Many seasons ago, when the centre of the universe was a sadder place and hockey fans had grown used to being lied to, Mike Babcock’s introductory presser as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs was a thrilling bit of real talk.
“We need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” Babcock said, and the city looked around at each other and said, “Wait. There’s a map?”
“There’s pain coming,” Babcock said, and everyone thought, “Like, more pain, or the usual amount?”
This was exciting. No more, “That thing you think is happening is definitely not happening, but will probably happen in a month or so, after which the club would really appreciate if you forgot we said it wasn’t.”
It was more than just hearing the hard truth for a change. People wanted someone in charge who sounded as fed up as they were with corporate mumbo jumbo.
Babcock gave them that. By doing something smart and easy – being realistic out loud – he granted himself what felt like unlimited immunity from criticism.
The straight talk didn’t last very long. Within a few months, we’d advanced into “good things take time” patter.
That made sense in 2015, and 2016, and 2017. But in 2019 – as the Leafs go midseason cliff diving through the standings – it’s getting tired.
“We haven’t won enough games here lately,” Babcock said the other night, then listed all the reasons why losing National Hockey League games is sort of like winning them if you try hard enough.
The suggestion always seems to be that the real failure is on the observer for being insufficiently attentive to the little things.
This is Year-One, all-the-good-players-on-this-team-just-graduated-from-high-school talk. It is not Year-Four, we-signed-John-Tavares talk. The Leafs can’t tell the difference any more.
“I’m not spending a whole lot of time worrying about [the power play],” Babcock also said.
If you went to a mechanic because your brakes weren’t working and he told you that he wasn’t worrying a whole lot about it, I doubt you’d be jumping on Yelp to tell your neighbours that this was some fantastically patient mechanic-ing.
“Joe, fixing a car is one thing. But leadership? You can’t put a price tag on that. That’s why I keep going back to Mike. How’s she driving? Well, it stops pretty well every time I aim it at a phone pole.”
A lot of things have gone wrong recently. Despite signing, William Nylander has yet to end his holdout. Auston Matthews is AWOL. Jake Gardiner’s agent is making discreet inquiries about the Witness Protection Program. If not yet disastrous, it suddenly feels like heading off in that direction is a possibility.
In current Leafs parlance, this isn’t alarming. It’s adversity. “Adversity” has been uttered so many times by men in blue over the past month, you’d think it was the new name of the team.
Eventually, people grew bored of Babcock telling them that going from a playoff lock to one really bad week away from taking the summer off is how this should work. So, they sent general manager Kyle Dubas out on Tuesday to see if the same message sounds more agreeable when delivered in the style of a closing monologue on Dr. Phil.
“With our group being a younger group … it’s just a great opportunity for them to show how they can lead the group out of it,” Dubas said. “In life and in hockey, it all seems to balance out. Most of the times it’s during the season. Other times it takes a few years.”
One of Dubas’s talents is spinning negatives into moral philosophy – failure is life’s great teacher; the future is unknowable; time is a flat circle.
But as things go sideways without any apparent explanation, this jibber jabber is making him look like he’s doing a Leslie Nielsen impression – standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory yelling, “Nothing to see here. Please disperse. Nothing to see here.”
Evidently, the Leafs have spent the past four years walking in a huge spiral. They’ve returned to Mumbo Jumbo Land.
Of course, it is not possible for Babcock to wish his team better or for Dubas to remake it on the fly. But calling a duck a duck would be a good start.
The paying customers aren’t kidding themselves about the Leafs not being much good right now, or that Nylander is a short-term bust, or that Matthews needs less hand-holding and more head-slapping.
So, one must ask whom exactly Babcock and Dubas think they’re fooling?
The bad option is the fans. A worse one is the roster. The nuclear option is themselves.
The onus to start speaking sensibly here falls not on the players, but the coach. Babcock has been handsomely rewarded for four years to win lottery picks, lose games and sound folksy. Credit to him – it’s worked so far. His presence shielded the youngest players from the feral instincts of Toronto news media and supporters. As long as he seemed confident that it would work out, his résumé suggested it would.
But people have stopped believing that quite so guilelessly.
This is the problem with negotiating a contract for six-million clams a year. People expect you to earn it. Eventually, they stop asking themselves, “Why isn’t X playing better?” and begin asking, “Why can’t the best coach in hockey find a way to make X play better?”
Once again, the smart thing is also the easiest. Stop acting as if everything’s fine. It’s not. There is a way to criticize your players without cutting too deeply. They’re professionals. They can take it. This was supposed to be one of Babcock’s trademarks – truth telling.
Instead, we get the same flopping around on the hook that Leafs management of yore turned into our most popular local folk dance.
It isn’t working now. It’s going to work even less in a month’s time if things don’t get better. And by April, if it goes completely wrong, it’s going to be impossible to explain why you didn’t notice that it wasn’t working.