Every time an NHL team goes on a run, winning hockey games via run-and-gun hockey, the coach immediately panics, desperately shuts down his team’s primary weapon (high octane offence), and tries to jam a square peg into a round hole by altering their style. After all, they say, only defensive hockey can win at the pro level.
Witness Maple Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock. His team came out of the gates blazing on all cylinders, outskating, out-finessing, and outlasting each and every opponent they faced. Rather than embrace what made them strong, Babcock recoiled and tried to convince his go-for-the-juglar machine that they needed to start playing “not to lose” rather than playing to win.
Babcock further sabotaged his high-flying squad by foolishly demoting elite playmaker Mitch Marner in attempt to convert him into the next Doug Jarvis. You know Doug don’t you? He couldn’t score into an empty net with no one else on the ice, but man could he check.
Since the day Marner arrived in Toronto, Babcock has stubbornly refused to combine the pint-sized winger’s brilliant vision and playmaking skills with the team’s elite sniper Auston Matthews, primarily because the media thought it was a natural fit. The more the media asked Babcock about it, the more Babcock dug in his heels to show everyone who the real boss is.
The question many Maple Leafs fans are starting to ask is this: Who cares if the team was winning games by outscoring their opponents, rather than out-defending their opponents? Two points is two points. Just win baby, win.
The reason most teams avoid fire-wagon hockey is because they don’t possess the skill level needed to succeed. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not most teams. They are loaded with high-end skill players who are at their best when a shinny game erupts. Yes, they are a mess in their own end. Yes, they tend to turn the puck over more than most teams. But in the end, their shoot-the-lights-out approach to the game not only helped them dominate in the standings, it provided fans with an exciting brand of hockey rarely seen anymore.
But no, sadly, and stupidly, Babcock says enough is enough. He decides that Marner needs to be put in his place and converts him into a fourth liner. He opts to berate his team publicly game-in and game-out despite their climb to the top of the standings.
How’s that crackdown working out for you so far Mike?
Since Babcock declared an end to trying to score on the rush, since Babcock declared that tight-checking hockey was back in town, and since Babcock decided to put Marner in his place, the team has regressed into an absolute on-ice mess. They can’t outgun teams because Babcock won’t let them. They can’t out-defend teams because that’s not what comes to them naturally. They don’t outskate teams anymore because their too busy thinking when they should be reacting.
You don’t go out and build a team of highly-skilled, testosterone-filled, young bucks and then try to transform them into the 1995 New Jersey “all-trap-all-the-time” Devils.
Babcock says you can’t win in the NHL by outscoring your opponent. To which we say, bullshit. Most teams can’t. Your team can Mike. So let them.