In a Waiting Room Without Enough Magazines
Mike Babcock ran out of good will, no question. But, even with three-plus years and almost $23 million left on an eight-year deal, he also ran out of time because $6 million per and no playoff series wins in four years was no bang for the big bucks.
So never mind the mind games, betrayal and more rigidity than in an old hockey player’s knees, the Leafs’ coach was on borrowed time that Babcock probably would not have been with a Game Seven win in either of consecutive years against Boston.
Babcock had a nucleus of a contender-or what passes for one in this age- but not a whole lot else, including no longer a general manager who had hired him, the kiss of death to any coach who survives such a transition. Therefore a guy who is setup for life nevertheless became just another one setup to fail when the results didn’t equal the expectations.
Rarely do those hopes match the reality of just how long a process it has become to build a team capable of winning a Cup or even getting close. John Tavares would have been a classic final piece to the puzzle if the Toronto roster wasn’t still missing as many pieces as Braden Holtby when Ray Emery got finished with him.
Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead in Toronto, and in their relief indeed the Leafs may have a spurt into the playoffs. Look what happened to the Blues a year ago when Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo. But Jake Muzzin isn’t Alex Pietrangelo, so, smiley faces all around notwithstanding, Kyle Dubas has a lot more work to do, as do all of the great grey mass of NHL teams that look like they have a chance to be pretty good but may never be, even if fans think they should be by now.
Vegas, given a fair shake in an expansion draft, is an outlier only adding to the level of impatience. Fans of every other team need to pull up a chair and, like Keith Yandle, prepare for the long haul. Look how many years it took for the Caps and Blues to finally have their parade. Study how it took nine years without playoffs for Carolina to get on what appears finally to be their merry way; how the Oilers are into their fifth year with a generational player and only now have pieced together a rising team; how the Panthers, in year six with Aleksander Barkov, may finally be beginning an ascent.
Ditto Arizona, 40 years in the desert without a Moses, appearing headed for April at last. Meanwhile projects are ongoing in Vancouver (one playoff series in six years) Montreal (one in the last four) Philadelphia (not a playoff series win since 2012) Buffalo (last appearance 2011), Calgary (one series victory in 14 seasons), New Jersey (one playoff cameo since a finals berth in 2012), all franchises with corners about to be turned or maybe not.
Full disclosure: In the cap age, there has been the odd happy accident of things coming together quickly. Pittsburgh, which was in the playoffs the second year after drafting Sidney Crosby, in the final the following year and the Cup winner the next, came together right out of the textbook building manual. Three years after drafting Patrick Kane and just one after adding Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks were in a conference final, so toilet to throne can be quick and relatively painless if you want to call missing the playoffs nine of 10 years in Chicago painless. The Kings were four years around Anze Kopitar, three with Drew Doughty, before they won a playoff round but then, almost suddenly, won a Stanley Cup that same year, if you want to call sudden one series win in 17 years since the last appearance in a final.
If you were smarter than the average team, it never used to take so long. Back in the days of the Islanders going from birth to a conference finalist in just three years; when the Red Wings, dead for a decade-and-a-half, made the playoffs in their first season with Steve Yzerman, when the Oilers upset the Canadiens in the second year of the Gretzky-Messier-Kurri nucleus, exceptionally good drafts could get you on your way quickly.
Of course, you had to be shrewd to draft a Messier, who had one goal in 52 games of his first pro season in the WHA, and a little bit lucky to have Mike Bossy last until the 15th pick. But when your selections were 12, 17 or even 22 apart, rather than 31 as it is today, you had a chance at one or two transcendent drafts in a short period of years.
Add in the post-cap financial limitations in finishing off a team, as the Rangers did with multiple Oiler pieces in 1993-94, and building a winner is going to take longer, if it ever happens at all. The result of the cap is a league of teams with five or six good players instead of what used to be 10 or 11 in the years dynasties immediately followed one other.
Going back to the seventies, when the draft age was 20, your first-round choice was NHL ready, now only the very top picks can play right away. The cap has screwed on airtight the necessity of growing and keeping your own with long-term deals. So increasingly slim pickings in free agency has put every team into a slow cooker
In a league that always has cannibalized its coaches, these additional cap consequences did nothing to keep Eddie Olczyk on the Pittsburgh bench, Terry Murray on LA’s not to mention keep Gerard Gallant’s place in Florida until further acquisitions of enough talent enabled the next coach to reap the rewards.
Monday night in Philadelphia brought together two franchises—the Canucks and Flyers trying to do it not just the right way, but also probably the only way. There is a nice nucleus in Vancouver – Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Quinn Hughes – while the Flyers have an enviable stash of Carter Hart, Oskar Lindblom, Ivan Provorov, Joel Farabee, Travis Sanheim, Morgan Frost and Oskar Lindblom. Both clubs are off to improved starts, neither close to being mature enough yet to expect a deep playoff run.
The drafting and development bell already has tolled in Philadelphia for Dave Hakstol and to some extent Ron Hextall, both of whom had been signed to five year deals in endorsements of the long-term plan. There were other issues but still a groundswell for change from a fan base weary of mediocrity so Hakstol and Hextall ran out of not only goaltending, but also time. Enter Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault, next up in a town of limited patience.
And here is Travis Green, three years into a four-year deal with a franchise that has one playoff berth to show for the last six years. There is progress, and of course, it shows in spurt, a feel good 2-1 overtime win against President’s Trophy-leading Washington, followed by a 2-1 loss in Philly where the score greatly flattered the Canucks’ performance. “We got what we deserved,” said Green, after a sharp angle third period goal was the winner. His team has won only three of its last 13 games, yet still holds the third spot in the Pacific Division.
The players play hard for him, the special teams are so far compensating for bad even-strength production, Jacob Markstrom has been good in goal and the supposition is that just getting the Canucks close to the playoffs this year will earn Green an extension.
You want to see that because, increasingly, the timetables for the franchise don’t jive with the shelf life of the coach. Truth is, when you are trying to build the right way, declaring you’ve had the wrong man behind the bench can buy you a few more years. There is no shortage of competent coaching replacements out there, not as accomplished as Joel Quenneville perhaps, but plenty who can win, and looking for the right situation.
Timing is everything in the life of a coach, although it hangs heavy on the hands of franchises trying to win in the only way possible in a 31-team league with a salary cap. Everybody’s trying to follow the same blueprint. But building materials are short.