Coach Mike Babcock celebrated his 600th win as a NHL coach, placing him in a very small group of special coaches including Joel Quenneville, Pat Quinn, Scotty Bowman. Babcock is also the only coach to win six international titles. When Babcock chose to coach in Toronto it marked the first step in turning the Maple Leafs around.
Despite finishing last place in the NHL in his first year as coach, there was a sense of hope and excitement when the last place Maple Leafs began to ice its rookies to wrap up the 2015-2016 season. The team began to play with a structure and purpose not seen under the tutelage of Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle. With this new structure in place, players like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly began to grow and the improvements to their games were noticeable even with the team finishing last.
The 2016-2017 season began with so much hope and excitement. Drafting Auston Matthews first overall, and with William Nylander, Mitchell Marner, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown already on the team, Babcock finally had the talent to begin the team’s ascension up the NHL standings. Babcock worked closely with his talented group of rookies and with the continued improvement of the veterans like Reilly, Gardiner and Kadri, the team completed the impossible as they went from dead last the season before to making the playoffs.
Even though the Maple Leafs lost the first round in six games against the Washington Capitals, Leafs Nation was left with the knowledge that the 2017-2018 season offered something special. We knew the best was yet to come.
Babcock is also firm with any roster decisions he makes. No decision is more scrutinized then the one that sees Zach Hyman playing alongside Mathews and Nylander on the first line. More cries for change have come this season when the Maple Leafs added Patrick Marleau to their forward group, but Babcock has stuck to his guns.
Personally, I like the mix of grit and skill the Mathews’ line offers every time it hits the ice. Hyman goes into the dirty areas and retrieves the puck for his highly talented line mates. Even though last season wasn’t the best for him, this season has the markings to be his best since joining the Maple Leafs. Babcock’s belief in Hyman is paying off, as he has started the season with three goals, two assists for five points in the first 7 games of the season.
Given the way this season has started (winning six of the first seven games), I am hard pressed to find fault in Babcock’s decisions. He has taken his first shot across the bow to the line consisting of Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner. Missing defensive assignments and poor plus/minus results meant Mitch Marner was sent to the fourth line and Connor Brown moved up. I do not imagine this being a long-term solution, but a wake-up call to the players’ free wheeling ways needed to be made.
The Maple Leafs quick turn around can be attributed in part to its improved roster of players. However, not all the credit can go to the players. As we see in cities like Buffalo and Edmonton before the arrival of Todd McLellan, having the right coach makes a world of difference in the development of a team. The Maple Leafs are where they are now because of Babcock. This was always going to be a process and over time the roster’s configuration may change. One thing is for certain, I would rather Mike Babcock coaching this team than any other coach in the NHL.