Tough gig: Maple Leafs fire coach before facing Arizona Coyotes
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It seemed within the realm of possibility that if the Arizona Coyotes beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Leafs could fire head coach Mike Babcock.
That won’t happen. Because the Leafs fired him on Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs (9-10-4) enter Arizona on a 6-game losing streak and skated at the Ice Den in Scottsdale on Wednesday for practice after losing to the Vegas Golden Knights the night before. That loss, evidently, served as the last straw for Toronto.
Babcock has 17 years of experience as an NHL head coach, but this is the first time he’s not finished a season. This was his fifth year with the Maple Leafs, where he finishes with a record of 351-173-133 (.557). He previously coached the Detroit Red Wings and the Anaheim Ducks.
He’ll be replaced on Thursday in Arizona by Sheldon Keefe, who has been the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ affiliate.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “I still think they’re going to turn it around, I really do. I just hope it’s not tomorrow night.”
The Maple Leafs boast elite centers Auston Matthews and John Tavares, along with winger William Nylander. Mitch Marner (ankle) won’t play in Arizona, but Toronto has a strong supporting cast even beyond that bunch.
“They’ve got two of the best centers in the league,” Tocchet said. “Morgan Reilly, I think, is a hell of a defenseman. Freddy Andersen, a great goalie. They have the tools, and people struggle sometimes. For me, it’s a matter of time.”
For what is likely a variety of factors, the Maple Leafs haven’t performed to their full potential this year. Just a year ago, they won 46 games, their third straight season with 40-plus wins, but they’ve also lost in the first round of the playoffs three seasons in a row.
This year, they’re clawing to even get that far.
Toronto challenged the Golden Knights on Tuesday night but were stymied by goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury. Being on the precipice on a much-needed win, combined with playing under a new head coach for the first time, the Leafs could be especially dangerous on Thursday.
“When you put a couple games together, and especially the game they played against Vegas — it could’ve went either way, they played a strong game — there is confidence. I know that you lose, but there is confidence in, like Mike Babcock, I heard him say, ‘We’ve just got to stick with it. We did a lot of good things.’
“That’s the hardest thing, is to understand that the process is there, and sometimes the results aren’t there right away, but they will be if you do the right things. And that’s what we try to preach around here.”
BARRETT COMING BACK
Rookie forward Barrett Hayton has been out of the lineup for six consecutive games as a healthy scratch. Tocchet said Wednesday there was a good possibility Hayton would play on Thursday against Toronto, especially now with a few players he described as being banged up.
TOC ON THE POWER PLAY
The Arizona Coyotes got two badly-needed power play goals on Monday in a win against the LA Kings, and Tocchet was asked on Wednesday about whether there’s such thing as momentum for a power play unit. He gave an interesting thought about a more specific area of improvement he’d like to see on the man advantage:
“It’s 2-2, six minutes left in a game and you get a power play, that’s the time you need to score, or make it a momentum shift,” Tocchet said. “And I think this year, we’ve had some momentum times where we need the power play … and we threw a couple duds out there.
“Some teams score five power plays in 12 attempts, so they think, ‘Oh, it’s a great power play.’ But the game’s not on the line. … To me, it’s not so much the percentage, it’s the timing of the goals. And I think that’s what our team has to get better at.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ERIC COMRIE?
Goaltender Eric Comrie is a bit of a forgotten name on the Coyotes, since he hasn’t played a game for the NHL franchise since being acquired off waivers before the start of the season.
He’s recently been Tucson, playing on a conditioning loan with the AHL team. Conditioning loans are a way for NHL clubs to assign players to a minor league affiliate, even if they don’t first meet certain requirements — such as clearing waivers. They are temporary, however, and Comrie’s will expire this Friday.
“We want to do what’s best for his development,” GM John Chayka said when asked what the plan is with Comrie. “He’s got to continue to play and stay in a rhythm. You don’t want to have to just throw him into an NHL game without him having played and getting reps, not only in practice but live game reps, as well.
“We kind of just take things day-by-day here, so there’s no three-month plan right now. Obviously the two goalies in the net right now are doing a really good job, and they’re healthy and those are all good things. And Eric’s a guy that we were able to pick up that we think’s a valuable asset, and now we’re just going about managing that.”
Speaking of goaltending, Antti Raanta is coming off of a shutout of the LA Kings, which does more than just exhibit the luxury the Coyotes have in two goaltenders.
It also shows how Raanta has come along from injuries that inhibited his playing time. Knocking on wood, he’s been healthy in 2019-20 and played well, despite the fact that a preseason injury had some observers concerned that his ability to stay on the ice was becoming a real problem.
“I’m doing really good,” Raanta told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station Wednesday. “Obviously I had a little setback in the preseason, but just a couple days off and didn’t skate for a couple days, and after that, I have felt really good.
“Obviously just want to build on that and stay healthy and try to make everything after practice and the workouts to make sure that you stay healthy. It’s been a couple tough years and you know, there’s been some nagging injuries and like that. So you hope that those are in your past and now you just try to work on your game and try to stay healthy.”