It’s going to raise red flags and scare some people, but the supposed rift between Auston Matthews and Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock looks a lot like the once-fractured relationship between Phil Kessel and Randy Carlyle.
Minus the hot dog jokes, of course.
Four years ago, it was Kessel who arrived to Leafs training camp amid reports that he and the coaching staff hated each other. Some portrayed him as a me-first diva who refused direction. Others suggested he was out of shape and uncoachable.
Neither was refuted.
“I think there is a double standard in sports that talented people have to be given a bit more of a rope,” Carlyle said at the time, trying to diffuse the situation. “Talented people have to have some freedom to take their artistic values and go paint the picture. He is that type of player. He’s very talented.”
It was another way of saying that Kessel got away with a lot because even at his worst, he was still the team’s best.
Which brings us to Matthews, who is not out of shape or uncoachable, but still received a surprise visit from his head coach over the weekend to supposedly smooth over a relationship that is on the rocks. According to those close to the situation, it was much ado about nothing. And yet, where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire — or at least some smouldering embers.
Here’s what we know: Babcock had reportedly planned a trip to Arizona with his wife, and since he was in the area decided to drop in on Matthews’ family home for less than an hour, because it would have been rude not to. Had Matthews lived in Sarnia — not Scottsdale, there wouldn’t have been a visit. That the visit happened on Cinco de Mayo, as well as a time when the family was celebrating Matthews’ father’s birthday, was supposedly a coincidence.
In other words, the next time Babcock is driving through Newmarket, Ont., Travis Dermott’s parents should prepare a pot of coffee on.
The truth is Babcock has a good reason to make sure Matthews is happy. The No. 1 pick in 2016 is the team’s biggest star. And after two seasons, it’s time Babcock started treating him that way.
Like Kessel, Matthews is very talented. On a Leafs team that set franchise records for wins and points in a season, he was the most important player aside from goalie Frederik Andersen. But in the playoffs, something was off and his inability to seize the spotlight was a big reason why the team failed to advance past the Boston Bruins.
For that, Babcock probably deserves some of the blame.
Matthews knows that fingers were pointed his way after he managed just one goal and one assist in seven playoff games. In fact, he was pointing them at himself. He desperately wants to win a Stanley Cup in Toronto. That he’s fallen well short of that goal in back-to-back seasons was incredibly frustrating for him.
But the biggest frustration might be in how he was used.
Babcock doesn’t believe in double standards for players. Whether you are Mitch Marner or Matt Martin, the demands are the same. He does not extend more rope to those with more talent. If anything, he shortens it. And it could be why Matthews and Babcock ended the season butting heads.
The way that you coach a 20-year-old in 2018 is different than how you coach him in 2008. The sooner Babcock realizes that, the sooner the Leafs will take that next step towards a championship.
Matthews wants to be The Guy. He wants more ice time, more responsibility, more opportunities to showcase his talents. He wants to be on the ice for all the important situations, regardless of who the other team puts out. And he wants to be there with players who think and play the game like he does.
That means giving him the captaincy to start next season. But it also means removing the anchor around his leg and putting him on a line with Marner — not Zach Hyman — and keeping them out there for as long as their young lungs can handle.
Connor McDavid, who led the league in scoring this season, logged the fourth-most ice time (21:33) of any forward. Seven of the next 10 scorers were in the top 25 for ice time. Matthews ranked 71st (18:08), behind 38-year-old Joe Thornton and the supposedly out-of-shape Kessel. On the power play, he was 138th in average ice time.
That might explain why he only had five goals and 13 points with the man-advantage, despite tying for fifth in the league with 29 even-strength goals. It also might explain why Matthews was held in check against the Bruins.
In the playoffs, your best players have to be your best players. But they also have to be your most important players.
That didn’t happen.
With Kessel, it wasn’t that he was a me-first player. It just looked that way because he was the only star on a team stacked with average Joes. It wasn’t until he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he has won back-to-back Stanley Cups, where Kessel has shown Toronto what could have been.
The Leafs aren’t going to trade Matthews. But unless they start treating him like the star that he is, he’s never going to truly shine.
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