It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs story that just won’t go away, no matter how often Mike Babcock insists the supposed rift that formed between him and star centre Auston Matthews is more molehill than mountain.
“Way too much has been made out of this, I can tell you right now,” Babcock told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger.
The star player-coach relationship has been in the spotlight since Toronto’s season ended in Game 7 against Boston with Matthews struggling to produce on offence in the series. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos alluded that he thought Babcock had “lost” Matthews, but wrote that should be nothing surprising nor controversial. It’s not unusual for a star player to briefly lose their trust in or become frustrated with a coach.
Babcock agreed and suggested that in the end these challenges will help Matthews become a better player.
“Over [Auston’s] career, over the time when I’m coaching him, there are going to be lots of times he’s not happy,” said Babcock. “That’s life.”
“When he wants to be pushed, he wants to be the best player he can be. That’s what I’m going to do, for sure. We’re always going to continue to have dialogue. … Does that mean things are going to be rosy every day? No.”
According to Sportsnet hockey insider Elliotte Friedman, Babcock flew down to Arizona a couple weeks ago to “air things out and fix things between them.”
Babcock told NHL.com that he met with Matthews and goaltender Frederik Andersen in their homes and had one-on-ones with forward Kasperi Kapanen and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev as well. The coach described his meetings with each of them as “outstanding.”
“They want to get better, I want them to get better. We’re all in it together.”
There’s been no shortage of drama surrounding the Leafs in the aftermath of their second-straight first-round playoff exit, including Lou Lamoriello leaving his post as general manager and the subsequent promotion of Kyle Dubas to GM. Now the futures of both Lamoriello and director of player personnel Mark Hunter are in question.
At the same time, the team is faced with pressing off-season questions. They have a need to upgrade the defence core and decide what to do with three big pending UFAs James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. RFA William Nylander is also in need of a new contract.
Matthews is at the centre of it all, as he and Mitch Marner both can sign new contracts as soon as July 1, one year ahead of their own restricted free agency. Matthews missed 20 games this season, but still finished second on the Leafs in scoring with 34 goals and 63 points. But he struggled in the playoffs, posting just one goal and one assist. In Game 7 against the Bruins, Matthews played just 4:05 in the second period.
Is it a crack in the relationship between coach and player, or is it a learning experience both will move on from? Babcock isn’t concerned this will become an issue.
“Right now, that doesn’t matter. What matters is, we continue to get better.”