The Toronto Maple Leafs are poised to enter a summer of uncertainty.
“Kyle has told me multiple times that, as long as he’s here, he’s not going to trade me”
William Nylander publicly spoke those words on December 3rd, 2018, two days after his dramatic contract statement, which went down to the literal very last minute, came to an end.
It’s a telling quote, for a number of reasons.
For one, Nylander signing his extension signalled the end of a six-month period in which his life was almost entirely filled with trade rumours and questions regarding his future. It was inescapable; the topic being all anyone could talk about.
So, how did Nylander handle this? At the first chance he got, the 22-year-old proceeded to snuff out any job security-related qualms in definitive fashion, by repeating the very promise his own General Manager had given him.
He’s not going anywhere. Not as long as Kyle Dubas remains at the helm.
Funnily enough, Dubas himself did not communicate this to the media. Nylander did. The same Nylander who is notoriously sparse with public quotes and who rarely offers much of substance on the infrequent occasions he opts to speak for upwards of two minutes. But these circumstances were different. They called for a response.
Nylander knew that his future as a Leaf was the topic of public conversation, and upon being given a firm answer on it by the sole person who is capable of doing so, he chose to address it.
Mike Babcock, on the other hand, is far more media-friendly. His long and winding quotes, often evolving into quasi-parables if left uninterrupted, have become a staple on both Twitter and in the market as a whole. Babcock is also entirely aware of the fanbase’s temperature and what the general consensus is of his team.
He’s a remarkably tapped-in man, one who knows when (but perhaps not how) to point out the elephant in the room.
Babcock’s job security is that elephant at the moment, currently dominating talk radio segments and pre-game panel discussions. Fresh off yet another disappointing Game Seven loss to the Boston Bruins, in which Babcock’s coaching methods were called into question once again, many who follow the team have begun to wonder whether hockey’s highest-paid coach is nearing his end in Toronto.
Dubas is almost certainly aware that this is happening. As is Babcock. Which means, if this speculation was truly nothing but externally-concocted mumbo jumbo, precedent suggests that the Maple Leafs end-of-season press conference would have served as a perfect platform to reiterate that.
But, it didn’t.
Throughout the 26 combined minutes both Babcock and Dubas spent in front of reporters on Thursday afternoon, neither man offered any guarantee or, even, any hint as to the head coaching position remaining untouched during the summer.
Dubas never took a stand to confirm “Mike is my guy”, and Babcock never offered up a Nylanderian “Kyle told me I’ll be back”. Nothing.
Of course, the possibility remains that this ultimately means nothing. The Leafs are an entity that plays things precariously close to the chest, particularly in the realm of media relations, which could very well mean that we’re all just grasping at straws.
Nevertheless, Dubas indeed made a point during his availability to state that all members of the Leafs organization, including himself, will be evaluated in the aftermath of Game Seven Part Two™. And while such a refrain is common to hear from an executive who is mere days removed from a disappointing defeat, Dubas tends to shy away from commonality.
Regurgitating cliches is not in his nature. There is real weight to this.
For a General Manager who so regularly nips conflicting speculation in the bud, and who was certainly cognizant of all the quibbling going on about his head coach possibly losing his job, Dubas’s silence on the matter all but confirmed one very noteworthy development.
The Leafs organization, in some capacity, is weighing the option of firing Mike Babcock.
Again, they may not do it. Heck, they likely won’t do it.
Alongside “commonality” on the list of things which Dubas tends to shy away from, “making rash decisions on the basis of small sample size” stands front and centre, as well. But this is a conversation that has almost certainly taken place within the Scotiabank Arena offices at one point or another.
Precedent paints a clear picture of that, and not just when it comes to Dubas.
When the media quizzed Babcock following this year’s trade deadline on his pointed comments which many thought were directed towards Dubas, Babcock made an effort to set the record straight. He addressed the situation.
When reporters brought up the possibility of Nylander being traded before the latter eventually signed his extension, Babcock clearly stated that he believed Nylander would be “a career Leaf”. Once more, he addressed the situation.
Even if you choose not to take Dubas’s words at face value, Babcock’s usually can be. For better or worse, the man speaks his mind on pressing subjects. It’s one of the increasingly rare qualities that this coach-GM duo both seem to share.
And when asked to address the most pressing team-related subject, with no scheduled media availability on the docket for the next two months, and while having a clear understanding of the consequences, Dubas declined to speak his mind.
This, as a result, presents another possibility.
Perhaps, he didn’t need to.
Thanks for reading!