Is the Leafs’ play under Keefe proof that they tuned out Babcock?

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock shouts from behind the bench during third period of NHL action against the San Jose Sharks (Hans Deryk/CP)

What if the Toronto Maple Leafs players were sandbagging all along, trying to get Mike Babcock fired?

I mean, you have to be more than a little suspicious given the way in which the Leafs have ticked off all the boxes in the two games since Sheldon Keefe took over. Faster starts? Check. Better power play? Check. Top to bottom, more engagement? Check. The APB on missing Tyson Barrie cancelled? Check. Small sample size here, but it seems that with the benefit of one full practice and two game-day skates, Keefe has the Leafs doing a lot of things we haven’t seen from them in a month – including having some honest-to-goodness fun. I mean, yeah, give Keefe credit for doing stuff that Babcock seemed scared to do or simply was too stubborn to do. And give him credit for his in-game decisions, such as calling a timeout late on a power-play in Saturday’s win over the Colorado Avalanche in order to allow his first unit to stay on the ice. And by all means, let’s see what happens this week with the Leafs able to get some home-ice practice in before games in Detroit and the first of two back to back against the Buffalo Sabres. But this has been one quick change of attitude.

Saying that a team quit on a coach is a slippery slope. But I’ll buy that teams tune out coaches after a while, especially when there’s no tangible success. I don’t think teams necessarily put down their tools and go on strike, but I do believe they sometimes operate those tools at something less than maximum speed.

Funny: when John Tavares signed as a free agent with the Maple Leafs, the suggestion was made that a new era of player boldness or “player power” was being ushered in. I don’t know: until I see players have the stones to jump at a restricted free agent offer sheet, I’m not certain there really is that much of an adventurous bent to this generation of players. But I wonder if what transpired in Toronto isn’t a sign of a different kind of player power, one that ought to give organizations pause.

Look: professional athletes are an inherently conservative group. If they’re comfortable with their compensation, why would they want things changed? And in the case of hockey, players are starting to strike it rich earlier in their careers as the games skews younger. Not just that, but they’re signing contracts of unusual lengths that tie them to a team for six, seven or eight years during a time of their lives where they go through all manner of life lessons and experiences. It’s nothing new for the elite players in the NHL to make more money than the head coach, but doing so at the age of 23 on a contract double the length of the guy behind the bench? That’s a bit of a wrinkle.

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The NBA is, of course, the most extreme example of a league where players wield enormous marketing and economic power by force of their personalities and cultural status. They are a small, chatty group fully capable of, say, running a coach out of town. The NFL is the other extreme, a league where the vast majority of players are disposable and don’t enjoy the luxury of guaranteed contracts. Baseball is in the middle, but given the waywardness of the players association under Tony Clark, it feels as if it’s edging closer to the NFL in terms of players wielding much power.

Which brings us to hockey, the most homogenous of sports that seem these days to be out of necessity made up mostly of dudes from upper-income or upper middle-class households. Comfortable kids who become even more comfortable almost right out of the gate because of their precocious skills, with contracts in a salary cap league that make it hard to discipline, motivate or trade them. Figuring out the millennial athlete takes a different skill set – relationships that are more “horizontal” than hierarchical, as Canadian national men’s soccer coach John Herdman rightly puts it – and the sense here is the hockey player more than any other millennial athlete is going to chart a path that will try your patience. It’s already claimed Mike Babcock.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

● I have never met a general manager who hates – absolutely detests – baseball’s winter meetings the way Alex Anthopoulos hates the winter meetings. So it’s no surprise that the Atlanta Braves GM has moved boldly to fill his teams needs, signing free-agent reliever Will Harris and then adding backup catcher Travis d’Arnaud on a two-year, $16-million deal – the same d’Arnaud, who was part of Anthopoulos’ trade with the New York Mets for R.A. Dickey when Anthopoulos was GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. Expect Anthopoulos to make a bold move in the pitching market in these next two weeks – think Zack Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner – and then cruise through the winter meetings, which he has described as being “a complete waste of time.” And that’s even the case in years when agent Scott Boras doesn’t dominate the free-agent market the way he does now.

● Now that Ben Cherington has left the Blue Jays’ front office to become the GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates and begin the retooling of that organization, we can expect to hear the Blue Jays connected with 31-year-old, right-hand hitting centre-fielder Starling Marte, who is on the market and has an $11.5-million club option for 2020 along with a $12.5-million club option for 2021, with a $1-million buyout in the final year of the deal. Marte and free agent Marcell Ozuna are potential targets for the Blue Jays and Cherington’s knowledge of all levels of the Jays’ minor-league system could expedite a deal.

● With every passing day, we are greeted with another sign that the apocalypse is upon us, or at least that our priorities are skewed. My favorite, currently, is the “sneaker free agency” of Luka Doncic which is, apparently, a thing. On Sunday, Doncic, the 20-year-old Slovenian who was the third pick overall in 2018, became the fourth player since 1983-84 with four consecutive games of 30 points or more and 10 or more assists. Michael Jordan is on that list, along with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Doncic wore Air Jordans on Sunday, a nice touch and a bit of a troll job considering a two-year deal he had with Nike while he was at Real Madrid has run out. Doncic’s feet are available to the highest bidder, just as Zion Williamson’s were when he signed a $75-million deal with Nike.

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● Andrew Harris of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers served a two-game suspension during the summer for traces of the steroid Metandienone, claiming innocence due to a tainted supplement from a health store. This is, of course, the door No. 1 of excuses for failed tests, and it’s a silly one because while it may not be a moral offence, carelessness is no defence, given all the information available to any athlete with an inclination towards self-preservation. Still, Harris served his time and has no need to apologize to anybody for winning the most outstanding player and Canadian player awards in the Grey Cup.

● The good news for Manchester United is they had three players aged 22 or younger score in Sunday’s match against Sheffield United – Marcus Rashford, Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood – and that’s something that hasn’t happened since 1996 when Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham scored against Notts Forest. The bad news – and, boy, is there ever a lot of bad news for the Red Devils these days – is that their 3-3 draw with Sheffield United marked the 12th consecutive away game in which they failed to keep a clean sheet, their worst run of defensive form on the road since they went 15 away games without a shutout in 1985-86.

● If you had told me Canada would make it to the finals of the Davis Cup without Milos Raonic … well, OK, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it all that much, to be honest. Still, it caps off a remarkable year for the sport in this country, and while the fact that it has happened with Raonic essentially a non-factor speaks to the depth of the program gives it a kind of wistful feeling. The way this story gets better is if Raonic plays a significant role next year in the Olympics in Tokyo.

● Like the Toronto Raptors Fred Van Vleet, Yasmani Grandal is “Mr. Bet On Yourself.” In a bind in last winter’s free-agent market, Grandal turned down four years and $60 million from the New York Mets, signed a one-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for $16 million that included an option year in 2020 for the same salary or a $2.25-million buyout. Grandal hit 28 home runs, had 109 RBI and added to his reputation as a strong defensive catcher, signing a four-year, $73-million deal through 2023 this week with the Chicago White Sox. That’s $91.25 million from 2019-2023 – meaning he’ll make $31.25-million more than he would have had he signed with the Mets.

THE ENDGAME

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that baseball commissioner Rob Manfred would limit his investigation into the use of technology to steal signs to the Houston Astros. There is nothing to be gained by broadening it. First, he has a player (pitcher Mike Fiers) who has publicly and voluntarily pointed the way to a chain of evidence implicating the Astros. Second? Could you pick a better team to scapegoat than the Astros, given what transpired this post-season? Third … why on earth would the commissioner want to root around and dig too deeply into whether other teams are doing this? That would be time-consuming … and, well, imagine the crisis of consumer confidence the game would be left with if this was widespread. The easiest course for Manfred is to make an example of the Astros by hitting them with a fine, loss of draft picks or, as I’m told is on the table, lengthy suspensions for Astros executives. Baseball permanently suspended then-Atlanta Braves GM John Coppolella for infractions relating to the signing of international players in November 2017. Manfred, in other words, has not been afraid to use the games version of the death penalty, and for his purposes, scaring the bejeezus out of teams or at least forcing them to be a little less zealous in the time-honored black art of stealing is good enough – infinitely better than finding out things he’d rather the rest of the world not know.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360

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