood with a single word “Don’t”.

Would you take the suitcase home or leave it?—Exit Steve Left

Assuming the RHD isn’t dead after having been stuffed into that suitcase, I’m relaying him directly to MLSE. I’m fairly sure this organization has five or six curses outstanding on it at any given time, we might as well roll the dice and get our blood-stained championship.

For each letter of the alphabet, who are your favourite 10 Leafs ever whose names start with that letter, and why?

For bonus points, give us a descriptive anagram of each name.

Also for bonus points, embroider that anagram and share it in your response as an animated GIF.—Nirbo

Ah, you see, I was going to answer this, but unfortunately I didn’t instead, because of reasons. However, I would like to share that Nikolai Kulemin anagrams to “LOAN MILIEU KINK”, which sounds like a findom thing. Do with this information what you will.

Have you ever encountered someone who irrationally hates the Leafs or Leafs fanbase, and managed to change their mind? If so, how did that conversation go?—Nirbo

Never. In fairness, if it’s possible to change hearts and minds on this one, I’m probably the wrong ambassador for the job, my attitude is generally that everyone who hates the Leafs can eat ass. Not in the plane crash question way, to be clear.

Doughnuts or donuts?—JerseyLeaf

“Donuts” always looks like a misspelling to me. It’s like “lite.” Just write the word like an adult. You’ve got the time. The spellchecker doesn’t go off on those ones anymore, though, so I guess I’ve lost that war.

Thanks to everyone who contributed!