Much like Vegas, every act grows old in coaching, and a voice gone stale was part of the reason why the Maple Leafs on Wednesday sent Mike Babcock packing some four-plus years into his record eight-year/$50 million pact to turn around the Blue and White.
As measured by rounds won by the Leafs in the playoffs (zero), Babcock’s coaching tenure in Toronto was an abject failure. But that would be an unfair portrayal of his full tenure behind the bench, an impressive 173-133-45 (.557) regular-season mark that included a pair of 100-point seasons and three playoff berths (8-12 record) the last three seasons.
The Leafs, let us not forget, had DNQ’d for 9 of 10 postseasons prior to Babcock’s arrival. They had morphed into Canada’s version of the pre-Mike Ilitch Dead Wings. To date, they still haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. A full generation of Leafs fans, among the most avid in the Original 31, now have lived without the sweet springtime intoxication of a Cup run in Southern Ontario.
Now, did Babcock deserve to get whacked? Both his bona fides (including a Cup in Detroit, a pair of Olympic golds with Canada) and his overall mark across four seasons with the Leafs say no. He is the same solid, smart, determined bench mentor that led Leafs leadership, including team president Brendan Shanahan, to bring him aboard when he became a free agent in Detroit in the spring of 2015.
But again, acts age out, voices lose their pitch, and perhaps more critical in this case, the 56-year-old Babcock lacked the equity (protection) that postseason success typically builds. If not for that mega contract, which lifted the pay level for coaching brethren across the league, he might have been turfed with no playoff success after only three seasons on the job. That’s just the way it works. The equity of the ’11 Cup and a trip to the ’13 Final helped to keep Claude Julien on the job in Boston even through the back-to-back playoff DNQ’s of 2015 and ’16.
Fact is, if not for back-to-back Game 7 flip-of-the-coin knockouts at the hands of the Bruins the past two Aprils, perhaps Babcock is still on the job, even despite his tepid (9-10-4) start this season. Coaching, forever dirty work, even for guys with 700 career wins and a trophy case of shiny hardware (albeit one surprisingly lacking a Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year).
Hard to envision a quick turnaround for Sheldon Keefe, newly-installed as Babcock’s successor, but many (hand high here) said exactly that in February 2017 when Bruce Cassidy was promoted to the No. 1 gig. Cassidy took control when the Bruins were doddering along at 26-23-6, both feet firmly planted on a path to a third consecutive DNQ. Cassidy’s combination of change in offensive approach and overall messaging (read: new voice) delivered a galloping 18-8-1 finish and a date with Ottawa in the playoffs.
So it can happen, and Keefe, 39, much like Cassidy, helped channel upward of 10 current players to the Leafs’ varsity during his stellar four-plus seasons in charge of the AHL Marlies, including a Calder Cup title in ’18. Babcock is known as an old-school, no-nonsense taskmaster, though one laced with some keen wit. Keefe, long ago a fringe forward with the Lightning, will begin with a lighter message more like Cassidy’s, emphasizing a slight change in the offensive attack and an overall less rigid, narrow game plan.
“He lets us be more creative,” Marlies back liner and first-round pick, Timothy Liljegren told Sportsnet when the change was made Wednesday.
A key difference, though, when comparing the Leafs of November 2019 and the Bruins on February 2017 is the overall structure and competence (i.e talent level) of the rosters. From the start, Babcock was handed a lineup riddled with holes, one that only became more porous amid the front-office transition that left Kyle Dubas standing as GM and Lou Lamoriello bolting for Long Island, where he has resurrected the risible Islanders.
The current Leafs roster is top heavy in elite and semi-elite, highly-expensive talent up front, including a $40 million-plus cap hit in four forwards: Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander. Anyone would want them on their roster (remember, the Bruins pursued Tavares as a UFA in the summer of 2018), but at what price? Their cap drain is horrendous and compromising in a fixed-cap system. The Leafs have what at best could be labeled a highly-ordinary defensive unit, and they don’t have a suitable backup to allow No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen to take a blow.
Dubas, with Shanahan watching over him, has engineered a pricey, compromised, gritless squad designed around winning with today’s standard model of speed and skill. That’s a fine model, backed with a trove of analytics, but it’s talented men and not Corsi-lovin’ mathematicians who win games.
The Bruins inherited by Cassidy had Anton Khudobin as a competent backup to No. 1 Tuukka Rask. They had captain Zdeno Chara as the unique shutdown lynchpin to a defensive corps that included the likes of Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid as extra steel wool to smooth out, shall we say, rough spots. They had Patrice Bergeron, who that June would pick up his fourth Selke Trophy as the game’s best defensive forward, as the NHL’s consummate 200-foot player.
From here, albeit some 500 miles southeast, there appears to be no quick fix for the Leafs on par with Cassidy’s 18-8-1 igniter switch. Beyond the different voice behind the bench, which they may or may not have needed, they have to build some will and temerity around that slick forward group, find a first- or second-pairing defenseman who at least can increase level of play back there from a C-minus to a B, and also find a suitable (read: NHL capable) backup so Andersen, 30, isn’t assigned to assisted living by early March.
Easy enough to blame Babcock. In a span of 40 years now, the Leafs have turfed their coach eight times with the season in progress. They remain without a Cup since 1967. Not even five years after hiring Babcock to close the championship gap, today they only look further from the goal.
TARGET OF CRITICISM
Equipment fails for these fans
Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made a dazzling, Cirque de Soleil-like save Tuesday night, springing backward from the top of his crease, twisting and flashing his glove (Ole!) to snare a Nic Petan backhand sweep that was all but certified for delivery to the top shelf. Just watching Fleury’s gyrations triggered back spasms in your aged, faithful puck chronicler.
“I think those saves that make you feel you scored,” Fleury, 34, told the media following the 4-2 Golden Knights’ win over the Leafs. “Those are the saves I love to play for.”
The stop, with less than four minutes to go in regulation, kept Vegas in front, 3-2, and Cody Eakin sealed the deal with 21 seconds to go. It turned out to be Mike Babcock’s final night behind the Leafs’ bench.
As for Fleury’s stop, quickly labeled on the Internet as the “Superman Save,’’ yes, it was stupendous. An absolute must-see on YouTube. But at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, it also served as yet another reminder how equipment innovations — specifically the lightweight leg pads, in this case — have diminished dramatically the ability for shooters to score. The game has grown simply too far weighted toward the goalies.
The light, streamlined leg pads have been in vogue for 30-plus years. So many fans of the current game don’t recall the days, well into the 1980s, when tenders wore heavy leather pads stuffed with animal hair (be it horse, deer, or otherwise). Those old pads absorbed sweat and ice shavings, adding weight and restricting mobility.
Goalies have made dazzling saves, some even greater than Fleury’s masterpiece, dating before the time of vulcanized rubber. When I started this gig in the late ’70s, my game stories often centered on a holy trinity present in most games: a great goal, a great save, and a great fight. Too often now, games are minus all three, particularly the fighting (a good thing) and the dazzling goal (a tissue for an old man, please). Great saves? Because of the butterfly style, the state of the art in modern goaltending is more blocking than saving. Not much thrill in a block.
Without those lightweight pads, chances of Fleury making that stop on Petan would have been all but zilch. Yes, he could have sprung back, but the heavy pads would have left his legs anchored to the ice like dock moorings. He might have snared the shot with an old leather glove, but those models were vastly smaller than today’s outsized Venus flytraps.
Prime scoring chances should have at least an equal chance of going in the net as the goalie has of keeping them out of the net. It’s simply not the case. If Fleury’s dazzling save doesn’t prove it, the shootout alone should be proof. Slightly more than two of every three shooters fail to score in the shootout.
Time to scale back the gear and at least make it a 50-50 proposition.
Getting a leg up
Lemelin was light years ahead
Jacques Plante was the father of the goalie mask, wearing it in an NHL game for the first time 60 years ago (Nov. 1, 1959) when he backstopped the Canadiens.
The innovator of the lightweight leg pads? Ex-Bruins netminder Reggie Lemelin, who came to Boston in the summer of 1987, just months after he first started using the sponge-like leg coverings in his days as a Calgary Flame.
“The first ones were like gold-and-strawberry colored,” Lemelin recalled the other day when reached by phone. “Heck, they were talking about me everywhere — not for my saves, but for how I looked.”
The revolutionary pads, recalled Lemelin, were the brainchild of Jim Lowson, an inventor/designer from Mill Valley, Calif., who initially approached Flames goalie Mike Vernon about the idea. Vernon, some eight-plus years younger than Lemelin, didn’t have his interest piqued when Lowson made his sales pitch one day at practice.
“This guy comes in with these crazy pads,” remembered Lemelin. “He talks to Mike and says, ‘Look, I’ve got this prototype. It’s very light. It’s all foam. But I need to work with somebody to help me develop this.’ Mike is this kid, like 21 years old, and looking at him like he has two heads.”
A disappointed Lowson “got the hint,” noted Lemelin, and headed out of the rink that day, a man with a cause but minus a goaltender.
“He’s leaving, almost with his head down, and I come by and say, ‘Hey, I am Reggie Lemelin, the other goalie,’ ’’ he recalled. “And he says, ‘Oh, I know who you are.’ And I said, ‘Look, you approached the wrong guy — this kid doesn’t give a crap about what you’ve got. He’s just starting his career. But I might. Because I see the potential. I’ll work with you.’ And that’s how it all started.”
During the 1987 All-Star break, Lemelin flew to San Francisco to work out design specs with Lowson, and he finally used the first pair in an NHL game that March. Lowson and Lemelin soon worked with a Connecticut-based manufacturer, and within a year or two of Lemelin arriving in Boston, a handful of other NHL tenders were wearing the groundbreaking Aeroflex lightweight pads. Lemelin dusted off the one pair he kept in January 2016 for the Habs-Bruins alumni game at the Outdoor Classic at Gillette Stadium.
The new pads weighed 2 ½ pounds each and absorbed no water. Lemelin’s old leather pads, stuffed with deer hair, were approximately 6 pounds each when dry, and absorbed another 3 or 4 pounds of water weight during games.
“I got on the scale once after a game,” recalled Lemelin, whose playing weight was approximately 170 pounds, “and all the gear, including the pads, gloves, chest protector and all that came to 32 pounds.”
Kiddingly, Lemelin added that his stand-up style in net was in large part because, “I didn’t want the sweat to drain into my equipment.”
Now a membership ambassador at Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, where he has worked the past three years, the 65-year-old Lemelin lives in Peabody and suits up as a forward with the Bruins Alumni squad. It takes a few hours for the former goalie’s aches and pains to dissipate each morning.
“Might have been different if those pads were invented a few years earlier,” he said, “the bastards!”
Out of work less than a week after his abrupt dismissal by Sportsnet, Don Cherry began his career comeback Tuesday with his revived “Grapevine” podcast, joined by son Tim and grandson Del. Had “Grapes” apologized on air for his divisive “you people” comment made on Hockey Night In Canada, the ex-Bruins coach likely could have kept his TV gig. But he wouldn’t budge. “I lived in a vicious world,” Cherry said on the podcast, summing up his long, oft-controversial TV tenure, “and I lasted 38 years.” All subsequent “Grapevine” episodes will post on Mondays throughout the hockey season. “I’m glad,” added Cherry, “I’m going out on my shield.” . . . Only one coach, Pat Burns, has won three Adams Awards as Coach of the Year: Burns, who won it with the Bruins in ’98, also won it in Montreal (’89) and Toronto (’93). When Burns won his one Cup with the Devils in 2003, it was against Babcock’s Mighty Ducks . . . Lingering image of the ’03 Cup Final: the Scott Stevens monster truck hit on Paul Kariya in open ice. Thankfully, we see fewer of those seek-and-destroy explosions in today’ game, in large part because of rulebook changes that came in the wake of Matt Cooke’s predatory head shot on Marc Savard. Kariya dished the puck as he approached his offensive blue line, admired his pass for a second, and got sent to Palookaville (shoulder to head) by the menacing Stevens. It took that hit on Savard some seven years later (March 2010) for the Lords of the Boards finally to decide to punish hits that primarily target a player’s head . . . Scary scene at Flames practice a week ago Friday when TJ Brodie collapsed to the ice in convulsions. A week-plus later, the Flames have released few details regarding the condition of the popular 29-year-old blue liner. They went 0-4, outscored 17-2, in their next four games . . . Nice touch by the league last weekend, announcing that the Jim Gregory Award will be given each season to the NHL GM of the Year (currently Don Sweeney for 2018-19). The OHL decided to do the same in October, just after Gregory, the one-time Leafs GM, died at age 83.