One Atlantic Division head coach, assessing the Maple Leafs earlier this season, saw a team that, if pushed, didn’t push back.
“They went with more speed and skill and less grit,” the coach told the Globe, trading anonymity for his honest opinion. “I don’t want to use the word ‘toughness,’ because you can be mentally tough, but they just went more of the speed and skill route. You feed into the speed and skill, and they’ll get you.
“But on the physical side of things, they’re not as hard to play against, with some of the players they have now.
“They will make mistakes. You just have to be patient with them.”
Mike Babcock, a proponent of truculence in his charges, saw his bosses’ patience run out Wednesday. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan fired him after four-plus seasons, the Leafs winless in their last six (9-10-4 overall) and sputtering toward a playoff DNQ, to say nothing of the first-round exits they’d suffered the last three years.
After moving on from Babcock — who is still owed three-plus years on a record $50 million, eight-year contract — the Leafs promoted 39-year-old Sheldon Keefe, who has history with Dubas. He hired Keefe while running OHL Sault Ste. Marie in 2012, and made him the AHL Marlies’ bench boss in 2015, where he remained until Wednesday. He coached his first NHL game Thursday in Arizona.
Patrice Bergeron won gold medals for Team Canada under Babcock at the 2004 World Championships, in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, and at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Though they spent the last few years as principal figures in the Boston-Toronto rivalry, Bergeron took no joy in Babcock’s dismissal.
“A great coach that I have lots of respect for,” said Bergeron, who was 18 when he first played for him. “I’ve learned from all my coaches, but I’ve learned from him personally. I know he’ll be back on his feet pretty quickly.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, turfed in Washington 28 games into his second season there (2003-04), also regretted seeing ‘Babs’ get the axe.
“I hate to see that happen to anybody,” said Cassidy, a playoff victor over Babcock’s Leafs the last two seasons. “I’ve been on that side of it. It’s a humbling game in that regard. . . . I wish Mike the best. He’s been a great coach in the game, in the NHL.”
David Krejci wasn’t as moved.
“I don’t really care what’s going on [with] other teams,” he said.
Back where he belongs
Bergeron, believed to be dealing with recurring groin issues, assumed his usual spot centering the No. 1 line Thursday against Buffalo after a two-game precautionary absence.
“The last three years have kind of opened my eyes even more so about that,” Bergeron said of taking it slowly with injuries. “There’s always something to learn, and that’s definitely something that I had to learn.”
The 34-year-old, who has played through a litany of ailments in the past, said the Bruins’ medical staff held him out of Tuesday’s game in New Jersey.
With Brett Ritchie (flare-up of elbow infection) unavailable, Charlie Coyle began Thursday night on the No. 2 line. Though Cassidy prefers him as a third-line center, and said the Anders Bjork-Coyle-Danton Heinen line has been “terrific,” he was expecting Coyle to stay aggressive while riding with Krejci.
“Don’t all of a sudden now defer because you’re with an experienced center,” Cassidy said of Coyle, whose five-game point streak was snapped Thursday. “We want to get the best out of him. I think this is a viable option.”
Ritchie was out for the seventh time in the last 10 games. He logged 13:15 on Tuesday in New Jersey, landing one shot on net . . . David Backes, who knocked heads with Ottawa’s Scott Sabourin on Nov. 2, skated after practice. Cassidy noted he was scheduled to “do a little more” on Thursday, “whether it’s in the gym or on the ice.” Sabourin, who was hospitalized after the collision, is still off skates . . . Cassidy said Karson Kuhlman (cracked right tibia) didn’t receive good news on a recent MRI, and is still wearing a protective boot. Kuhlman was expected to be re-evaluated four weeks after his Oct. 19 injury . . . Torey Krug (upper body) participated in the morning skate in a non-contact jersey, as did fellow blue liner John Moore (shoulder). Krug remains on track for a Saturday return. Moore is still weeks away . . . Kevan Miller (knee) could be available next week . . . Buffalo captain Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford and BU) assisted on Rasmus Ristolainen’s first-period goal, firing the shot that the Finn slammed home from the slot on the power play. It was Eichel’s 11th point (5 goals, 6 assists) in seven career visits to Boston, including a pair of four-point games (Dec. 26, 2015 and Dec. 16, 2018) . . . Par Lindholm played just 20 seconds in the first period before his legs got tangled with Rasmus Asplund near the boards. Lindholm departed up the tunnel, but was back on the bench in the second period . . . David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, who scored three times in the first 41:56, are the first teammates with 15 goals each through 22 games since Tampa’s Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone in 2009-10.
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports