Mike Babcock’s job with the Toronto Maple Leafs could be in jeopardy if he isn’t willing to change his ways from last season.
After the Toronto Maple Leafs had another disappointing first-round exit against the Boston Bruins last season, much of the blame was put on Mike Babcock and how he chose to deploy his best players.
It seemed like all we were talking about all season was how many minutes of ice time Auston Matthews and John Tavares were playing. Senior writer for The Hockey News Matt Larkin talked to Babcock on Tuesday and asked him if Matthews’ ice time will increase this season. Here’s what Babcock had to say.
"“I think each guy should manage his team the best way he can. But there’s no question, I think he and John, to be as good as they’re capable of being, should be right around the 19-minute mark. Some nights they’re going to be 18, some nights they’re going to be 20, but I think that’s where (Auston’s) the best, for sure. He’s an important part. I think he’s earned the right over time as he’s gotten better and better to earn more and more. A big part of the game is you earning what you get. Your teammates respect that, and Auston’s done a real good job in that area”"
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It’s understandable that a coach would want to limit their best player’s ice time during the regular season to an extent (look how load management worked out for Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors). But in important games, especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs; it should be all hands on deck.
Matthews ranked 64th among forwards in the NHL last season in ice time per game at just 18:33. For comparison, some of the top players in the league were averaging over 22 minutes. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Kane, Aleksander Barkov, Anze Kopitar, Sean Couturier, and Nathan MacKinnon all fall into that category.
These are the types of players that you expect to see Matthews being compared to when it comes to playing time. Tavares wasn’t being played much more, as he averaged just 19:05 per game.
One reason for the lack of ice-time could be attributed to the amount of depth the Leafs had at centre last season. With Matthews, Tavares, and Nazem Kadri all on separate lines, it’s fair to say that Babcock was trying to distribute the minutes as evenly as possible.
That shouldn’t be an issue this season. Kadri will be playing in Colorado, and Alex Kerfoot is expected to be playing on Toronto’s third line. Kerfoot averaged just under 15 minutes per game last season with the Avalanche, so playing a similar role with Toronto could benefit Matthews and Tavares. Even a slight decrease to 13-14 minutes would allow the two superstars to get to a comfortable 20+ minutes per game.
It seems silly that two of the best centres in the NHL should have to “earn” more ice time. The talent speaks for itself. Babcock has proven to be stubborn when it comes to changing the way he does things, and it’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Leafs fans were happy when he took the coaching job in Toronto, but now the honeymoon is over and the fanbase wants results.
Another first-round exit isn’t going to cut it. It’s an important season for Babcock to prove just how good of a coach he really is.
How do you feel about Mike Babcock’s unwillingness to give his top players more minutes? Will he change his ways this season? What kind of result do you expect the Leafs will need this season for Babcock to keep his coaching job?