With chips down, Leafs’ Mike Babcock still betting on himself

LAS VEGAS — The day after the worst performance of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ season, Mike Babcock spent an “off” night here watching the Vegas Golden Knights host the Calgary Flames along with other members of the team’s coaching and management staff.

There’s no off button for the hard-driving head coach at the best of times.

There’s no option for there to be one right now with the Leafs fresh off a 6-1 pounding at the hands of the Penguins in Pittsburgh and having dropped five straight games.

Babcock’s job security is now a source of open speculation and he’s not far past the midway point of his contract. That has to be a bit jarring for a man who once said he planned to coach all eight years on his landmark Leafs deal and then stick around for two more “because we’re going to be so good.”

And yet, even with the growing chorus of critics around him and his team’s slide down the standings, you don’t get the sense much has changed. Babcock doesn’t look or sound like someone who feels like he’s coaching for his job.

“I’m going to do it as hard as I can, as long as I can,” he said Monday at T-Mobile Arena. “I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’ll continue to bet on him.”

The Leafs have been on a bad beat for the last week and a half. They’ve only come out on the right side of expected goals once in their last six games — with a slight 50.22 per cent edge in Wednesday’s loss to the Islanders — and they’ve surrendered 23 goals against in the process.

It’s been a ghastly defensive stretch.

Of Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh, where they hung goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo out to dry in his NHL debut, Tyson Barrie said: “I think we’re kind of killing ourselves. That last game was a bit embarrassing. I think we gave up probably 20 odd-man rushes it felt like.”

The biggest gains can be achieved by tightening up.

That’s why Babcock switched his bottom-two defensive pairings for Monday’s practice — putting Justin Holl beside Jake Muzzin while slotting Barrie beside Travis Dermott — and suggested that he’ll do a little more in-game juggling on offensive zone draws in an effort to better optimize the lineup.

However, there’s a belief behind closed doors that their issues run deeper than personnel or tactics. As the Leafs have started searching for answers, they’ve asked tougher questions of themselves.

“I’ve been doing some thinking about it and I think we have good, good people in here,” said Muzzin. “Good team, good players, good guys, but I think we need to come together a little bit more and I think we need to play with a little more passion, a little more awareness and urgency on the defensive side of the puck.

“It’s not even X’s and O’s, it’s the will inside every guy in here to keep the puck out of the net. I think we need a better effort out of that and that’s all honesty.”

When it was pointed out to Muzzin that the Leafs are built with a disproportionate amount of skilled offensive players — guys that haven’t reached this point because of their defensive awareness — he brought it back to commitment.

“The reality is when you don’t care (about defence) this is what happens: You lose games,” he said. “You can score all the goals you want, but if you’re not going to play the right way on the defensive side of the puck you’re not going to win.”

The glitz and glamour of the Vegas Strip feels like a strange place to arrive in the middle of a rough patch. The Leafs have had a series of heart-to-heart talks since their charter landed from Pittsburgh.

Babcock had player-initiated meetings with Rielly and captain John Tavares, and the chatter has picked up among the group.

“We’ve had some talks and we’ll have more talks and try to address (the defensive issues),” said Muzzin. “So everyone understands thoroughly what needs to be done.”

The Leafs also held their traditional rookie dinner here Sunday night — an event that is scheduled well ahead of time. That usually offers players the chance to blow off some steam and have a few laughs together.

Some visiting teams have gone to great lengths to try and keep their group focused before playing the Golden Knights, but Babcock didn’t pull out any special measures with two nights in Vegas before Tuesday’s game.

“I’m worried about that all the time, but what do you do?” he said. “I don’t think you can put ‘em in jail, they’re men. This is a great city. Nashville’s a great city. There’s a whole bunch of great cities.”

Nor has he spent much time focusing on the increased chatter about his future.

“Not really, I’m in a pretty good spot in my life. My kids are grown,” said Babcock. “If my kids were young, I’d never coach in Toronto, OK? So in my spot, I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening.

“But I do get text messages from people that are friends and they’re sending ya texts (because) they care about ya.”

Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/chips-leafs-mike-babcock-still-betting/

Post Author: HockeyHawk