TORONTO – There were a lot of different avenues Mike Babcock could have taken this.
His Toronto Maple Leafs had just squandered a six-game winning streak against Arizona, the NHL’s worst team through the opening quarter of the season.
They had been undisciplined and lost the special teams battle. They had seen a potential tying goal overturned on a mildly controversial goaltender interference review.
Babcock had easy options when it came time to shining the coach’s light on a talking point afterwards, and instead took the road less travelled: “A lot of the guys that are driving us like the young skill guys, not today. They weren’t here today.”
It felt like a calculated message from a man trying to push his group from good to great. There are very few unintentional asides delivered from his lectern.
In the big picture, this 4-1 loss to the Coyotes isn’t likely to matter much. But it’s the kind of game a team with ambitions believes it should win, and here we had Babcock placing blame at the feet of the organization’s most prized assets.
Consider it the next stage in transition as Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander seize more control of the team. There’s a built-in expectation from behind the bench that they’ll find a way to push through on the inevitable nights during an 82-game season where the group isn’t at its best.
“It was the only game we were playing today,” said Babcock. “Get ready for the game you’re playing today. That’s what a good pro does, that’s what you do each and every day.”
The coach is smart enough to realize what tomorrow’s story will be now.
He’s granted everyone license to scrutinize his young stars a little more closely.
It will be lessened, somewhat, by the fact Matthews issued a mea culpa for his performance against his hometown team. The 20-year-old centre is clearly playing at something less than 100 per cent after missing four games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and was unusually quiet before beating Antti Raanta twice in the dying minutes on Monday – seeing one shot hit the left post and his potential tying goal brought back because linemate Zach Hyman had caught the Coyotes goalie with his stick.
“I didn’t play very well tonight,” said Matthews. “I don’t really like a lot of plays I made. Just turned the puck over. I think it’s just kind of me getting back to the level I was playing at before I was injured. It’s obviously frustrating, but it’s what you’re working towards – just each and every day, each and every game, you want to try to get back to that point.
“Definitely tonight I wasn’t very good myself.”
In Babcock’s third season in Toronto, we have seen him push more buttons than the previous two.
He’s been much quicker to shuffle his lines over these opening 22 games – again putting Marner beside Matthews while looking for offence with time ticking down against the Coyotes. That’s a duo he’s resisted forming on a regular basis since they entered the league together last fall because he believes in creating balance across his forward units.
“The beauty of this is when you get to coach the team, you’ll get to do what you want,” Babcock said Monday morning when asked about breaking up Matthews and Marner after they had clicked in Saturday’s win at Montreal. “When I coach the team, I do what I want. This is what I think – I like to win every night. That’s what I try to do.
“So, I try to put the right people together for that.”
Above all, he is trying to push this group to a championship level. He said as much after abruptly ending practice last month and ordering his players off the ice following a disappointing loss to Carolina.
He came to the rink on this night concerned that the Coyotes offered a trap game – “we weren’t prepared and so we got what we deserved,” said Babcock – and now he is looking for his young stars to respond.
“You have to,” said Matthews. “We’re going down and playing a team in Florida [on Wednesday], a team in Carolina [on Friday], they all play pretty similar. They don’t give you any space, it’s a tight game and you’ve got to outwork them.”