NHL Mailbag: Would firing Babcock even make a difference?

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The second round is here and things in the first, let’s just say, didn’t go as planned. While there were a few upsets, even the ones that technically weren’t upsets often felt like them. Toronto vs. Boston and San Jose vs. Vegas always felt like a pair of coin flips but the “how” of it definitely left a lot more questions than answers.

Let’s go:

Jools asks: “Which team do you think is most likely to win the Cup, and which would be the most hilarious?”

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The one most likely to win the Cup seems to be St. Louis or Boston right now. They have the least to worry about in terms of “everyone is playing well and there are no injuries.” Boston finished highest of the remaining teams after 82 games (not that this necessarily means anything, as we saw in both conferences). St. Louis has been one of the very best teams in the league since making its coaching change.

But “most likely” is still not all that likely. Depending on whose projections you believe, even the best teams only have a 17-27 percent chance to win. And honestly, the latter number feels awful high considering the Bruins’ next opponent is the team that absolutely handled the Lightning. A lot of projections also have the Sharks pretty high up there, but I don’t know how I feel about them minus Joe Pavelski and gambling on Martin Jones not having a total meltdown again at any second. (Because lost in that incredible comeback and OT win is the fact that Jones did not look great in Game 7.)

Anyway, funniest is definitely Dallas if it continues getting production only from its top two lines and the Stars’ president shredded their two best players.

Jon asks: “’Let them play,’ or ‘rules is rules?’”

I am definitely a believer that you should call the rules by the book whether it’s Game 1 of the preseason or Game 7 of the Cup final, but you also don’t want to see the rules enforced so tightly that there are 14 power plays every game either.

So it’s a tough question. A penalty should be a penalty because, like, the chaos in the third period of that Leafs/Bruins Game 7 was too stupid. The fact that there were only two penalties the entire game, both on Boston (and one for an obvious too many men) is very bad; you can’t watch that game and tell me only one infraction — a Brandon Carlo cross-check — took place in the full 60 minutes. Like I said the other day, refs don’t want to be the ones deciding these games, and the San Jose result definitely backs up why they don’t call anything, but why have them at all if they’re not going to enforce the damn rules?

Very stupid, no solution.

Taye asks: “How much difference do you think coaching makes for a hockey team? Would firing Babcock even make much of a difference?”

I think coaching probably makes a huge difference. Not so much in terms of systems — although there are some coaches who pretty clearly have it figured out, like Barry Trotz — but definitely in terms of player usage. As a general rule, the closer together two rosters are in talent, the less systems matter, and there’s really not THAT much separating any two playoff teams, even if there’s obviously a big talent gap between, say, Tampa and Ottawa.

The most important thing about being a coach is definitely putting guys in a position to succeed, and to mention Babcock here obviously has to do with the unforgivable decision to play Auston Matthews less than 19 minutes in a decisive Game 7 against the team’s recent archrival and biggest foil. Even the smartest of the new coaches have their favorite guys who can do no wrong, and that’s just human nature, but why was Patrick Marleau (washed, bad) out there with the extra attacker while Kasperi Kapanen (young, talented) was not?

Babcock doesn’t have as much talent to work with as any coach would like, but the fact that his postgame press conference had him mentioning that they’ll be bigger next year should be a major worry to any Leafs fan. Especially because I’m not really sure which Leafs prospects he’s talking about.

Like any old-school coach, Babcock understands guys are talented but doesn’t trust them to do good things with that talent. He also sees guys who are less effective and perceives that they make fewer mistakes, which makes them more valuable in his eyes. That’s an area where he and his GM doubtlessly disagree.

So it’ll be a weird summer in Toronto, and “big changes are definitely coming” is the order of the day. I still think Babcock is a high-end coach, but if he’s going to make the kinds of unforced errors he did throughout this series and the entire season, he might also be on a hell of a short leash.

Babcock came under fire for another first-round exit. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Babcock came under fire for another first-round exit. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tony asks: “Nathan MacKinnon has had two consecutive MVP-quality seasons and leads the cap era in points per game in the playoffs. Is it time to start talking about him as the league’s best player (non-McDavid Division)?”

Hell yeah, Nathan MacKinnon kicks ass. He averages 1.33 points per game in the postseason over his……… three appearances in six seasons?

And like, yeah if you want to put him in the “best player in the world who isn’t McDavid” — which is to say, “second-best player in the world” — convo I would say he’s earned a spot in that area for sure. He’s a total game-changing talent and he’s a threat to really hurt your team every time he comes over the boards. And he’s still only 23, meaning he probably has two or three more years of IMPROVING to do. Crazy to think about.

But for me right now he’s still not even the best player from Cole Harbour, N.S., so…

Mitch asks: “Which team that’s out is in the worst position to get better this offseason?”

Probably the Penguins. They’re already within a few million dollars of the projected salary cap and don’t have literally anybody coming off the books who makes more than the rookie max. So without a big trade — and assuming we’re taking Jim Rutherford at his word that he likes the D group as currently constituted — Pittsburgh is just going with “the same group except a year older.”

Which I think is probably fine as long as they can stay healthy, but that’s a big ask with a group whose core skaters are almost uniformly over 31.

So I don’t see a lot of room for growth there, barring a paradigm-shifting trade like offloading Kessel or Letang like all the hooting Yinzers calling into the local talk radio stations seem to want.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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