TORONTO – It’s during a time like this where Mike Babcock really earns his money.
Unfortunately for him, that might mean spending a little bit of it.
There had to be some alarm bells raised inside the NHL office when the Toronto Maple Leafs coach took a pointed shot at referees Francis Charron and Wes McCauley following Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
He didn’t like a questionable interference call on Leo Komarov that produced the winning goal, and it was hard to blame him. He also didn’t like that Minnesota received four power plays while the Leafs didn’t get one.
Can’t fault him there, either.
But historically the league hasn’t taken too kindly to having its officials bashed in post-game interviews.
“I thought we got ripped off big time tonight,” said Babcock. “Two teams played real hard, there wasn’t much to take between the two. I took a penalty, we shot one over the glass, we took two others and they couldn’t find one [against Minnesota]. I don’t get it. It makes no sense to me.
“The other thing I know is that the people didn’t pay to watch them play, they paid to watch the players. Don’t get involved in the game.”
Asked directly about the call on Komarov, where the Leafs winger simply appeared to have body position on Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle, Babcock replied: “It’s a joke.”
With 19 games to play and the Leafs icing the youngest roster in the league this is where we are. The coach is teaching, and prodding, and occasionally protecting.
His most important task is making sure that a level of complacency doesn’t seep in, what with Toronto in the midst of a 21-win season and dressing six players with fewer than 10 games of NHL experience on their resumes.
This is the area where Babcock truly thrives.
He is driven and demanding, often sounding like a life coach as much as a hockey coach. William Nylander pointed out that Babcock doesn’t “sugarcoat” anything – and with a group so young he’s been left with plenty to critique.
The veteran coach is very clear about how tough it is for young players to thrive in the NHL.
“When you have a wife and kids you understand what responsibility is and so you want your job and you understand how you compete for your job,” said Babcock. “When you're a kid you always think you're always going to get the puck back. Once you get older you know it's too hard to get it back so you just hang on to it all the time and so there's lots to learn obviously.”
What’s been interesting about the Leafs’ youth movement is how well the team has played in one-goal losses to Tampa Bay, Washington and now Minnesota. On Thursday they employed an all-Marlies line of Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman, and used feisty winger Nikita Soshnikov on the second line, and Brendan Leipsic on the first.
Just for good measure, 22-year-old goalie Garret Sparks made his seventh NHL appearance.
And yet despite that fact Toronto found itself on the positive side of the ledger in the possession game and tied 1-1 with 10 minutes to play against a Wild team fighting to stay above the playoff line.
“I liked the way we played,” said Babcock. “I thought we did a lot of good things.”
That helps explain why he was so frustrated to see it go for naught when Mikael Granlund scored the winner while Komarov sat in the penalty box. Babcock knows that his young players need to experience some success – some positive reinforcement – to go with the excitement of their first few days as NHL players.
He has often opined that Toronto needs to become a safe place to play, and that’s especially true with a lineup like this one.
Even though Babcock hasn’t been shy about pointing out deficiencies since the kids were called up earlier this week, he appears to be succeeding on that front.
“It’s been a good experience so far,” said Kapanen. “You never really want to lose and it’s something that we’re not used to down with the Marlies, but I’m really excited and really happy to be up here playing with these guys.”
“This isn’t the year that we’re going for it,” added Sparks, who finished with 20 saves against Minnesota. “We’re building for something. You can see with all of the pieces that we have here now what exactly the future holds.”
We are getting the occasional glimpse, for sure.
Babcock acknowledges that there is promise to be found among the mistakes. For him there is a flicker of excitement amid the frustration. When he looks at his lineup he can imagine a day where it forms a good chunk of a strong offensive team.
“I just mean as time goes ahead,” said Babcock. “I don’t know if we’re going to be more dangerous this year or not, but I think over time [we will be]. We’re way quicker already, but you’ve got to go fast to the right places, too.
“So that’s just a matter of time.”
And of patience, especially for the man behind the bench.