Beyond Headlines: Maple Leafs in most critical juncture of Babcock era

NHL-Maple-Leafs-Babcock-speaks-to-media

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock speaks to reporters. (Cole Burston/CP)

When the clocks sprung ahead last weekend for daylight savings time, it’s almost as if something different happened in Toronto. Around the Maple Leafs, it feels like they were turned back about four years.

To a time before Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. To a time before Mike Babcock. To a time when a crisis of confidence like the one we’ve witnessed in the past few days seemed to be lurking around every corner.

You don’t often see a top-five NHL team endure a stretch like this — in the homestretch of the regular season, no less.

Monday: Trailed 6-1 to Tampa.
Wednesday: Trailed 5-0 to Chicago.
Friday: Trailed 5-2 to Philadelphia.
Saturday: Trailed 6-2 to Ottawa.

That the Leafs rallied to beat the Flyers and were within inches of tying Chicago only underscores why this hell week shook them to the core. They’re better than this. By virtually every objective measure they’re a very good team — owning the league’s third-best goal differential, third-highest regulation and overtime win total, and having scored more often at 5-on-5 than anybody else.

But a lot has started to go wrong all at once, from significant injuries at their weakest position (defence) to leaky goaltending to stunning coverage breakdowns to seemingly every lost faceoff in the defensive zone (by the NHL’s second-best faceoff team) ending up immediately in the back of the net.

The problems, by and large, appear to reside between the ears.

Sportsnet NOW gives you access to over 500 NHL games this season, blackout-free, including Hockey Night in Canada, Rogers Hometown Hockey, Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey, the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and more.

There should be more than enough talent here to find a way around the holes left by injuries and imperfect roster construction, especially when you’re playing the NHL’s 21st-, 18th- and 31st-best teams in mid-March.

We have now entered the most critical and urgent juncture of the Babcock era. The head coach with the Hall of Fame bonafides must find a way to refocus his players, to bring his group together, to have his message heard and to keep this from turning into another 18-wheeler off the cliff with three weeks to go before the playoffs.

For Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Morgan Rielly — the players mentioned in every debate about Toronto’s next captain — this is a chance to lead the way out of the weeds. Toss Frederik Andersen into that group as well.

At a time when the backup goalie is calling for more emotion, everyone needs to start focusing their energy in the same direction.

Matthews has already elevated his play on the ice, leading the Leafs in goals (four), points (six), shots (24), even-strength shot attempts (62.7 per cent) and percentage of scoring chances (71.3 per cent) during the last four games.

There’s plenty of room for others to follow suit.

Multiple players have said in recent days that the Leafs defensive problems have been identified and thoroughly discussed in meetings, if not acted upon. With 10 games left to play before a first-round meeting with Boston, that needs to change in a hurry.

For the one key difference between today’s Leafs and those from the Ron Wilson/Randy Carlyle/Peter Horachek eras is that they’re actually good. Or they’re supposed to be, anyways.

After turning back the clock for a week, they can’t afford to keep it there.

LOOSE NETS

When the general managers gathered earlier this month, Colin Campbell posed a question to the room: How can the NHL best avoid the kind of playoff embarrassment the NFL endured during its most recent NFC Championship game, when a blatant pass interference call was missed that allowed the Los Angeles Rams to advance to the Super Bowl rather than the New Orleans Saints?

The most common answer was more video review.

Now, the scope of what can be challenged or looked at wasn’t changed after that discussion, but it will likely happen eventually. Reviews for high sticking or puck over the glass delay of game penalties could be added in the future, and you have to wonder where things are heading with nets knocked off the moorings.

That issue got major attention after two incidents in Toronto this week — one where Chicago’s Collin Delia dislodged the net while the Leafs swarmed around him in the final minute and another where Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott knocked it off while unsuccessfully stretching to stop Auston Matthews from scoring — and it probably won’t end there.

Goaltenders are now taught to aggressively use their posts, either as leverage to push off or when coming across to seal an open area along the ice. Elliotte Friedman showed a great example of Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy doing just that during “Headlines,” although his net remained on the pegs in that clip.

In the wake of the incidents at Scotiabank Arena, the league sent out a memo to maintenance crews on Saturday to make sure holes are drilled at a consistent depth and that snow isn’t allowed to build up that might keep the post from going all the way down on the mooring.

However, if a net comes off at a critical moment in the playoffs, the issue might be revisited.

AILING UFA’S

The only thing on the minds of Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner as they work their way back from injuries is getting healthy for a potential Stanley Cup run this spring.

But in the not-too-distant future the lasting impact of those injuries could play a role in free agency, with Karlsson, Gardiner and Tyler Myers the most significant 20-something defencemen set to hit the open market on July 1.

Karlsson is the jewel of the bunch, but has played just 13 games since Jan. 1 because of a nagging groin issue. At least he’s been skating recently. Assuming he doesn’t sign an extension with San Jose, his market is expected to be in the neighbourhood of a $12-million AAV on a seven-year deal — serious coin that will require the buyer to feel confident he’s healthy.

Gardiner’s price will be more modest — somewhere in the range of $6.5-million AAV with some term — but his status is also a little more uncertain. As reported on “Headlines,” the progress on his recovery from a disc issue in his back has been a little slower than he’d hoped, and it’s kept him from skating since his last game on Feb. 25.

Where it goes from here will carry immediate implications for the Leafs, but also the free-agent market for defencemen this summer.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

OVI WATCH

Credit where it’s due: David Amber has been talking about the possibility of Alex Ovechkin surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record goal total for years. Literally years.

The Great Eight can now count me among the believers with what is likely another 50-plus goal season at age 33 — something I wouldn’t have thought possible when this topic was first broached in our commentator’s room.

It’s still an awfully steep mountain to climb, but Ovechkin is now six 40-goal seasons shy of surpassing Gretzky’s ridiculous total of 894 goals.

When the Washington Capitals sniper scored his second of the night against Tampa on Saturday, Amber didn’t even need to consult his notes or a hockeydb page before saying: “In case you’re wondering, only 239 to go!”

DA is on the case.

TAMPA BAY WAGON

There are still 20 days and 161 games left in the NHL’s regular season and only four teams still have a mathematical chance to claim the Presidents’ Trophy.

Incredibly, just one has any true shot at winning it.

The Tampa Bay Lightning can officially wrap up their first ever regular-season crown as soon as Monday with a victory over Arizona. Consider that a testament to just how special this campaign has been, one that might still see the Lightning eclipse the 62 wins and 131 points registered by Scotty Bowman’s 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.

In the age of parity, this is the most dominant NHL team we’ve seen in a generation.

And with all due respect to Barry Trotz, Rick Tocchet, Bill Peters and others, the runaway winner of the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year should be Jon Cooper this June.

It’s no small chore to turn great players into a great team.

A team with the NHL’s top power play and most effective penalty kill, and whose only true peer can be found in the history books.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.