Man-for-man, it is an easy argument to say the Toronto Maple Leafs are more talented than the Boston Bruins
Yet for the second season in a row, the Bruins ended the Leafs’ NHL season in the first round, administering a sound defeat in the seventh and final game of their playoff series. Once again, the Leafs were not the sum of their parts.
Now it falls to Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas to figure out, with lots of input from head coach Mike Babcock, what needs to be fixed. Lots, as it turns out.
The first order of business in the fans’ eyes, judging by the angry mob on Twitter after Tuesday’s loss, is to fire Babcock. In their eyes, he was too loyal to certain players (Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner), too stubborn to shuffle his personnel until it was too late and he hasn’t won a playoff series since 2009.
Much as the fans may wish this, Babcock’s departure is unlikely. He has four years left on his contract as the highest-paid coach in the NHL, he guided the team to back-to-back 100-point seasons and has them playing an entertaining up-tempo brand of hockey most of the time. Three years ago, the Leafs were the worst team in the league and had made the playoffs once in 11 years, something that was forgotten once they became a contender.
The only way Babcock does not return is if he and Dubas cannot co-exist. While Dubas did not hire Babcock, which usually means a parting of the ways sooner or later, there is no overt evidence they detest each other. Besides, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan was the one who hired both Babcock and Dubas and he isn’t going anywhere.
There has been tension between them, certainly. Babcock wears on people because of his relentless personality. There is no downtime with him. However, there is always tension between an NHL coach and GM at some point.
GMs have to be concerned with the big picture. Keeping certain players over others or holding some prospects back, for example, because of the implications with the salary cap or their development. Coaches’ jobs depend on winning today.
The biggest order of business for Dubas is to figure out how to fit contracts for Mitch Marner, Gardiner, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and perhaps Tyler Ennis under the salary cap and at the same time address the team problems.
Those problems are finding an upgrade on defence, third-line centre and developing a killer instinct. The lack of the latter, which is Babcock’s job to fix, meant the Leafs could not finish off the Bruins at home in Game 6 when they had a 3-2 series lead and they fell flat in Boston in Game 7 when the Bruins played the way battle-hardened veteran teams do in big games.
Upgrading the third-line centre is another way of saying Nazem Kadri has to be dealt with. Emphasis on dealt.
For the second year in a row, his selfish behaviour robbed the Leafs of their depth. The two items at the top of the Bruins’ game plan were to goad Kadri into doing something stupid and make Gardiner handle the puck in his own end as much as possible. Both players obliged with big mistakes, Kadri’s being to get himself suspended again for the balance of the series.
Without Kadri, Babcock had to move William Nylander to third-line centre. He no longer had the option of moving Nylander around the lineup to get him going, preferably by playing beside Auston Matthews. His other option was to move 39-year-old Marleau to centre but it was quickly evident he could not keep up so that couldn’t happen.
Now Dubas needs to trade Kadri for a centre Babcock can trust to keep his cool and provide the two-way play Kadri did in his better moments. This is difficult but not impossible because Kadri’s US$4.5-million cap hit for the next three years makes him attractive to some teams despite his flaws.
The solution on defence will likely come internally. Veteran Ron Hainsey probably will not be back unless he takes a pay cut. Gardiner is not vilified in the Leafs offices and dressing rooms as he is by the fans. The team would like to keep him but may not be able to because someone else is likely to offer him a contract for US$6-million-plus.
Waiting on the Toronto Marlies farm team are defence prospects Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. All have cap hits under US$1-million and Rosen and Sandin have shown they are ready for the big time.
Up front, Marleau has one year left on his contract, but at US$6.25-million there will be no takers for it, so the alternative is a permanent spot on the fourth line. That’s just as well, since winger Trevor Moore showed in the Bruins series he is capable of a bigger role.
Elsewhere, Marner and Matthews need to use the bitter experience of another first-round loss to unlock the key to consistency in the playoffs. Then maybe next year they can have a coming-out party like the one Nathan MacKinnon is enjoying with the Colorado Avalanche.