When you think about the best coaches in the National Hockey League, Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs is always in the conversation. There's a reason he was offered such a lucrative contract in Toronto - in order to turn this team around and make it a competitive franchise.
He's mostly achieved that, bringing the team into the playoffs last season and nearly dethroning the league-leading Washington Capitals in the first round.
This season started hot, with the Leafs scoring at will, albeit letting a few too many goals in. Still - they were dynamic, fresh, and fast. They were feared. They were scoring over 5 goals a game and seemed unstoppable.
That is, until Mike Babcock decided that their style of play wasn't sustainable long-term, and they needed to tighten up. While not exactly wrong, they've sacrificed offense for defense and the results have been rather frustrating, as the Leafs have become an average team.
They are 8-8-2 since December 1st, with most of their wins coming in shootout or against weak teams.
The most puzzling decision by Babcock, and this has been documented already, but perhaps not like this yet, is how he employs Roman Polak in the top 6 with much better, younger options.
The argument is always his use on the penalty kill.
But just look at this.
Anything that says "with" implies that Polak is in the lineup, and without, the opposite. They are 14-4-1 without him in the lineup. 11-12-2 with him in it. The most shocking of all is the penalty kill stat. With him in the lineup, their penalty kill is 82.7% effective. With him out, 83.6%. Not a huge difference sure - but the point is, the penalty kill is worse with him.
Shouldn't that say enough about how nonsensical and illogical Babcock's decision is?
We broke down his use of Auston Matthews on the power play, or lack thereof in an earlier post that can be found here. The gist of that one was that he's the 201st most utilized player in the NHL on the power play despite being the best 5-on-5 goal scorer since his career began in the entire league. You think a weapon like that would be lethal on the man advantage.
The Leafs are a mix of young and old, that is an organization-wide setup. The roster has tons of youth, but they are surrounded by veteran players. Same goes for the management, when you think of the likes of Kyle Dubas and Lou Lamoriello.
Obviously, you're reading the headline of this article and wondering about the part where Babcock's job is on the line. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Babcock gets fired in the near future, but an early playoff exit this season, and more of the same next season could push the management in a different, younger direction.
Especially if Dubas takes over as GM (or somebody else), as Lamoriello's contract expires and it's unclear if he'll be re-signed.
Not playing one of the best players in the league on the power play is a criminal offense as far as coaching goes. Choosing a slow and aging defenseman over young, bright players is extremely questionable, especially when the reasons for doing so are clearly proven to have no ground to them when you look at the stat sheet.
Toronto has it in them to be a legitimate contender for years, including this one, but the emphasis on "playing the right way" and favoring certain veteran players like Komarov and Polak has compromised the team's ability to play to its full potential.
And that's on Mike Babcock. You may have a completely different view of the matter, and we invite you to share your opinion - but it seems that maybe, just maybe, Babcock is becoming a bit too old school for the modern game.
Here's Steve Dangle's reaction to re-signing Polak earlier this season.
Photo Credit: Keystone Press