Was Mike Babcock really to blame for the Maple Leafs’ struggles?

The Toronto Maple Leafs are nowhere near where they should be after the first quarter of the season, and something needed to change. As a result, head coach Mike Babcock has been fired, but was it actually his fault?

The Mike Babcock era is over in Toronto after four seasons.

After entering the 2019-20 NHL season as one of the expected top Stanley Cup contenders, the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves towards the bottom of the league at the quarter point of the season, and needed to make a change in order to turn things around. As a result, head coach Mike Babcock was relieved of his duties and was replaced with Toronto Marlies head coach, Sheldon Keefe.

The Maple Leafs are 23 games into the season, with a measly record of 9-10-4 for a points percentage of .478 — seventh worst in the league — and a 78-point pace over 82 games. A 4-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night pushed the Maple Leafs losing streak to six consecutive games, five in a row in regulation. Over the last 16 games, they’ve won just two games in regulation, and the only teams that they have beat in regulation this season are teams that are currently below them in the standings.

This season was supposed to be a monumental year for the Maple Leafs. They finally locked up their young core as they began to enter their primes, and made some splash moves in the offseason. They were Stanley Cup contenders for a reason, but they are closer to competing for a top draft pick than making the playoffs as it stands right now, and that cost Babcock his job. But should all of the blame fall on Babcock, or was there more at play at here than just the coaching?

The Leafs have been through a lot of injuries this season already, and are still without an optimal lineup. Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman both missed the start of the season, and John Tavares missed some time with a broken finger right when they got back. After Tavares came back, Mitch Marner went down with an ankle injury. To pile it on, both Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore are both also currently out of the lineup.

But are injuries a reasonable excuse for Toronto’s struggles? Do teams like the Colorado Avalanche use it as an excuse when they’re missing both Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, but continue to win games? How about the Pittsburgh Penguins when they’re missing one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but still find ways to win? The answer is no, it’s not an excuse. Good teams find ways to win, and the Maple Leafs have been anything but good so far.

It’s no secret that the Maple Leafs weakness is their defense, and it has not been any better so far this season. They are second worst in the league in goals against with 81 goals against, giving up an average of 3.52 goal per game. For perspective, last year’s Leafs team gave up an average of 3.06 goals per game. They’re currently 28th in expected goals against, which is pretty similar to last season when they were 27th. But it’s way too easy to blame this slow start on just the defense.

Once you actually dig deeper into the numbers, it’s actually not only the defense that’s led to this increase in goals against. The goaltending in Toronto has been shockingly bad. Their even strength save percentage is 26th in the NHL, according to Corsica, which is down from sixth in the league last season, taking away the defense’s safety net. Frederik Andersen has been alright as the starter most nights, but their backup goaltending has yet to win a game, or finish a game with a save percentage above .900 percent.

Special teams for the Leafs has been abysmal, and has sunk them multiple times in key moments. Their penalty kill is an awful 73.1 percent, fifth worst in the league. Even more disappointing is their power play at 17.57 percent, which is middle of the pack, but with the amount of offensive firepower that they have there is no excuse for them to not be at the top of league.

But, most of these are not new issues. Last season, Toronto at their best would be able to outscore all of these issues with offensive firepower that was fifth in high danger scoring chances and second in goals scored at even strength. As flawed as the way they played was, they at least had an identity.

This season? All of that has dried up, and the offense is nowhere as potent as they were last season. The Maple Leafs are 24th in high danger scoring chances, according to Corsica, and 14th in goals scored at even strength. The high-flying offense transformed into a shell of itself, relying on point shots rather than their once formidable rush attack.

So the defense is bad. The goaltending is bad. The special teams are bad. Their supposedly high power offense is bad.  The Maple Leafs have done nothing well recently, and that’s just from looking at the numbers. You don’t need to see the numbers to notice how disinterested they’ve looked on a nightly basis. If nothing is working and worst of all, nobody seems to care, does that not come back onto the coach?

At the end of the day, was it the right move by Toronto to fire Babcock? I think it was. Maybe they could’ve given him until the end of the week, but the writing was on the wall. Something needed to change, and there was no tinkering that could be done with the roster that would just magically make everything fine and dandy again. The systems need a change, and the players need a jolt.

Maple Leafs Team President, Brendan Shanahan, agreed when he went before the media to announce the Babcock firing.

“We’re mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren’t there and even the explosive offense our team was known for has been missing for a while now.” Shanahan said to the media on Wednesday.

After three straight first round exits, two in a row to the Boston Bruins, patience from the organization and the fans had reached an all-time low and the expectation was clear. Win at least a round in the playoffs, or heads will roll. Now, the first head has rolled, and it’ll be an uphill battle to even make it into the postseason.

According to MoneyPuck, the Maple Leafs have a measly 24 percent chance to make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Basically, even if Toronto turns things around and plays up to their expectations for the rest of the season, they might still miss out. With teams like the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers coming into their own, and the Tampa Bay Lightning barely behind Toronto with five games in hand, it will absolutely be an uphill climb to make it in.

One thing to keep in mind is that a disappointing start to the year for talented teams often does not equal doom. Look at every Stanley Cup champion since 2016, and how their seasons started before winning the title in June.

Obviously there’s last season’s St. Louis Blues, who fired head coach Mike Yeo in November and promoted Craig Berube. They were dead last in early January before turning it around, making the playoffs and winning their first ever Stanley Cup. The Blues are a serious outlier that won’t be repeated for decades, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the notion of firing your coach early and turning it around for the playoffs.

In the 2015-16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston after a poor start and promoted Mike Sullivan. By getting rid of an outdated system and bringing in a coach that got the most of the Penguins talent (sound familiar?), they completely turned it around to win a Stanley Cup in not just 2016, but 2017 as well.

In 2018, the Washington Capitals entered the season with nothing but despair after losing to their arch rivals for a second consecutive season (sound familiar?), and patience had run out. The Capitals were one loss away from firing head coach Barry Trotz after two straight blowout losses, but instead of getting let go, Trotz regained control of the room, made the proper adjustments, and got them back on track before leading them to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

The point is, all is not yet lost for the Maple Leafs. The odds on them making the playoffs in some models are harsh, but they are still just two points out of the wild card, and five points back for third in the Atlantic. All it takes is one solid winning streak, and they’re right back in it. Sometimes, a little adversity in the regular season makes for a winning recipe in the postseason, as seen in the past.

The talent is all there, that’s well known, but now there are no more excuses to not get the job done. If Keefe can’t come in and right this ship to get the Maple Leafs into the postseason, you better believe that Babcock won’t be the only out of a job by April. Optimism can only take you so far, it’s time for results.

Next: 5 changes the Maple Leafs can make to right the ship
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