Toronto Maple Leafs: Why team’s struggles extend beyond Mike Babcock

Assistant Coaches Dave Hakstol, Paul McFarland and Head Coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs look on from the bench prior to an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Assistant Coaches Dave Hakstol, Paul McFarland and Head Coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs look on from the bench prior to an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs losing streak reached five games on Saturday night following an embarrassing 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Toronto Maple Leafs did themselves no favours Saturday night, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-1.

It was their fifth straight loss as they fail to meet the expectations of a fan base clamouring for meaningful success this year. The loss also means the Leafs will drop to 0-6 on the season in back-to-back games, a wince-inducing stat that points to a complete failure in every aspect of their game.

Thus far this season, Michael Hutchinson was the one shouldering most of the blame for the team’s back-to-back woes.

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Mike Babcock made it clear in the pre-season that the Leafs would always play their starting goalie in the first game of a back-to-back, and their backup the last, regardless of the opponent or match up.

For the first few weeks of the season, the strategy paid off. Through the first four back-to-backs of the season, the Leafs were 3-0-1 for the first night, and 0-4 in the second. But that has now changed, and while many are beginning to criticize Babcock’s goaltending strategy, many more are beginning to question the coach himself.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, their issues deeper than the man behind the bench. Their failure to grind it out – to “play tough”– has dogged this team all year.

It’s more complicated than just “the injuries”, or “the backup goaltending”, it has been a lack of meaningful depth, grit, and determination from the get-go.

The Leafs are in a much more precarious position than a quick glimpse would have you realize.

Toronto have already played 22 games this season, tied for the most in the Eastern Conference. Many of the teams around them in the standings have played two or three fewer games than them. Tampa Bay, the team just under the Leafs currently, has played five fewer games and when those teams catch up in the games played category, the Leafs could be even farther back.

Head coaches always take the brunt of the criticism in sports, and much of that is justified. But a mid-season head coaching change should only be made when his removal would actually make the team better – an argument that could not realistically be made here.

It is not the coaches fault that the Leafs are in this position – juggling bottom six players and struggling to find medium line roster depth for a league minimum salary.

That falls on management.

Management wrote the cheques, keeping fan favourites in town for massive salaries, and celebrated each signing like it was achieving the impossible.

“We can, and we will.” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas famously said when asked if the Leafs would keep all three of their young stars.

No one was doubting you could keep all three Kyle. Everyone knows the Leafs could write the cheque. The question was more “can you get it done at a reasonable price, where we don’t hamstring the team’s future?”

The answer so far is an emphatic no, and it shows on the ice.

Ilya Mikheyev, Trevor Moore, Nicolas Petan, Nick Shore, Jason Spezza, Dmytro Timashov, and Frederik Gauthier combined make less than William Nylander. That’s seven players, the entire bottom (the depth) of the Leafs lineup. Seven players, with which the Leafs have put $5.294 million dollars to work.

You can’t build a winner like that. It’s never been done. Even the Blackhawks, everyone’s favourite example of a “core” being supported by brief stint, rotational role players never had three guys on the roster making over ten million dollars. Key pieces of those championship teams in Chicago, players like Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, never had an AAV higher than Nylander now. (Hossa was $5.2 million, Keith’s AAV is $5.538 million.) “Kane and Toews” is a lot more flexibility than “Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander.”

This is why the fans calling for their pound of coach’s flesh is insane – what team are they watching? This team, presently set up, won’t get better no matter who is signing the game sheet.

The Leafs have four more back-to-backs in the calendar year, the next being a home-and-home with the Buffalo Sabres on the American Thanksgiving weekend.

That will likely be the next time we see new Leaf Kasimir Kaskisuo, who will (barring any injury) not be playing until then.

But unless the “spare parts” that management have chosen start to play like top-six talent, the Leafs will continue to struggle – no matter who is behind the bench.

Leafs lack of identity concerning. dark. Next

Who should own the blame for the Leafs’ bad stretch? What should the solution be to get the team back on track? Let us know in the comments below.