If you’ve felt the urge to nitpick Mike Babcock’s work as the Maple Leafs head coach this season — and, as a passport-holding Canadian who’s watched parts of at least than two periods of an NHL game this season, it’s practically your civic duty to occasionally chime in — there’s been no shortage of fodder.
The power play has too often been a mess, the penalty kill’s been too average. And if there’s one thing an NHL coach can control, surely it’s the fate of special teams. Also, Ron Hainsey plays too much. Auston Matthews plays too little. The game plan’s too one note. And Babcock’s answer to everything is “work harder,” which suggests it’s possible his job could eventually be outsourced to one of those fitness-tracking wristbands that pings you to get your butt in gear when you’ve been loafing on the couch too long.
To all of this, Babcock, the highest paid coach in the sport, would surely offer a dismissive shrug and point to the standings. For much of the year, the Maple Leafs have been on pace for the best season in franchise history as measured by points. Which isn’t bad, considering the franchise has been around a while.
Still, if you’ve been looking for high-profile validation of your coach-directed criticisms — well, funny enough, Toronto’s soon-to-be highest-paid player has been there for you more than once.
It was Matthews who expressed his frustration with what he described as “stale” power-play X’s and O’s just last month.
“We just do the same thing over and over again,” he complained.
It was Matthews who expressed his frustration with the team’s repetitive tactics just last Saturday, when the 21-year-old centreman, he of the $58-million U.S. contract extension, spoke with some disgust about how the Maple Leafs “played right into” the clog-it-up strategy of the Coyotes in a dismal 2-0 loss.
“We just kind of kept doing the same thing over and over again,” Matthews said.
The same thing over and over. That’s Babcock, the ultimate slave to routine, in a nutshell. And it only makes sense that the coach’s hard-and-fast beliefs about the way the game ought to be played occasionally rankle the shoot-first puck-slinger from Scottsdale. That Matthews and Babcock haven’t always been in simpatico is hardly a new development. It was at the conclusion of Toronto’s seven-game ouster from last spring’s first round that word of a disconnect between coach and player first became public. But the friction wasn’t new, which is hardly an unusual situation in the NHL. As much as hockey is known for players who are genuinely nice, you’d be naive to believe moaning about coaches is confined to, say, Ottawa Senators Ubers.
You know some of the rest of the story. Babcock spent an off-season day flying to the Matthews family home for a mutual airing of views. Let’s just say it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who pays attention that Matthews, who spent last season on the second power-play unit, began this season on the first one.
Which is not to say Babcock hasn’t still been deluged with more-than-occasional criticism for his handling of Matthews. There was considerable local outrage aimed at the coach in the wake of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss in St. Louis, wherein Matthews spent a mere 16 minutes and 52 seconds on the ice. More than a few pundits lambasted the coach for what was framed as an inexplicable bit of injustice.
To which it must be said: Let’s think this through. You can certainly assail Babcock for more than a few crimes of stubbornness. But taking him to task for underplaying Matthews — well, it seems like a stretch.
First, let’s say this: Nitpicking one player’s ice time in any one game is always silly. It makes you sound like the kind of minor-hockey parent who confronts a coach in the parking lot over a couple of missed shifts in the second period. Ice time’s better viewed over the long haul. So let’s break down Matthews’ ice time this season. Heading into Thursday he was averaging 18:18 a game, which ranked 80th among NHL forwards. In a league in which Connor McDavid is playing nearly 23 minutes a night — in which 31 forwards were averaging more than 20 minutes heading into Thursday — that could easily be spun as too low.
But keep in mind, we’re talking here about total ice time, including special teams. Matthews doesn’t play the penalty kill, which is why he plays fewer overall minutes per game than teammate Mitch Marner, who does.
And because the Maple Leafs platoon two power-play units — and because Toronto ranked second-last in power-play opportunities heading into Thursday — Matthews doesn’t get a relative ton of power-play time, either.
So, in the interest of being fair to Babcock, let’s look at Matthews’ even-strength ice time. Heading into Thursday, No. 34 was playing 15:40 a game.
Now let’s look at various high-profile centremen on Stanley Cup-winning teams over the past handful of years. Last season Washington’s top two centres both played less than that — that’d be Nicklas Backstrom (15:23) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (14:49).
In the two seasons before that, when Pittsburgh won back-to-back championships, the Penguins’ top centreman — some kid named Crosby — played significantly more than Matthews at even strength, averaging about 16:40 over the pair of seasons. But Pittsburgh’s other top centre, Evgeni Malkin, averaged 15:16 at even strength — a little less than what Matthews is averaging.
The great Jonathan Toews, in Chicago’s most recent two Cup seasons, averaged about 15:30 at even strength. That’s within seconds of what Anze Kopitar averaged in the season that led to the 2014 championship in Los Angeles.
In other words, Crosby’s an outlier. But as for Malkin, Toews and Kopitar — they spent recent Stanley Cup seasons being used by their coaches at even strength almost precisely the same way Matthews is being used by Babcock.
Could Matthews play more? Sure. But depth wins the Stanley Cup. Depth at forward is Toronto’s strength. And if the goal is to play deep into the spring, it seems senseless to increase Matthews’ even-strength ice time in the regular season. As for the power play — if Matthews wants more time on ice with the man advantage, Babcock might suggest he start inducing more opponents into the box or lobbying more referees into a raised arm. Heading into Thursday, Matthews ranked a distant fifth on the team in penalties drawn.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk