Babcock’s goal for the Leafs is to ‘Make the organization proud of us’ but what does that mean?

Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports

The best result for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, in my view, would be to end the season with good lottery odds. 

No one in professional hockey likes to lose though, and that’s especially true of uber-competitive executives and coaches like Mike Babcock, Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello. ‘Likes’ may not factor into it for a Maple Leafs team that is expected – based solely on their personnel – to struggle to both score and defend adequately this season.

So what’s Babcock’s big picture goal for the season? It’s not the playoffs, and it’s clearly not to bottom out. No, according to the league’s best paid bench boss the Maple Leafs’ goal for this upcoming season is something much vaguer and more ephemeral:

Added Babcock, “I like to be proud when I leave the rink.” 

There wasn’t a lot of pride in Leafsland last season. From salutegate through to TSN Twitter-tickergate to “this guys such an ass-hole”gate, to the club wishing Phil Kessel well, and telling him not to late the gate hit him on the way out. Surely there’s only one way for things to go.

There are both external and internal pressures to be contended with though. Even though the club sent William Nylander, easily one of their six most dynamic offensive fowards, to the American League, this organization isn’t behaving in a way that would imply that they’re tanking. Babcock, Lamoriello and Shanahan surely wouldn’t have it anyway, and at least one half of the ownership wouldn’t be too happy either.

From David Shoalts’ Globe & Mail piece on the impact the Maple Leafs’ struggles are having on Rogers, a part owner of the club and the NHL’s Canadian broadcast rights holder (full disclosure, I work for on a contract basis):

One Rogers employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was not for public consumption, said the average television ratings for Leafs broadcasts fell by 60 per cent from the start of the season, when 2,024,500 viewers watched them play the Montreal Canadiens on opening night.

The number of viewers dipped as low as 121,000 (April 8, versus the Columbus Blue Jackets) for adults ages 25 to 54, the most prized demographic for advertisers. But the Leafs’ viewers did come back for games with their top rival, as 2.3 million watched their regular-season finale versus the Canadiens.

Even worse, in the NHL’s salary-cap system, turning a dog into a consistent contender can take many years. The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, took eight years to win a Stanley Cup from the time they drafted star defenceman Duncan Keith in 2002. In five of those years, they missed the playoffs.

This leaves Rogers facing the unpleasant prospect of seeing the Leafs’ long run as a mediocrity continue for as long as two-thirds of the length of their NHL contract. When this scenario was raised with Pelley not long before he left his Rogers post, he smiled uneasily and said, “We have our faith in Brendan Shanahan.”

There are those who’ve made a compelling case for tanking as the best way to build a Stanley Cup contender, but it seems to me that going from being a bad team, to being a worse team, to being a good team isn’t necessarily the easiest way to go. Even if we put the question of whether or not the fans would be able to handle an extended Maple Leafs tank job aside (I’m skeptical), it seems clear enough that no one involved in the running of the Maple Leafs – not ownership and not Maple Leafs brass – has any appetite for a multi-year tear-it-down, accumulate lottery picks-style rebuild. 

Which brings us back to around to ‘pride’ as the primary goal of the Maple Leafs’ season. The big question, it seems to me, is how does a team go about authoring a losing season to be proud of?

Presumably it’s by working hard. Babcock has gone on and on about instilling a particular type of ethic into this Maple Leafs team. That the club may be out-classed, he can live with that, but shouldn’t be outworked. 

Like the Calgary Flames in the latter half of 2013-14, if the Maple Leafs can begin to build a reputation as an overmatched side that at least makes opponents work for their points, is that something to be proud of? Perhaps. Though I’d suggest that some of the early Brian Burke Leafs teams – starring Tim Brent and Dominic Moore – qualified by this rubric, and that didn’t cause the hockey-obsessed denizens of Southern Ontario to puff out their chests, as I recall.

Presumably it’s also by showing signs of internal improvement. Over the past three years only the Buffalo Sabres have been outshot by as wide a margin at even-strength as the Maple Leafs have been. If the club isn’t nearly as dynamic offensively this season as they was a year ago, but can improve their 5-on-5 shot-attempt differential from a brutal 46.4 last year (fourth worst in hockey) by at least a couple of percentage points, is that something to be proud of?

It’s impossible to quantify or qualify what something like ‘pride’ looks like. Like pornography, you know it when you see it, I guess. What’s clearer and easier to nail down than what Babcock is specifically hoping to achieve this season is this: in the short-term at least, Maple Leafs fans will have to content themselves with finding pleasure in ephemeral things like hard work, and baby steps, and pride.

I’d suggest that those things are pretty meaningless, however, unless they come attached to more tangible evidence of internal development and on-ice improvement. 

  • Bill-Burford

    I think part of establishing this pride is limiting the media circus. It’s not fun to be a leafs fan when your players are being embarrassed in the media.

    I like that Babcock has started limiting them already by announcing the starting goalies instead of leaving it up to the last Carlyle of a second like some great reveal – a move that always made the goalies have to face annoying pre-game questions instead of getting in the zone.

  • Gary Empey

    TANK TANK TANK !! All I hear is TANK !
    After firing Carlyle last year yes it appeared to be the case. Everyone could see the players understood Leaf management had rolled over and lost interest in winning themselves.

    With this new coach and management team there is no way the Leafs intend to tank.
    One only has look at the preseason games to see Babcock has no interest in tanking. He expects to win every game. He wants his players coming to the arena expecting to win every game. I personally think it will be very interesting to watch the Leafs slowly build a winner from the ground up. Watching the team learning to perfect getting the puck quickly out of their own zone. This year the Leafs look, a lot different from any team I have seen since the Gilmour days. Looking closely one can see a few little tweaks already that have a lot of thought behind them.

    Any team that comes to the ACC expecting to pick up a couple of easy points will get their collective asses kicked.

    In the past we have constantly seen the Leafs trading away young prospects and draft picks to try and improve the team. For the most part this type of rebuild gave us lots of hope at the start of the season, but at end never much satisfaction. One can see the Leafs have totally moved away from this approach. We have some really good young prospects coming along. We still have lots of draft picks for our scouting team work with.

    To the Leaf fan looking for instant success I say;

    “Let’s not tear down the scaffolding on a half finished rebuild. Let’s sit back and enjoy this opportunity of a lifetime”.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Success this season will not be defined by wins and losses, rather by the effort and pride the players make every shift of every game.
    Change the culture to a hard-working and proud lineup, rather than the disinterested and apathetic bunch that skated for the team last year, success will follow as the top prospects filter up to the big team

    • Gary Empey

      After watching the first two periods it is like night and day from last year’s team. The quickness and speed of the leafs is evident. Seeing all the forwards back-checking with speed is giving the defence at good chance to make a good play and get the puck going back the other way. When Montreal does get a chance for a shot they are not getting much time to set up.

      • Harte of a Lion

        Rumour has it Kessel reported to camp 15 pounds lighter after training all summer… What is wrong with that picture?
        The only training he ever did before a Leaf camp was eating and fishing.
        Anyone who says we should have kept Kessel needs to take a pill.

  • TGT23

    I’d be satisfied with good hockey, tight games, even if they ultimately lose. Losses like tonight against MTL when they played so well are perfectly fine with me. 2-1 (forgetting the EN), outshooting their opponent, staying in the game most of the night… Yeah, I’ll take that from a rebuilding team in Year 1.