Examining the factors that have the Leafs’ Mike Babcock on the hot seat

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock comments on the outside talk about his job and working on getting better creating transition on the ice.

A few weeks ago, the question hovering over Toronto was whether it was too soon for the Toronto Maple Leafs to panic just one month into a season filled with expectations yielding uninspiring early results.

After another losing weekend that included a 6-1 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Penguins, consider the floodgates of panic blown wide open — whether it’s warranted or not.

It’s the head coach who tends to shoulder most of the blame in these situations, and that’s got head coach Mike Babcock’s seat feeling pretty hot.

As Brian Burke said early Monday morning, “you can’t blame all 20 players, so it ends up on the coach.”

“When you fire a coach, it’s really an organizational failure,” Burke said during an appearance on Sportsnet’s Lead Off.

“The players, I think, are getting a free ride here and that drives me nuts.”

At this point last year, the Maple Leafs had a 15-7 record with 30 points and sat fourth in the league. At no point were they considered out of reach of a playoff spot.

Rather than building on an excellent season by making some crucial off-season roster adjustments, it feels like the Maple Leafs have taken a step back. Twenty-two games into 2019-20, the club with lofty expectations finds itself in the lower half of the league’s standings at No. 19 with 22 points thanks to a 9-9-4 record.

“It’s tough to get worse from here. It’s frustrating,” Auston Matthews told reporters after Saturday’s dismal loss in Pittsburgh.

“I think in the locker room, confidence isn’t exactly high right now. I don’t think we’ve played to the ability that we’re capable of over the last course of games. We’ve got nobody to blame except for ourselves.”

The club is currently riding a five-game losing streak, four of which came on the road, as they head west for another tough road stint and many are questioning whether Babcock will still be employed by the end of it.

So, what exactly has gone wrong? And are the stats as dire as we’re making them out to be? Here’s a look at some of the key factors that may be involved in the Maple Leafs’ disappointing season to date in an effort to bring a little context to the struggle.

Off-season of (too much?) change
Chemistry can be a funny thing in sports. You can’t force it, but it’s obvious when you’ve got it, and even more so if you don’t. Considering the amount of off-season change in Toronto, it shouldn’t be too surprising they’re running into some early season hiccups.

Out: Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis
In: Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, Dmytro Timashov

New faces behind the bench haven’t paid off
In addition to several roster moves, the Maple Leafs also made two coaching changes over the summer, bringing in assistants Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol to replace D.J. Smith and Jim Hiller.

In Monday’s Lead Off appearance, Burke explained why those personnel moves could mean trouble for Babcock:

“I think what people are overlooking in this market is they switched out the two assistant coaches last summer, which is what you do when you’re trying to save a head coach. I did it for Ron Wilson before I had to move him out, I brought in two new assistant coaches,” Burke said, referencing his time as Maple Leafs GM.

“They do this in the NFL all the time — you want to save the head coach, they fire the offensive coordinator. So they’ve already taken one dramatic step to prolong this coach’s life and it hasn’t had any positive impact.”

Health hurting the standings
There’s no doubt that injuries — the Leafs are at 43 man-games lost and counting — have played a role in the losses.

They clearly missed Zach Hyman’s grit through the first 19 games of the season, and John Tavares’ seven-game absence due to a broken finger showed in the standings as well. They’re currently four games (and four losses) into what’s expected to be four to six weeks without Mitch Marner (ankle). Injuries to depth pieces like Alex Kerfoot (dental fractures) and Trevor Moore (shoulder) mean more line juggling for Babcock as they try to dust themselves off and stay above .500 on the season.

Power play headed in wrong direction
This summer, all signs pointed to the Leafs’ already strong power play being much better, not worse. First, the club brought in Paul McFarland — the brain behind the Florida Panthers’ second-ranked power play — as a new assistant coach. Trading for Tyson Barrie, a noted power-play specialist, had fans drooling over the prospect of seeing the offensive-minded rearguard quarterback the first unit paired with players such as Tavares, Matthews and Marner. But it hasn’t exactly worked out like that.

Last year’s power play: 21.8 per cent (ranked 8th)
2019-20’s power play to date: 16.7 per cent (ranked 21st)

Barrie, who tallied a career-high 30 power-play points in 2017-18 and followed it up with 25 last season, is currently on the second unit with just a single power-play point to his name.

Penalties are up — way up.
Though not as drastic a change as their power play, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill has also declined. What was mediocre in the regular season (79.9 per cent, good for 17th league-wide) was straight-up bad in the playoffs — the only club with a penalty-kill percentage worse than the Maple Leafs’ 56.3 was the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we all know how their first-round series went.

Last year: 228 penalties taken (fewest in NHL)
2019-20 to date: 82

So far in 2019-20, the Maple Leafs are killing three-quarters of penalties taken (ranked 25th), but the troubling stat is the number of penalties they’re taking.

Andersen can’t do it on his own
Behind every good coach is a great goaltender. Behind every winning coach is a great backup, too. Babcock has his guy in Frederik Andersen, who has once again put up decent numbers (2.74 GAA, .912 SV%) and, lucky for him, Andersen is at his best when he’s busy.

But in a league wading into the load-management waters, where contenders increasingly depend on strong performances from second strings, the Maple Leafs simply cannot keep up. Toronto has let in the second-most goals league-wide, with 75 — only the Detroit Red Wings have allowed more. At this point last year, they’d given up the fifth-fewest goals (58). A troubling trend, but not as troubling as this stark comparison:

Goals against Andersen through 16 games this year: 44 (9-4-3 record)
Goals against Leafs backups through six starts this year: 29
(Two goals against were empty-netters.)

You’ve got to wonder how much of this has to do with Babcock’s rule when it comes to his crease in back-to-back game situations. As it stands, Andersen always gets the first start with the backup suiting up behind a tired squad for the second. The Maple Leafs have yet to win the second half of a back-to-back game, and the blame cannot sit squarely on the shoulders of the man in the blue paint.

For comparison, last year’s starter-backup breakdown at this point in the season saw Andersen (12-6) let in 38 goals in 18 games, with Garret Sparks (3-1) making four appearances and letting in 13.

Neither can Matthews
Matthews has been incredible this season. He’s written his name onto the scoresheet in all but six games this season, and is far and away the club’s most productive player. His 14 goals on the season is almost twice as many as the next in line (William Nylander, with eight) and his 27 points give him almost 10 more than Marner, who’s still in second despite having missed a week already.

How are they scoring?
When it comes to targeting the Maple Leafs’ struggles, it’s typically been all about the blue line. But there are actually more pressing concerns upfront.

You know that saying, “They don’t ask how, they just ask how many”?

Yeah, we’re kind of ignoring that here when we look at the Leafs’ goal-scoring right now. As frustrated as this forward core is — you heard Matthews during his post-game — they are scoring. They’re currently fifth in goals for and 10th in shots per game.

But there’s a trend here that’s bringing cause for concern, and it’s showing some divide between the way the players are scoring and the way Babcock wants them to score. The Maple Leafs are winning the battle when it comes to firing shots from the outer edges of the offensive zone, but losing the battle — by a pretty large margin — when it comes to those near-net battles. Sportsnet contributor Andrew Berkshire did a deep dive into the numbers last months, and the trends still hold true.

Who would replace him?
For some teams, the biggest unknown when it comes to firing a head coach is the question of who would replace him. The Maple Leafs don’t have that problem.

“They’ve got the guy they want, sitting and waiting in the wings,” Burke said, pointing to Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “That’s a very A-typical situation, so me, I would not be surprised if they’re not looking hard at that.”

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