It’s been a few weeks since the Leafs have been banished to the sidelines, as observers while the chase for the Stanley Cup continues and is usually the case, the questions about what went wrong are plentiful. One storyline that won’t go away is the relationship between Mike Babcock and the team’s best player Auston Matthews.
In the 1971 NHL draft, Guy Lafleur was selected first overall and was heir apparent to the long succession of French-Canadian superstars. Under the demanding four-line system of Scotty Bowman the twenty-year-old Lafleur struggled his first few years and scoring just 21 goals in his third year, he was booed at the Forum. He considered jumping to the WHA to play for the Quebec Nordiques and when Montreal had to make a decision to stick with him or let him walk, they turned to Bowman for an assessment of just how good he would prove to be. Bowman thought he’d be a good player but never more than a second-liner, “ a Bob Nevin type.”
Two years later he scored 53 goals.
Punch Imlach had a less than grade-A relationship with Frank Mahovlich that may have lead to one of the few breakdowns the Big M had during their 10-years together.
The 1960-61 season, Mahovlich’s best as a Maple Leaf with 48 goals, Punch was asked what Frank did that year to have that kind of success.
“He was aggressive; take a look at his penalties, he had 131 minutes about one third more than his average.”
Imlach for years tried to motivate Mahovlich to play that way and during stretches of games he would show that aggression with success. Before game six of the 1967 Stanley Cup final and coming off his worst season as a Leaf with 18 goals, Imlach teed off on Frank again,
“If I landed on him hard he could go anyway so I took a chance; in other words I talked to him like he was any other player I thought was letting us down.
At one point I looked at him and said I don’t know where you’re from, Chicoutimi or some place but you should have stayed there so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with you.”
The Leafs won the Cup that night.
You think playing for successful coaches like Vince Lombardi, Mike Ditka, Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight to mention a few was easy?
Temperamental baseball manager Billy Martin once defined managing a ball club with this analogy, “On a 25 man roster you will always have 15 guys who will run through a wall for you; you have 5 who absolutely hate your guts and the remaining 5 are on the fence. My job as manager is to make sure those 5 guys who hate your guts don’t speak to the 5 guys on the fence.”
There is a fine line for coaches to push players, especially ones new to the professional ranks. Remember most of these kids have been superstars all their lives and could do no wrong; played as much as they physically were able to and pretty much given the keys to the kingdom on every team they played. They reach the pro ranks and are suddenly surrounded by 25 guys just like them with another 25 looking for a shot as well. Why do you think some of the most successful careers are from lower draft picks?
It’s simply because those lower picks had to make every team they’ve ever played for and are mentally prepared to challenge for a job.
Young players are not only impressionable but also fragile and coaches are cognizant of this molding a player into their particular system. It can be a very difficult transition for a young player who’s basically let his skills carry him to this point in his career. It’s why coaches have shelf lives.
The Mike Keenan 3-year plan is a trap most coaches can fall into easily. The first year you can preach and instruct just about anything because the young star is happy to be in the league. Year two comes around and if there is some success from year one, the model will continue, but year 3 is the critical year because if it’s the same constant pressure from the coach and no further team advancement, the player can soon tune him out. I never believe a player quits on a coach but definitely plays more defensive to job preservation than risk going the extra for that coach.
Mike Babcock has three years under his belt as Leafs coach and the honeymoon is over. The pressure to succeed will only accentuate moving forward next year and some of his moves questioned; such as why isn’t your best player on the number one power play? He must scrutinize these situations very carefully because not only are the players watching closely, so is management. Remember when things turn for the worst, the quickest solution is to fire the coach because you can’t fire the whole team.
It would almost be impossible to find a successful company or team today that had an environment that everyone got along. If that were the case, then someone is patronizing someone and disaster cannot be far behind.
We live in a results orientated world and I could care less whether Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews even speak as long as they’re on the same page for the few hours they are together at the rink. If your boss weren’t in a power of position would you even speak to him? Maybe you would or maybe you wouldn’t, but for those 8 to 10 hours a day you find a way to make it work regardless.
Lanny McDonald told me that the players in Montreal hated Scotty Bowman, but they respected him. Respect wins championships; friendship gets you unemployed.
Three years ago the Leafs were dead last in the NHL. The progression since has been fun to watch and the depth in the organization (Marlies in Calder Cup finals) is second to none in the National Hockey League. With a solid foundation built through the draft it assures the Leafs will be competitive for years to come and isn’t that all we can ask as fans?
As long as Matthews and Babcock have the same result in mind once the puck is dropped and remembering that actions speak louder than words; who cares how they get there?