Marner, Babcock respond to ‘hardest working Leafs’ list

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Now that the coaching change has finally been made, the stories about what life was like during the Mike Babcock era of the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to surface.

The most unbelievable one so far came out over the weekend.

It was then that the Toronto Sun‘s Terry Koshan revealed that during the 2016-17 season, Babcock had asked one of the team’s rookies “to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic.”

The rookie, not wanting to upset his coach, went through with the list only to have Babcock then tell the players at the bottom of the list where they stood.

That rookie turned out to be Mitch Marner, one of the core building blocks of the Maple Leafs’ organization.

According to Ian Tulloch of The Leafs Nation, Marner placed himself at the very bottom of the list with both sides (Marner and Babcock) agreeing he had to work harder without the puck. Forwards Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri were reportedly two of the more prominent names at the bottom and were later informed by Babcock of their rating in Marner’s eyes.

On Monday, Marner was asked about the situation and went on the record confirming that it actually happened.

“I’d say it was just surprising,” said Marner. “It was so long ago now, honestly I really kind of forgot about it until the report came out. It’s over with now and done with. I was lucky enough the guys that were there with me, none of them took it to heart and they knew it wasn’t up to me.”

He was also asked if he felt Babcock’s task had crossed a line.

“It was my first year, I didn’t really know what to think of it, but it’s over with now,” said Marner. “I’m looking forward to the new change and seeing how I can help this team under Sheldon.”

Babcock also responded on Monday by telling Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman: “I was trying to focus on work ethic with Mitch — focusing on role models — ended up not being a good idea. I apologized at (the) time.”

It is one thing to want a young player to have a strong work ethic and point out positive role models on the team, but there is probably a better way to go about it than the way Babcock did. And by probably, I mean definitely, and by better, I mean almost literally any other way. Putting a 19-year-old rookie on the spot like that — a player that is in a position to almost certainly do whatever the coach asks them to do — is no way to win over favor in the locker room.

This is pretty much an extension of the mind games coaches and executives play when they try to take on the role of amateur psychologist at scouting combines, asking ridiculous — or even insulting — questions to try and get a reaction to see how they respond.

Babcock probably isn’t the first coach to employ some sort of tactic like this, and he will almost certainly not be the last (not that it makes the situation any better — it’s bad no matter who does it).

It is also not unfair to say that Babcock now has a growing list of former players that are either critical of his coaching style, or just flat out do not like him.

Former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Commodore has been Babcock’s most vocal critic on social media, while former Maple Leafs defender Mark Fraser offered a little more insight in the wake of Toronto’s coaching change this past week. Fraser said, among other things, that Babcock is a coach that “95 percent of his former players can’t say a good thing about.”

Fraser’s entire Twitter thread on the subject is here.

Babcock also drew harsh criticism in Toronto earlier this season when he made Jason Spezza, a Toronto native and respected veteran, a healthy scratch in what would have been his first ever game for the Maple Leafs. To outsiders it probably wasn’t that big of a deal, but when added into the context of how some of his former players feel he unjustly treats them — as well as this story regarding Marner — it certainly stands out a little bit more.

It has only been two games since the coaching change, but the Maple Leafs already seem like a looser, more energized, and most importantly better team.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change
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.