Dubas’s sum­mer may set up Bab­cock for a fall

It’s early, but it looks like cost con­trol mat­tered more than fix­ing flaws

The Peterborough Examiner - - SPORTS - Damien Cox

TORONTO — If Mike Bab­cock’s job is on the line this sea­son, you’ve re­ally got to start won­der­ing whether he’s got a fight­ing chance.

At this point, it ap­pears more like his boss, Kyle Dubas, has tasked Bab­cock with the un­en­vi­able job of get­ting bet­ter re­sults out of a ros­ter that is ei­ther no bet­ter than last year’s, and quite pos­si­bly weaker.

Com­ing off a col­lapse against Mon­treal, a tight one-goal de­feat to the Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons from St. Louis and a wal­lop­ing at the hands of tal­ented Tampa on Thurs­day, the Toronto Maple Leafs are cer­tainly look­ing a bit wob­bly in the sec­ond week of the NHL sea­son.

Against the Bolts, the same vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that were there last spring when the Leafs went out in the first round of the play­offs to Bos­ton re­mained. That’s not sur­pris­ing, given that the ma­jor surgery done by Dubas this sum­mer on the Leaf ros­ter — the five play­ers who started the game on Thurs­day weren’t in the open­ing night lineup a year ago — wasn’t about im­prov­ing the team’s weak­est ar­eas.

Dubas didn’t set out to fix prob­lems. He was nec­es­sar­ily and com­pletely fo­cused on con­trol­ling costs. The en­tire off­sea­son was about get­ting Mitch Marner un­der con­tract, and that was a long-term in­vest­ment, not one to im­prove the Leafs in the short-term.

Oth­er­wise, the key short­com­ings of this team went ut­terly un­ad­dressed, specif­i­cally its de­fen­sive is­sues and depth in net. So far, the Leafs have sur­ren­dered 19 goals in five games, the penalty killing unit looked com­pletely over­matched against the pow­er­house Light­ning ex­tra-strength at­tack on Thurs­day and Fred­die An­der­sen’s early sea­son save per­cent­age has cratered.

Dubas, be­cause of mas­sive con­tracts he’s given out over the past 18 months, had so lit­tle wig­gle room un­der the salary cap that in­stead of look­ing for play­ers who could sig­nif­i­cantly shore up these ar­eas he was left look­ing for sav­ings and bar­gains.

Dubas didn’t trade for Tyson Bar­rie be­cause Bar­rie filled a need. He traded for Bar­rie be­cause he came cheaper than Nazem Kadri. The Leaf GM didn’t ad­dress backup goaltendin­g at all, de­cid­ing to once again put all the bur­den on An­der­sen.

Ras­mus Sandin could use at least an­other half-sea­son in the mi­nors, but he’s in Bab­cock’s lineup be­cause he costs a frac­tion of what Jake Gar­diner did. Then there’s the strange ac­qui­si­tion of Ja­son Spezza, who looks com­pletely lost as a part­time fourth line right winger. Spezza wasn’t ac­quired to ad­dress a need, but be­cause he now earns one-tenth of the salary he com­manded for the past decade.

The Cody Ceci trade, mean­while, re­mains a puz­zling one, with no clear ev­i­dence at this point that the former Sen­a­tor is go­ing to be a sig­nif­i­cant up­grade on Nikita Zait­sev, or give the Leafs a stronger pres­ence in their own zone that the club des­per­ately needs.

The Leafs got no home­town dis­counts on Marner, Aus­ton Matthews or Wil­liam Ny­lan­der, and so were un­able to ag­gres­sively find off-sea­son so­lu­tions to their big­gest prob­lems. That doesn’t mean the team is doomed. What it means is that Bab­cock is go­ing to have to get very cre­ative with the all-skill, no-sand­pa­per ros­ter he’s been given by Dubas and man­u­fac­ture in­ter­nal so­lu­tions to prob­lems that weren’t ad­dressed by the GM in the off-sea­son.

This is a tal­ented Leaf ros­ter, but not a very deep one, and not a very ex­pe­ri­enced squad, ei­ther. Sub­tract­ing Kadri, Gar­diner, Pa­trick Mar­leau and Ron Hain­sey from last year’s team af­ter let­ting Leo Ko­marov, James van Riems­dyk, Tyler Bozak and Ro­man Po­lak go the pre­vi­ous sum­mer has re­moved quite a num­ber of re­li­able play­ers from Bab­cock’s bench.

In­stead of Mar­leau, he’s now got Trevor Moore. In­stead of Hain­sey, he’s got Justin Holl. In­stead of van Riems­dyk, there’s Nic Pe­tan.

This is not the work of a GM try­ing to fix prob­lems. It’s the work of a GM jug­gling cap con­sid­er­a­tions.

Bab­cock’s job, of course, is to make all this work any­ways. But when you con­sider he lost both his as­sis­tant coaches last sum­mer and now hasn’t been given a very bal­anced ros­ter to di­rect, the chal­lenge is ob­vi­ous. With Bos­ton com­ing up twice in the next 10 days, the chal­lenge is also im­me­di­ate.

Dubas put this team to­gether, not Bab­cock. But now it’s up to Bab­cock to make the Leafs win, know­ing all the while Shel­don Keefe, Dubas’s ju­nior coach, is wait­ing in the wings should this team fall short of ex­pec­ta­tions.

So this is all go­ing to be fas­ci­nat­ing as it plays out in the com­ing weeks. Much of this re­volves around An­der­sen, who is go­ing to have to be out­stand­ing all sea­son and into the spring for this team to take a step for­ward. His $5 mil­lion con­tract works in his favour, but this team is go­ing to need more than just spurts of elite goaltendin­g.

If it all doesn’t work, Bab­cock may even­tu­ally lose his job. But if that hap­pens Dubas will also have to se­ri­ously re-eval­u­ate the wis­dom of hav­ing so few play­ers suck up so much cap space, or whether one of Matthews, Marner and Ny­lan­der will have to be moved for the greater good. The team has dou­bled down its com­mit­ment to $77 mil­lion man John Tavares by giv­ing him the cap­taincy, so he’s stay­ing put.

The older coach with the big con­tract now needs to make the top-heavy, in­ex­pe­ri­enced ros­ter built by his youth­ful GM win games, and lots of them in a very tough di­vi­sion.

Only five games have been played, yet al­ready there’s a whiff of ur­gency in the air.

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

The Toronto Maple Leafs, un­der head coach Mike Bab­cock, have lost their past three games, am­pli­fy­ing a sense of ur­gency around a team with a top-heavy ros­ter and no re­cent play­off suc­cess.

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