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Miscellaneous Leaf Thoughts: Babcock, Marner on the PK, and the Grievous Sin of Cheering

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Also Jake Gardiner and Freddie for Vezina.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time once again, to think things, about stuff.

1. Oh hey look, it’s Boston again. We’re going to play Boston in the first round, barring a terrible calamity for us or a hilarious calamity for them. The Bruins have gone on a preposterous run lately, which has made what is still mathematically a close contest for home ice advantage seem like an inevitability.

I don’t like this because a) Boston has given us hell the last couple of times, and b) it’s just boring playing the same team over and over. Given my preference I’d rather we get to spend the first round dunking on the Senators or something. Still, the reality is if we’re going to be a contender we’re going to have to beat good teams. It’d be nice if it were in Round 3. But whatever. Go out there and fuckin’ win it.

2. Babcock! People have turned on Coach Mike Babcock, according to the circle of life, where all coaches eventually wear out their welcome. Criticizing Babcock is fair and fine, he can make mistakes sure as anyone else. But the attitude that he’s an irredeemable caveman who needs to be fired immediately and replaced by [imagined flawless coach of your choice] seems a little one-sided to me. So let’s do a lightning round of common Babcock criticisms.

  • He plays Ron Hainsey too much! Yeah, he probably does. I think this is the most valid criticism of Babcock, and I think it comes down to the fact that while Hainsey tends to tread water or worse in shots, the team has been outscoring the opposition when he’s on. As a result, Ron Hainsey is your league leader in the forbidden stat of +/-. Goals for are not a very predictive measure of a player, and yet given that Babcock will nonetheless eventually get fired if the goals go against him, I can understand him leaning on a pair that has done well in that regard. This is all the more true when his favourite defenceman Jake Gardiner (seriously, look at his usage, it’s true) and up-and-comer Travis Dermott are injured. Still: when healthy, let’s scale Ron back.
  • The ice time for Auston Matthews! This is silly. People scream about Matthews not getting enough ice in this game or that game, when one-game samples can go all over the place. In the eight games since Nazem Kadri was injured, Matthews is second on the team in 5v5 ice time for forwards. He is three minutes behind John Tavares in aggregate over the whole eight games, which is honestly less than it might be considering Tavares is currently the best player on the team.
  • The linemates for Auston Matthews! Auston Matthews probably needs a playmaker and transition specialist on his wing. We have one such in William Nylander. Unfortunately, at present, William Nylander is otherwise employed as our 3C because Nazem Kadri is out. I kind of get why Nylander was being played with Kadri before—Babcock tried a lot of things to get Bill Ny going, and playing Kadri seemed to be what worked—but when we get down to brass tacks, Matthews and Nylander are made for each other. So I’m willing to be patient for now, but by playoff time the two of them should be reunited.
  • The fourth line! Maybe I’m grading on a curve here, or I’m just jaded by the awful fourth lines of the past, but playing Ennis and Moore as fourth-line wingers feels like a pretty progressive move to me by itself. I also haven’t hated Frederik Gauthier as 4C this year, warts and all. I guess you could class this as going in the range where I give Babcock benefit of the doubt that his usage concerns are worth playing the Goat. If you don’t, suit yourself.
  • The breakouts! Sometimes these are awful, and all the more so when Gardiner and Dermott are missing. The Leafs have been outperforming their (usually still decent) numbers to some extent this year, and I think the ultimate verdict on those stretch passes and the rest is basically whether they can keep that up. If Boston stuffs them into our face Round 1, well, yeah, that’s gonna be a thing. Which leads to the real point.
  • We’re good but I don’t feel good! I know this feeling well. I think most of the angst boils down to the fact this is the best Leafs team since at least 2002, and we got Tavares, and we added our Top Four defender, and yet we’re lining up for the same spot as last year. The team is better than last year—last year’s record was inflated by shootouts and one-goal wins generally—but look, we have higher hopes now and it’s going to suck if we get KO’d by the Bruins. There’s not really a whole lot to be said about that. If Babcock avoids that fate, he’ll be lauded, if he doesn’t, he’s probably going into the fifth season of his contract with his job on the line. It’s a little unfair for one series to determine this, but that’s the business for everyone in the league.

3. “But I still want him fired.” Okay, suit yourself. He’s not perfect. I’d just note if you replace him, with Sheldon Keefe or Joel Quenneville or whoever else, they are going to do things that will piss you off. So with any coach, the flaws have to be kept in perspective, cause they’re all gonna have them.

4. Cheering! Is there anything weirder than that a bunch of other fanbases tried to own us for cheering for one of our star players?

“Leaf fans are a bunch of stiff suits lol. Arena is like a library”

[Leaf fans cheer hometown star]

NOT LIKE THAT! THAT’S THE WRONG THING! STOP IT!”

All right, cool, whatever.

5. Freddie for Vezina. I think Frederik Andersen may actually win the Vezina Trophy this year. At least, if he keeps up his play through the last fifteen games, he’s going to be in the running. Here’s a look from the good folks at Moneypuck:

The Vezina is voted on by NHL GMs, so I don’t know that too many of them are using GSAA or whatever, but Freddie has put up sterling results behind a team whose defence is widely considered poor. You can make a pretty strong case for Andrei Vasilevskiy, but I think the Tampa Bay aura of dominance may make him seem less special than he is. After him, Freddie’s started a lot and done as well as anybody.

6. The Hobbit Line. I moderately enjoyed the line of Tyler Ennis - Nic Petan - Trevor Moore, and as always I thought Tyler Ennis was doing his best to create offence. That said, Nic Petan doesn’t have much of a track record at centre and I haven’t seen anything dazzling from him yet. I would be fine if Babcock went back to this line but I’m also not grieved if he doesn’t.

7. Marner 4v5. I have been fully won over by the Marner On The PK people. Marner on the penalty kill is a joy. He’s extremely dangerous shorthanded and he has the agility to be effective defensively. We’ve talked a lot about Marner’s development this year; to be honest, some of the big jump in his counting stats is playing with John Goddamn Tavares as well as an elevated on-ice shooting percentage. But his growth as an all-around player, not just an offensive one, has been really great to see. He’s going to get a ton of money this offseason, so it’s nice he’s doing us the courtesy of being worth it.

8. We’re going to miss Jake Gardiner when he goes. I think the salary cap has sealed the deal on this one, and Jake Muzzin is here to try and replace Gards for next season. I also worry a bit about JG’s next contract, given he’s currently trying to rehab from two injuries at once. So maybe this was a non-starter anyway.

That said: man, this defence is not the same without him. Yes, Jakey sometimes decides to wrap the puck up with a bow and give it to the other team as a birthday present. All the same, he moves the puck the right way on net and was doing so more and more as this year went on. Jake Gardiner plus Guy has generally been our recipe for a second pairing since he came to Toronto, and it’s generally worked regardless of who Guy was. Hell, he turned Connor Carrick into like a 60% CF player for a while. And as much as the eye test sometimes winces at his play, sometimes he’ll do something brilliant and remind you why you love him, or why you shouldn’t hate him.

Hopefully he’s back at near-100% for the playoffs and we can get one great run for him. He’s imperfect, but he’s a good player and one of my favourites. We’ll miss you, Jakey.

Poll

How close are you to thinking Mike Babcock should be fired?

This poll is closed.

  • 70%
    It’s stupid to even ask this
    (1018 votes)
  • 10%
    Sometimes I fantasize about other, sexy coaches
    (155 votes)
  • 17%
    If he doesn’t beat Boston he should be gone
    (248 votes)
  • 2%
    Fire him now before he kills again
    (32 votes)
1453 votes total Vote Now