It wouldn’t be early August in the hockey world without some random quote that gets attention due to the fact that it made a fanbase mad.
Last year, the Maple Leafs under-performed and that’s just a true statement. They were heading in with arguably the best two-headed monster down the middle — Auston Matthews and John Tavares — and they had very good players still playing for very cheap in Mitch Marner and the aforementioned Matthews.
To not take advantage of this roster with no massive cap obligations that forced reconfiguration in the lineup, should be seen as unfortunate. They were just one game away — maybe one period away — from winning their first opening round playoff series in a very long time.
But of course the coaching decision that led the whole NHL to collectively ask “what the hell are they doing?”, Mike Babcock playing depth players in the last period of Game 7 against the future Stanley Cup Finalist Boston Bruins, was the talk of every fan around the nation.
This is why, when Matt Larkin of The Hockey News put a quote from a future interview with Babcock out into the Twitter world, it just enraged the whole topic again.
Spoke to Leafs coach Mike Babcock today and broached the subject of Auston Matthews’ ice time. Here is Babcock’s assessment of it.:
(Watch for a full interview with Matthews and Babcock in the next issue of The Hockey News) pic.twitter.com/NZBbcRzbk1
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) August 6, 2019
Overall, this quote — and concept — makes perfect sense in the grand scheme of things. To not run out your elite players and overwork them when you’re going to win 45 games this season anyways and make the playoffs, that’s what leads to eventual championships.
But to simply put that Matthews still needs to “earn what he gets”, is honestly baffling. He’s already demonstrated that he’s one of the best — if not the best — goal-scorers in the league right now. That’s present day, not some future where the Leafs have yet to win a playoff series and Tavares is nearing his 35th birthday and Rielly is still trying to fathom why Cody Ceci is paired with him.
This is the current day where the Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the best groups of forwards you can dream of in the NHL. Offensively-elite players that can simply just control the play where they want to go and bring the rest of the fourth-line to winning some games.
That is why the quote has struck a chord within the Toronto fanbase.
They finally have some top-tier players that fans of other franchises can dream about, and get extremely annoyed when they score a hat-trick against them, but they’re stuck in a rut of never seeing them extend their winning into the second round.
Simply because of this philosophy to spread out the ice-time. It’s not that they’re collectively asking for Matthews and Tavares to play 26 minutes a night and leave scraps for the third and fourth line to play with, but it’s about giving them what a regular first line in the NHL actually has the capacity to play with.
Last season, Nathan MacKinnon averaged 22:05 TOI during the regular season. That could be because the Colorado Avalanche didn’t have anyone else really in their group of forwards, but imagine if the Leafs went with the same all-in approach when it came to their elite forwards as well.
Being conservative and giving both the Matthews and Tavares lines 21 minutes on average, that would leave 18 minutes to split up between the third and fourth lines. Still plenty enough to get some scoring done — but what really does get goals on the scoreboard is playing your best players more than your worse players.
Even compared to the league-average of first-line players time-on-ice, what the Leafs have done during the regular season isn’t that different than other teams. Nikita Kucherov and Marner play about the same amount during the regular season, Matthews and Ryan O’Rielly are comparable, but it’s about this mantra heading into the playoffs that was worrisome.
Especially in key situations that lowered their chances of winning that must-win game. It’s a hard to swallow fact that some people are too stubborn to notice the bigger picture and would rather have the whole ship go down with their own motives, rather than take the high road and accept that making the simple decision to go the conventional route could lead to more success.
This is a team that this franchise has not had in a very long time. One that can make a real impact in this league and not continue to be the joke on the ice that it has been known to be for decades. To have one opportunity slip through the fingers just because of a poor decision, is unfortunate and a waste of valuable time and effort put in to winning some hockey games.
Now everyone just has to move on from what is already in the past and hope that nothing like this happens again, no matter who is standing behind the bench at Scotiabank Arena.
It’s happened and hopefully some lessons have been learned.
Take this opportunity to move on and show exactly what this franchise can do on the ice with the players that they currently have. It’s not rocket science.