Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks on fixing issues under Boughner: ‘It’s on all of us in this room’

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As with many coaches, after some time, the effect your voice has on your players wears off and new blood is needed. That’s been Peter DeBoer’s experience since becoming an NHL head coach in 2008.

Three seasons with the Panthers was followed by three-and-a-half yeah with the Devils, which brings us to his four-and-a-half season tenure with the Sharks, which ended Wednesday night with his firing. Each stop of his coaching journey has seen improvement, with his most successful job done in San Jose where the team made the Stanley Cup Final in his first season and reached the playoffs in his four full seasons in the Bay Area.

This 15-16-2 Sharks team should have been in the “Cup Contender” category nearly halfway through this season, but has turned out to be nothing but a disappointment. A five-game losing streak was the last straw for general manager Doug Wilson and it was time for a change.

“Probably, yeah,” said Joe Thornton when asked if a new voice was needed. “I love Pete. Pete’s a fantastic coach. He took this team to where it’s never been before. Nothing but heavy respect for Pete. But it might have been time for a new voice.”

The Sharks’ goaltending has been a huge issue since last season with a league-worst .892 even strength save percentage since the start of the 2018-19, per Natural Stat Trick. There’s also an issue of team defense. San Jose is tied with the Maple Leafs with 46 high-danger goals allowed, most in the NHL. It’s a baffling statistic given they also own the league’s best penalty kill at 88.3%. Systemically, there’s something wrong.

“We’ve talked about this since the beginning of the season,” Wilson said Thursday, “whether it’s focus, whether it’s attitude. Bob [Boughner] talked about when you’re killing penalties, it’s to prevent the other team from scoring, so you come back with urgency, even though you’re a man less. It’s positioning, sticks in the right lanes. I don’t like to use the word cheating, but you’re not hoping to go the other way. If you can apply that approach 5-on-5, you’d think you’d be very strong at it.

“If you can take the idea that it’s not just to prevent the other team from scoring, but now we want to get the puck back so we can attack offensively, that’s really the mindset you have to have. When we do that well, we’re a really good hockey team.”

Making a move to shake up this roster seems like a long-shot given the Sharks’ salary cap situation. The only notable move so far came in the way of bringing back Patrick Marleau, who has six goals and 11 points in 29 games.

The only change coming will be Bob Boughner moving from assistant to head coach and a new staff featuring San Jose’s AHL head coach Roy Sommer, and former Sharks Mike Ricci and Evgeni Nabokov.

“The players trust and believe in [Boughner],” Wilson said. “And I think he’ll bring that energy, juice and joy to the game I think our team is missing right now.”

We’ll see if Boughner learned from his two playoff-less seasons with the Panthers. Whatever new system and style he wants to institute will have to be executed by the players who have played their way into this situation.

“It’s on all of us in this room,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture. “When something like that happens, pro sports is such a what have you done for me lately business. As a player, when a coach loses their job, you feel you’re part of the reason why.”

“You put hockey aside. As a human being, you’re upset you’re not going to be able to work with that group anymore and see them every day,” Couture said. “I talked to most of them and just them that I had so much fun coming to the rink and playing for you guys.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Tim Thomas details brain damage from hockey

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Former NHL goaltender Tim Thomas said Thursday that his post-concussion syndrome symptoms were so severe that he couldn’t make basic decisions and his brain wasn’t functioning well enough to even watch hockey.

In his first public appearance since walking away from the game, Thomas said a scan taken after he retired showed that two-thirds of his brain were getting less than 5% blood flow and the other third was getting less than 50%. The 45-year-old said it took significant time and help to even be able to communicate with former teammates and others.

He’s still not close to normal.

”I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done,” Thomas said before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Thomas won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with the Boston Bruins and was named playoff MVP. He played parts of 10 NHL seasons before retiring in 2014 but said his experiences made him question if it was all worth it.

”It taught me a value for life and a value for my brain that I’ve never had before,” Thomas said. ”And I have appreciation for everything that I never had before. I don’t regret anything.”

Long considered reclusive, Thomas said he lived in the woods for a couple of years because he couldn’t handle human interaction. He got a chance to talk to some old teammates at a game Wednesday nights between the Bruins and Washington Capitals.

Losses pile up for Red Wings as Blashill’s seat gets hotter

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It’s pretty wild to think that it’s been a month since the Red Wings last won a game, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Ducks. It’s even wilder to realize that was their third straight win and that streak began by beating the Bruins and Golden Knights.

One month later and Detroit has gone 12 games without a win, five NHL teams have made coaching changes — with differing reasons, of course — and Jeff Blashill remains behind the bench.

The Red Wings are currently approaching the franchise record for consecutive losses (14) set back in 1982 and are five defeats away from tying the NHL record (17) held by the 1974-75 Capitals and 1992-92 Sharks.

“When things go bad, they’re really bad right now,” said Dylan Larkin. “We don’t have an answer for that right now. But we need to find it. It’s not even Christmas yet and this has happened too many times. It’s not acceptable.”

How bad it is? Their goal differential is currently a a league-worst minus-62. The Devils are right behind them at minus-37. They’re ranked 29th in team even strength save percentage at .896, per Natural Stat Trick, with their goaltenders allowing five or more goals in half of their 32 games. The offense is averaging a paltry 2.09 goals per game.

The expectations were low this season, so playoff hockey wasn’t a thought for the team. With a new general manager in Steve Yzerman and a young roster, it was all about development and taking steps forward. Blashill signed a two-year extension in April, but there’s been a lack of progress. There’s a natural replacement on the Red Wings’ bench in Dan Bylsma, but perhaps Yzerman has someone else in mind?

While his future remains unknown, Blashill is trying to focus on the present.

“For me, all I’m doing is what I always do and that’s be solution-based and worry about what we can control,” he said following Tuesday’s defeat. “What we can control right now is learning from this game and make sure we are helping our team get better. Find solutions. Come Thursday and worry just about that. That’s it.”

It’s hard to know Yzerman’s thinking on the situation given he hasn’t spoken publicly about Blashill since last month’s general manager meetings when he said he was “seeing good progress” with the Red Wings and there’s still a “long way to go.” But clearly something’s got to give in Hockeytown.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.