Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Is Babcock to blame for Leafs’ slump?

Mike Babcock, Curtis McElhinney and Tyler Bozak spoke after a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings about the tough road trip, and the offensive struggles.

Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.

Opening faceoff: Owned

This was supposed to be a chance for Ottawa to steal the spotlight on one of the league’s biggest weekends of the year. With the NHL celebrating its 100th anniversary, Ottawa welcomed the hockey world for the season’s first outdoor game, as well as an alumni game and other events at a beautiful second rink at Parliament Hill. Even with the Senators struggling, this was a chance to put all that aside and let a market that so often plays second fiddle to Montreal or Toronto have its chance to be front and centre for all the right reasons.

But apparently Eugene Melnyk had other ideas.

The Senators’ owner was the story of the weekend, overshadowing the game itself with his Friday night comments in which he complained about attendance and suggested that payroll was too high. And, in the biggest headline, he told reporters that he’d never sell the team, but might be open to moving it.

After everything else they’ve been through this year, you could forgive Senators fans if they heard Melnyk’s musings and headed straight for the bar. Judging by the reactions on social media and radio call-in lines, more than a few did. But let’s be clear on a few points. First, Melnyk’s comment about moving was conditional on “if it becomes a disaster,” and he acknowledged that the situation isn’t there yet.

More importantly, an NHL owner can’t just pick his team up and move it whenever the whim strikes. Despite the comparisons Melnyk himself tried to draw, an NHL franchise isn’t a McDonald’s or a grocery store. There’s a reason that we’ve only seen one team move in the last 20 years, despite many of the league’s markets being far worse off than any worst-case scenario you could conjure in Ottawa. If Melnyk can’t make it work then the league would look high and low to find someone else who could before they’d consider abandoning a market they’ve spent a quarter-century cultivating.

So what’s Melnyk’s game here? Clearly, he’s disappointed by this year’s attendance numbers, especially after last year’s run to the conference final. Maybe he thinks that a threat of a move hanging over things will spur fans to reach into their wallets, instead of heading in the other direction by just tuning out altogether. It’s a bold strategy — let’s see if it pays off.

It’s impossible not to wonder how all this is playing in the Erik Karlsson camp. The star defenceman was reportedly reprimanded for speaking out publicly about the possibility of playing elsewhere; now the owner can launch into a tirade about moving the entire team? Star players in this league usually end up re-signing rather than testing the open market, in large part because they value stability. This situation doesn’t seem all that stable anymore.

Meanwhile, the hockey world came to Ottawa this weekend, and left with headlines about “dark clouds“and a “circus.” That’s probably not what Melnyk had in mind when he was boasting about putting on the greatest outdoor game yet.

With all that going on, the mood in the capital felt dour heading into the weekend. But the alumni game was fun, the pre-game fan fest attracted a solid crowd, and the weather was cold but otherwise cooperated. By the time Saturday rolled around, a sellout crowd (helped along by plenty of Habs fans) seemed ready to set aside Melnyk’s rant and enjoy a game.

They were rewarded with a low-scoring but reasonably entertaining contest, one that ended with a 3–0 Ottawa win. Karlsson was the driving force for Ottawa, playing an outdoor-record 32 minutes while still finding time to get weird. That makes it two straight for Ottawa, which isn’t much but sure beats losing 11 of 12. Their owner says we should trust him when he calls them a playoff team; today, they’re six points back, which is a healthy gap but not insurmountable.

Meanwhile, the Habs have lost four of five and are just three points up on Ottawa, who hold two games in hand. It’s looking more and more like the Atlantic may produce only three playoff teams, so there isn’t much room for error here. That may be bad news for a Montreal team that plays its next six on the road.

But look on the bright side, Habs fans. Your playoff hopes may be fading, and your team just got shut out in front of a leaguewide audience. But at least your owner hasn’t threatened to make off with the franchise you’ve spent decades supporting. Yet.

Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Washington Capitals (21-12-1, +8 true goals differential*): Look who’s back in the top five for the first time since Week 1. They’ve won 10 of 12, including three straight, to move into top spot of the still-way-too-crowded Metro.

4. Los Angeles Kings (20-10-4, +20): Three straight losses opened the door for the Knights to retake the Pacific lead.

3. St. Louis Blues (22-11-2, +17): Their big home-and-home with the Jets didn’t settle anything, as each team earned a shutout win on home ice.

2. Nashville Predators (21-7-4, +23): They’ve won three straight, giving up just one goal in the process. Five of their next six are against Central rivals.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (24-6-2, +43): They’re now nine points up on the Atlantic, with games in hand on second-place Toronto. This race is just about over.

*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.

For the last few months, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been making sporadic appearances in our top five. They’d slip into the fourth or fifth spot, stick around for a week or two, and then slide back out to make room for someone else. And in recent weeks, a Leafs appearance would be accompanied by some variation on the same caveat: They’re racking up wins, even though they don’t seem to be playing all that great.

Well, they’re still not playing all that great, but now the wins have dried up, and so has the offence. The Leafs have dropped three straight in regulation, and have managed just four goals in their last four games, including Friday’s 3–1 loss in Detroit. And as you can probably imagine, that’s led to some handwringing from a Toronto fan base that has some experience in that area.

The Jeff Blair Show
Seems like it's "all fear & all doubt" with the way Maple Leafs are playing
December 18 2017

First, the qualifiers. This week’s three-game losing streak came on a tough road trip, and if the team looked sluggish you can attribute some of that to a schedule that saw them play five times in seven nights. They’ve also been without Auston Matthews, out with an upper-body injury that we don’t know the severity of. And while they’ve seen the Lightning pull away for top spot in the division, they’re still reasonably secure in second spot, so it’s not like a bad week has torpedoed their playoff hopes.

As slumps go, this one isn’t the end of the world. But it’s also part of a bigger picture, one that’s seen the Leafs look awfully ordinary after a hot start. They’re giving up a ton of shots — 39 or more in eight of their last 16 games — and that can’t all be chalked up to score effects. In fact, there’s a case to be made that the team has been a lot worse than their record indicates over the last month or so, and only managed to tread water because their goaltending got red hot just in time. If Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney come back to Earth, the Leafs could be in trouble.

Maybe worse, lately the Maple Leafs have been awfully… boring. Lots of teams are these days, and boring can win you a lot of games in the modern NHL. But it’s strange to see a Leafs team full of youth, speed and skill suddenly inducing yawns. If anyone should be willing to play a little run-and-gun, you’d think it would be these guys. But lately, when it’s time to hit the gas, they either can’t or won’t.

That’s led to some muted grumbling about coach Mike Babcock. There’s an easy narrative here: The Leafs were winning playing end-to-end pond hockey until their defensive-minded coach came along and squeezed all the fun out of them, and now they’re dull and mediocre. That feels a little too easy — Babcock’s defensive system probably isn’t telling them to give up 40 shots a night.

But at the very least, some of Babcock’s lineup decisions are fair game for questioning. The current flashpoint is Leo Komarov, the 30-year-old winger with just one point at even strength on the year (excluding empty netters) who nevertheless keeps getting more ice time than just about all the forwards. Meanwhile, guys like William Nylander watch from the bench. That’s going to get noticed.

So how does this end? Knowing the hockey gods, probably with a Komarov hat trick in a blowout win in tomorrow’s matinee against Carolina. If so, we can all shrug and move on. But if this slump drags on, the Atlantic race starts to look very different. The Leafs may not be fun to watch anymore, but they’re a team that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Live stream over 300 marquee regular season games, regional matchups for the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the entire 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.

5. Colorado Avalanche (15-15-2, -6): They didn’t beat the Lightning, but they put on a heck of a show in nearly coming back from a 5–1 third-period deficit.

4. Detroit Red Wings (12-13-7, -18): Their win over the Leafs marked the end of a five-game homestand, as they head out for their next four.

3. Florida Panthers (12-16-5, -20): They lost last night to the Golden Knights, who are basically the director’s-cut alternate ending of what this year’s Panthers could have been.

2. Arizona Coyotes (7-23-5, -44): With six straight losses, the Coyotes look like they’re intent on taking another run at top spot on this list. Not so fast, guys.

1. Buffalo Sabres (8-18-7, -38): Three games, three losses, no hope. The Sabres aren’t going to surrender this spot easily. But it’s getting tight.

I’ll be honest. I feel kind of bad about this week’s No. 5 spot. I’m not completely convinced the Avalanche deserve it, especially in a season that’s been mostly positive in Colorado.

“Mostly positive” is relative, of course. Last year, the Avs were quite possibly the worst team of the cap era. This year, they’re… well, let’s be honest, they’re still not good. They’re .500 on the nose as far as points percentage, and slightly under in terms of wins and losses.  They’re within range of the fringe of the playoff race, but that’s about it. And in the middle of it all, they traded one of their best players.

Sure, they’re probably in the bottom-five discussion. That’s especially true around these parts, where we’ve been stubbornly reluctant to give up on the Oilers and have already been burned by the streaky Habs a few times. Now that the Flyers are hot again, somebody has to take the spot. You could make a case for the Canucks, especially with Brock Boeser now hurt. You could make an even better one for the Senators, and they held down the fort last time around, but it feels like their fans have suffered enough this week.

So it’s the Avalanche, pretty much by default. I’m guessing Colorado fans won’t mind too much, since they’re watching a team that’s on pace to improve by 34 points, are enjoying a fantastic season from Nathan MacKinnon, and oh yeah, also own Ottawa’s top pick either this year or next. Even their recent losses have been to some of the league’s best teams – two against the Lightning and one to the Capitals. If anything, these days the Avs are probably offering up some hope to Buffalo and Arizona that a lot can change over the course of a year.

So sorry, Avalanche fans. At least “barely fifth worst” is still a lot better than “dead last by a mile.” Besides, it’s probably temporary. By this time next week, there’s a good chance you’ll have given up your spot to the Edmonton Oilers or the Vancouver Canucks or the Houston Senators.

Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• That Boeser injury sounds serious. He had to crawl back to the bench after blocking a shot, and was seen after the game with crutches and a walking boot.

• The Flames got a big win in that one to snap a three-game losing streak. The Canucks didn’t offer much resistance; David Rittich needed only 16 saves to record his third career win.

Connor Hellebuyck‘s 24-save shutout salvaged the weekend for the Jets, who split their big home-and-home with the Blues. Next up: Yet another Central showdown, this one with the Predators.

• Speaking of that Central race, it may be about to get even more crowded: The Blackhawks have now won five straight and are within four points of the Jets with a game in hand.

Cam Talbot is back, and he helped the Oilers get back into the win column with 29 saves in a 3-2 win. The Oilers have alternated wins and losses for their last nine games; they’ll try to break that pattern tonight against the Sharks.

• Weirdest goal of the weekend: Ben Bishop learning that crime doesn’t pay, at least when it comes to stealing Shayne Gostisbehere‘s stick:

Erik Johnson will sit out two games for boarding Tampa’s Vladislav Namestnikov.

Alex Ovechkin had another overtime winner, this one coming against the Ducks:

That gives him a two-goal cushion of Jaromir Jagr on the all-time list.

• The votes are in, and the greatest moment in NHL history is Mario Lemieux’s five goals scored five ways, which is not actually a moment but we’ll let that slide. Mario beat out Bobby Orr’s flying Cup winner in the final.

• Finally, the Weekend Wrap will be taking next week off, since the Christmas schedule means there wouldn’t be much of a weekend to wrap. See you in two weeks.

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