Would the Toronto Maple Leafs Beat Montreal if Mike Babcock Was Still their Head Coach?

by Team Del Genio

The Toronto Maple Leafs failed to win a playoff series for the 18th straight season tonight after losing to Montreal, 3-1, in their North Division Game 7. The loss was the final nail in the coffin that will be considered an epic collapse by Toronto who seemed in control of this series with a 3-1 lead. The Maple Leafs finished in first place in the North Division with 77 points, 18 points ahead of the Canadiens. They are priced as a money line favorite at -195 at BetOnline to win Game 7.

Auston Matthews registered an assist tonight, but he ended the series with just one goal and four assists. Matthews led the NHL with 41 goals in 52 games during the regular season. He centered the top line alongside right wing Mitch Marner who had 20 goals and 47 assists in 55 regular-season games. Yet Marner managed only four assists in this seven games series. When the autopsy of what happened to the Maple Leafs in the postseason, it will start with why the productivity of Matthews and Marner declined. 

Mike Babcock was fired as the Toronto head coach in November of 2019 after a 9-10-4 start to the season. One of the biggest criticisms of Babcock was that he was not giving his stars enough ice time. In the 2018-19 season, the last full regular season under Babcock, Matthews averaged only 18:33 minutes per game. Marner averaged 21:33 minutes per game during that regular season. When general manager Kyle Dubas promoted Sheldon Keefe from the team’s top minor league team to replace Babcock, one of the directives was to get more ice time for Matthews and Marner.

Matthews saw his ice time rise to 22:27 minutes per game after the all-star break after averaging 20:20 minutes before that. These numbers are a bit muddy because the pre-all-star break numbers include both Babcock and Keefe-coached games and the second half of the season was shortened because of COVID. Yet the increased ice time under Keefe is notable. Marner saw his ice time rise to 24:39 minutes after the all-star break in 2019-20 after averaging 22:32 before that. 

This season, Matthews averaged 21:33 minutes per game in the regular season. His ice time increased to 23:44 minutes per game in the playoffs. Marner averaged 22:26 minutes per game in the regular season while seeing that ice time increase to 24:52 in the playoffs. 

Could the decline in Matthews and Marner’s production be a product of them being tired? Matthews and Marner’s playoff production under Keefe last season left much to be desired. In their upset loss to Columbus in the qualifier for the NHL playoffs in the bubble hosted at their Scotiabank Arena last year, Matthews scored two goals and had four assists in five games. Those are decent numbers. Yet in the 2019 postseason under Babcock, Matthews scored five goals with an assist in their seven-game series with a Boston Bruins team that reached the Stanley Cup finals. Marner did not score in last year’s postseason under Keefe while assisting on four goals. Yet in the 2019 playoffs under Babcock against tougher competition, Keefe scored two goals and added another two assists. 

Could it be that Babcock’s strategy all along was to keep his stars’ legs fresh for when it mattered most in the playoffs? The production was certainly better. 

But what does Babcock know? After all, he has won only one Stanley Cup title with Detroit in 2008. He has only coached three teams to the Stanley Cup finals (Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003, Detroit in 2008 and 2009). Babcock is the only head coach to take two different teams to a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup final. Maybe he does know something about preparing for a deep playoff run?

On the other hand, Sheldon Keefe did lead the minor league Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup in 2018. But Keefe has yet to lead a team in the NHL to a playoff series win despite being favored in the last two seasons.

Dubas hired Keefe to move the team in a different direction. Dubas was elevated to the general manager of the Maple Leafs to replace Lou Lamoriello. Where is Lamoriello now? He was hired by the New York Islanders in 2018. The Islanders are playing the East Division finals against Boston after they upset Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs. The Islanders played in the Eastern Conference finals last season. 

Draw your own conclusions.

Good luck — TDG.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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