Amid speculation about his future, Babcock focuses on playoffs

- April 18th, 2015

TAMPA — As much as he is concentrating on guiding the Detroit Red Wings through the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, Mike Babcock hears the speculation about his future.
During a scrum with reporters a couple of hours before Game 2 of the Wings’ first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, Babcock was asked how much it registers with him that his name is raised with each coaching job that comes open in the National Hockey League.
“It doesn’t,” Babcock said. “It does nothing at all. I’m coaching the Red Wings and pumped to do it. Our manager is fantastic and we have a great relationship. When the season ends I have (family matters to tend to). Those things are my focus. Everything else will get looked after when it gets looked after. We’re going to do our best to play as long as we possibly can and then (general manager) Ken (Holland) and I will meet.”
The Maple Leafs are said to have Babcock at the top of their list to attempt to lead the club back to respectability. The Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers also don’t have a head coach, and there likely will be more openings once the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs conclude.
Any club that needs a coach would be foolish to look past Babcock if he and the Wings part ways. There’s also a possibility a team would fire its coach if it thought hiring Babcock could happen.
“I don’t spend much time thinking about it,” Babcock said. “I am flattered. I have a great family. My wife loves me. (The Wings) like me enough to keep me here. The rest of this does not matter. We have a game today and that is my total focus.”
Is it still a challenge to coach the Wings?
“Absolutely,” Babcock said. “What the challenge is we have to beat Tampa today. We can talk about this every time I come to the podium. It’s a waste of time. It’s going to be the same answer: I am coaching in Detroit, I love coaching in Detroit, we have a game today, we would like to win.”

New Leafs GM must trade Kessel and Phaneuf

- April 12th, 2015

The item at of the top of the to-do list for the next Maple Leafs general manager is simple.
He has to trade Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
Kessel has demonstrated time and again he doesn’t have the leadership qualities required to take the Leafs into the future. For too long he has been getting by on talent alone, and where did that get him?
Kessel was one of three Leafs to play in all 82 games this past season, along with pals Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.
Since Jan. 1, the Leafs’ $8-million US man (his actual salary this season was $10-million, the same princely sum he will draw in 2015-16) went into the tank, scoring just seven goals and recording 13 assists in 44 games. In the 38 previous games, Kessel had 18 goals and 23 assists.
Kessel didn’t bother to try working hard to get out of his slump as it lurched along through February and March and into April. It became comically predictable to watch Kessel head straight for the exit door at the MasterCard Centre as soon as every practice ended. Only if another player was hurt during a workout was Kessel not the first one off the ice.
That kind of thing might have been acceptable had Kessel been filling the net, and if not doing that, then making van Riemsdyk and Bozak better. That didn’t happen.
There was no willingness on Kessel’s part to work with the younger players and there was no desire to hone the skills that make him such a dangerous player when he is interested in playing.
That’s not leadership.
Phaneuf put in the effort, but he’s not a player who should be making an average of $7-million US a year. Former general manager Dave Nonis, fired on Sunday as team president Brendan Shanahan put a match to the coaching staff and scouting department as well, laid the groundwork to trade Phaneuf in the hours leading up to the deadline on March 2. The Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings, among others, were in the running to land the Leafs captain.
Phaneuf, in his post-game interview on Saturday, seemed resigned to the notion that he will be gone. It’s expected Phaneuf will discuss the issue further on Monday when the Leafs gather at the Air Canada Centre for exit physicals and to clean out their lockers.
The bottom line with Kessel and Phaneuf is they have been the main cogs in a core of players that has failed miserably and commonly in the past several years. From the 18-wheeler going off a cliff in 2012, leading to the firing of Ron Wilson; to the Game 7 collapse in Boston in 2013; to the eight-game playoff-killing losing streak in 2014; to the zero response from the players to the coaching change this season, Kessel and Phaneuf have been front and centre.
The incoming general manager should want to start with a fresh slate.
For that to happen, he must trade Kessel and Phaneuf.

Subban expects Leafs to present one final challenge

- April 11th, 2015

That the Maple Leafs will finish in the range of 40 points behind the Montreal Canadiens doesn’t necessarily put a dent in the rivalry between the two clubs.
That’s the view of Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban.
“I don’t think so,” Subban said following the morning skate on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre.
“Every time we have played the Leafs this year it has been a tight game, lots of energy, lots of emotion, and I expect that to be the same way tonight.”
Though the Leafs often have played with little resembling an honest effort when it was clear they were not going to make the playoffs, Subban claimed he expects different tonight.
“If anybody thinks it is going to be an easy game for us, they are sadly mistaken,” Subban said. “They have guys on that team that can score goals that are world-class players. If we’re not prepared to play our best game, we can be in trouble. We have to make sure we come out with the right effort, the right frame of mind. I think everybody in here understands every time we play these guys it is a tight-checking game and that is what we expect.”
It will be the Canadiens’ first visit to the ACC since the 2014-15 season-opening night on Oct. 8. That evening, the Leafs got goals from Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Morgan Rielly, but Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec beat Jonathan Bernier in the final minute of regulation to give the Canadiens a 4-3 win.
In two games between the clubs since, the Canadiens won 2-1 in a shootout in Montreal on Feb. 14 and two weeks later at the Bell Centre registered a 4-0 win.
The Leafs have not beat the Canadiens since Jan. 18, 2014, losing the past five meetings.
The game will mark the 17th time the two teams have clashed in the final game of the regular season. Montreal holds a 10-5-1 advantage in those games, but in the seven in Toronto, the Leafs are 5-2-0.
Montreal has 108 points; the Leafs are at 67 and are guaranteed to finish in 27th overall.
Subban said he was not looking ahead at the playoffs. The Canadiens’ first-round opponent is not yet clear.
“I will worry about who we play when we get there,” Subban said. “I have not put much thought into who we play. Either way you still have to go through everyone to win the Cup. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Any satisfaction if the arch-rival Boston Bruins don’t make it?
“No, I mean listen, it is tough to make the playoffs,” Subban said. “I understand that grind. I have been on both sides of the fence. I have been on the team that has made the playoffs and it feels really easy at times, but it’s not. It is a grind. You can see that when you see good teams battling for points just to try to make it in. You can’t take it for granted. They have a big game (on Saturday against Tampa Bay). We’ll see how it goes.”

Prospect Brown on the right track

- April 8th, 2015

Where Connor Brown’s impressive rookie season in the American Hockey League takes him beyond the 2014-15 season isn’t written in stone.
The Maple Leafs are quite happy with Brown, who was named to the AHL all-rookie team.
During a telephone interview on Wednesday, Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas acknowledged more changes to the Leafs roster are expected in the summer, and where that leaves prospects such as Brown remains to be seen. To be sure, expect the Leafs to be patient with Brown, as they will be with 2014 first-round pick William Nylander.
“It’s a really tough thing to project,” Dubas said. “It’s not something where we want (younger prospects) to be shuttled back and forth. The opportunity could be there for Connor to take. I would expect at some point he would make his NHL debut.
“If he continues to do the work, he will get to where he needs to be.”
Not all junior stars who put up big numbers — Brown led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring last season with 128 points in 68 games for the Erie Otters — make a seamless transition to professional hockey. What has made it work for Brown?
“One is his intelligence, his instincts and his ability to read and react quicker than the opposition,” Dubas said. “And there is his spirit. He’s inquisitive. He has that passion and drive, and that’s a cliche, but he works on the small things that apply to his game. He’s not just out there after practice shooting the puck around.”
In 70 games for the Marlies, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Brown has 18 goals and 39 assists for a team-high 57 points, is plus-20 and has six game-winning goals. Importantly, the advanced stats kept by the Leafs staff further demonstrate Brown’s worth. And his play overall has helped keep the Marlies in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. With six games remaining, they were two points back of Milwaukee for the last post-season spot.
“Very simply, when he is on the ice, we play with the puck,” Dubas said. “Gaining possession, gaining the blue line, he has shown it in different ways.”

Reimer focusing on last start, not the future

- April 8th, 2015

COLUMBUS — James Reimer figures his final start of the 2014-15 season likely will be the final time he shares the ice in a game with some of his Maple Leafs teammates.
So there will be some emotions for the Leafs goaltender when he skates into his crease on Wednesday night as the Leafs conclude their road schedule with a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Reimer said following the morning skate.
“I am sure some of those emotions will come throughout the game or at the start of the game. But you never know what is going to happen. There has been a lot of talk, a lot of speculation .. the team could be similar to what it is this year.
“Really you are just focused on having a good one tonight and having fun with the teammates you have battled with for 80 games.”
The outlook in the dressing rooms of the Leafs and Blue Jackets couldn’t be more different. The Leafs have been playing out the string for a while, and though they have won three of their past five games, they long ago became a team that few could take seriously.
The Jackets have been decimated by injuries this season — they are at 499 man-games lost, the most in the NHL — but have been getting healthy and have won nine of their past 10 games.
There’s a sense of optimism among the Jackets that does not exist with the Leafs.
“(There is) the realization that when we are healthy, we are a very good team,” Columbus forward Nick Foligno said. “That has been the biggest thing. All year long we haven’t been able to be healthy and have not been able to find our game.
“Now you are seeing that. We wanted to not leave anything on the table coming to the end of the season and know we have put everything forward. It has given us confidence.
“We’re as advertised. We knew we could be this. We just never got healthy enough to do it. Now you’re seeing the results of hard work.”
The Leafs beat the Jackets in their previous two meetings, outscoring Columbus 9-3. Toronto won 4-1 at Nationwide Arena on Oct. 31 and on Jan. 9 at the Air Canada Centre, won 5-2 to give interim head coach Peter Horachek his first victory.
Since, the Leafs have won eight of 38.
“They don’t know any other way of playing except to come at you,” Horachek said of the Jackets. “They are a hard team to play against. From our side of it, we have given ourselves of playing that seven-game series and we are up three games to two. It’s a great place to go in and test ourselves. I am looking forward to an intense match. I think our guys all should be up for it.”
Glen Bailey, the father of Leafs rookie Casey Bailey, will be in attendance. It will be the first time the elder Bailey, who has been in Uganda on a mission trip, will watch his son play in the NHL.
And remember David Clarkson? He has been recovering from a torn oblique muscle and was on the ice on Wednesday, skating by himself on the Jackets’ practice rink.
“It’s weird you guys are in town and it’s my first day on the ice,” Clarkson, who met several of his former Leafs teammates for dinner on Tuesday night, said with a smile. “I felt pretty good out there. I think everything is coming together.”
As for the Leafs?
“That room is a good locker room,” Clarkson said. “There are guys in there who are caring. It’s a good group of guys in there.
“I have a soft spot for (the Leafs). It’s tough. It’s something not fun going through as a team. I’m just looking forward to next season and being part of this organization.”