A common criticism of the hockey media in general I see is too great of a focus on the Maple Leafs and I try to be mindful of that. For years now, the Leafs have often produced juicy storylines and that’s been particularly true this season and I have tried – though you can judge my level of success for yourself – to avoid focusing too much on Toronto’s struggles at the expense of other stories in this weekly column. This week though, we have to start with the Maple Leafs because they just fired the highest paid coach in league history roughly halfway through his contract.
That’s something of a bad look, but a 9-10-4 record during a season when they were supposed to compete for the Cup is a worse look, especially given the Toronto Maple Leafs’ awkward situation when it comes to their window to compete. It could be argued that Toronto’s window is nowhere close to being over, given that Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are all signed through at least the summer of 2024. There’s some obvious truth to that, the problem is that they’re collectively being paid so much that it’s hard to build a team around them.
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Right now their cap issues are made somewhat easier because Frederik Andersen comes with a $5 million cap hit, Jake Muzzin’s hit is $4 million, and Tyson Barrie is at $2.75 million. The problem is Barrie and Muzzin will become UFAs this summer and Andersen can become a UFA in 2020. They’re all likely to command significant raises and it will be difficult for Toronto to keep all of them, even after factoring in the likelihood of the cap gradually increasing. So while it would be overly dramatic to say that the Leafs’ window is short, it is fair to say that there’s no guarantee that they will have any team better than this over the next few years.
On top of that, the Maple Leafs have been stagnant in recent years. At one point, making the playoffs alone was a success, but after a third straight first round exit in 2019, it became clear that there were underlying issues here. That’s when the pressure on Babcock truly started to mount and it was that disappointing finish to 2019 combined with Toronto’s terrible start in a critical year that led to the Maple Leafs finally firing him.
The question of course is if that was the appropriate solution to their problem and the answer is they have to hope so because if Babcock wasn’t the problem then the Maple Leafs’ situation really is dire. Because of their aforementioned cap situation, this isn’t a roster that can easily be adjusted. They can’t, for example, addressing their clear need for a better backup goaltender because they lack the ability to pay for one.
Of course, they could attempt to trade one of their cornerstone forwards to clear up that cap space, but that would be a very desperate move to make and one that should be their last resort if all else fails. So while there’s no guarantee that firing Babcock will fix the Leafs’ issues, they really did have to try this first.
If you want to see the glass as half full, you can also look at the Babcock era with a degree of success. He did help guide the Maple Leafs through their rebuild and that was no small task. Obviously, his tenure came to a halt well before his contract was done, but there was still value in him being with the Leafs for most of the time that he was. Now they’ll get a fresh voice in Sheldon Keefe, who has had significant success as a head coach at the AHL level, and we’ll see if he can get more out of this team.
As far as players who can potentially benefit from this, the two big ones would be Andersen and Barrie. Andersen has been superb and the Leafs have largely let him down, so a turnaround would stand to help him quite a bit. Meanwhile, Barrie has been arguably the most disappointing player offensively with seven assists in 23 contests. Getting him going will be one of Keefe’s key tasks.
Moving on from the Leafs, I wanted to highlight the amazing rookie campaign Cale Makar is having so far. The Avalanche defenseman has five goals and 23 points in 21 contests while averaging 19:28 minutes. Along with Elias Pettersson in Vancouver, Makar looks like one of the two best players to emerge from the 2017 draft class.
The big question is if Makar’s recent success can be sustained and with that in mind, it’s worth noting that his strong rookie campaign isn’t entirely shocking. He was outstanding with UMass-Amherst last season and went on to score a goal and six points in 10 playoff games with Colorado in 2019.
When I was making my list of top rookies coming into the season, I listed Makar as fourth overall, which is looking like a significant underestimation of him at this point, but it does highlight that he was someone on the radar already.
Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes got off to slow starts in their respective rookie seasons, but Kakko especially is starting to heat up, so it will be interesting to see how they do going forward. With about a quarter of the season in the books though, Makar has a huge edge in the Calder Trophy race.