November seems like an odd month to begin lowering expectations, but that’s where the Toronto Maple Leafs are at now. The most optimistic season in recent history is quickly being recast in another rebuilding year.
The catalyst for this change was Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin rolled through town last week and laid two beatings on Toronto.
The first was a tongue lashing: “It’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win the Stanley Cup, they have to play differently.”
The second was an on-ice demonstration of what “differently” looks like. Ovechkin had four points in one of those turning-a-good-win-into-a-silly-loss games the Leafs are specializing in this season.
But where you could really see this idea take off was once Mike Babcock got hold of it. Most coaches would have brushed Ovechkin back. Instead, the Leafs’ coach endorsed Ovechkin’s criticisms: “Things like that always sting way more when it’s right.”
After the loss, Babcock had developed his talking points. He said a bunch of things about growing up and figuring out what you want. But the core takeaway was this bit: “Everybody in Toronto is in a rush all the time. I get it. But that’s not pro sport. You gotta keep building and building and steady on the rudder, keep going through things.”
In other words, slow your roll, dummies. Nobody said this was going to happen this year. Or next year. Or 10 years from now. The important thing is keeping that rudder steady and sailing smoothly into the Sea of Mediocrity the Leafs have been trawling for decades now.
You have to hand it to pro sports teams. They have revolutionized their tactics over the past generation. And we’re not talking about the odd-man rush.
This used to be a zero-sum endeavour and a total free-for-all. The only correct answer to ‘How’s this year going to go?’ was ‘We think we can win it all.' Since people are writing these things down and keeping track of them, that can be deleterious to your career once you have not, in fact, won it all. It prompts uncomfortable questions about your professional competence.
But gradually, gradually, team executives and coaches realized there are other ways to answer that question.
‘It might be all right’ won’t get you anywhere. It makes you look like a waffler.
But ‘we’re not winning this year’ is reassuringly certain. It fends off ‘Gotcha!’ stories at season’s end. And if you do by some miracle win, you look like you’ve underpromised and overdelivered.
So you’re getting a feeling about where Babcock is headed here.
The Leafs are staffed like a winner. They had better be. There’s no easy way to change the team for the foreseeable future.
Babcock is paid like a winner. He is still the top earner in his position by a wide margin.
The town is primed for a winner. A couple of 100-point finishes over the past two years created that not-exactly delusional expectation.
But the team would like to continue talking like a loser. Whenever things go wrong, Babcock points over at the locker room and seems to say, ‘Well, what do you expect?’
A fifth of the way into the campaign, the Leafs sit eighth in the Eastern Conference. The power play is a rolling series of brownouts. Their defence acts like a charity that’s giving away goals for the holidays.
On Saturday night, they should have pounded the Flyers flat. Instead, they let it get to an endless shootout. Toronto won, but not easily. That’s become the theme of the season – nothing is easy.
It’s early, but it’s not that early. The most serious problems are foundational rather than cosmetic. And now the coach is off in the corner sighing about Toronto’s unreasonable expectations.
Unreasonable expectations are why Babcock came to Toronto. He could’ve made just as much money in Buffalo or Carolina and been able to relax. But if he wants to work his way into a Hockey Night in Canada montage 20 years from now, the Leafs are his best chance to do it. That means accepting the expectations.
The Oilers have accepted them this year. Because there’s no next year for that team. If an Edmonton executive came out now and tried a line about “building and building,” the fanbase would burn the building to the ground.
The Oilers have a generational player in his prime. Their mulligans are up. Accepting that fact has, thus far, had a salutary effect on Edmonton’s results.
The Leafs should be acting as though they are in the same boat. This is Auston Matthews’s fourth year in the league. John Tavares is 29. Tyson Barrie is a rental. Frederik Andersen will soon be in line for a raise the Leafs can’t afford to pay. The team hasn’t won a playoff round in 15 years.
The Leafs’ window isn’t opening. They have one leg through it. Taking a step back now won’t work.
They still have months to work out the kinks. Whatever their problems, the Leafs aren’t a bad team. They’re an underperforming one.
Underperforming teams don’t need less pressure. They need more. They need their minds concentrated. That’s hard to do when the coach is providing them with excuses. It’s also hard not to notice that all of Babcock’s wisdom tends to service his (and every other coach’s) main goal – staying employed.
You know, he’d really love to win now, but, hey, kids these days. What are you gonna do? You have to hope for the best. Adversity is a wonderful teacher. Yadda yadda yadda.
Most of this slipped by in Toronto this week. Babcock’s comments were reported without a sneer. No one is coming for him yet. Give it a bit.
Ovechkin was right. The Leafs need to play differently. And while they’re on the topic of change, they might want to start talking differently as well. Toronto doesn’t have the luxury of building any more. It’s time to start moving in, or some people will soon be moving out.