Goodbye, Graveyard: It’s a Fresh Start for Babcock, Maple Leafs in Toronto

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

I remember two things about Roberto Luongo joining the Canucks: the trade that brought him to Vancouver, and his first season with the club.

The trade was an odd one. It wasn’t that you doubted whether or not it should have been made, because Luongo was unquestionably the best player in that deal, and he would instantly become the only elite NHLer on Vancouver’s roster – going back to Florida were Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen, and Alex Auld. All were fine, none were foooiiiiiiiiiine.

But it was a risk, I remember thinking, because goalies are always a risk. There’s a chance they won’t accelerate in a new setting, that maybe our goaltending – in years before 2007, it was Dan Cloutier and Auld – wasn’t that far from Luongo’s level. It sounds crazy to type now, but consider this: we lived in Vancouver, and had no idea just how good Luongo was on a nightly level, or what that calibre of goaltender could do for your team. We maybe thought we did, because every fan thinks they’re goaltending is good enough, and Luongo isn’t the only excellent tender of the past decade. But he’s certainly up there, in the rarified air where Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist, sometimes Pekka Rinne, and now Carey Price ply. (Yes, I spelt ply on purpose. It wasn’t a typo for play.)

And when Luongo put on that whale sweater, when he started doing what he’d always done for a franchise rusted by average-ness, it was like that scene from Wolf of Wall Street where the penny stock guys see Jordan Belfort treat their scum shares and sell their crackpot entrepreneur clients like he was still shucking parts of a Fortune 500.

In the movie, the guy behind DiCaprio asks in envious awe, “How’d you fu*king do that?”

Watching Luongo, I thought, “Ohhhhhhhhh. That‘s what a great goaltender looks like.”

Because, guess what, Dan Cloutier was a good goaltender. Alex Auld was a good goaltender. Luongo? He’s all-time. He’s irreplaceable, even if we’ve tried.

Vancouver was a goalie graveyard before Luongo arrived. That’s more than just a streak of bad luck; it’s a disease. It’s a parasite that latches onto whatever host walks in the door. Like Montezuma’s Revenge, anyone can get the shits – doesn’t matter if you’re the healthiest guy in the Sandals cafeteria, or a waddler from Wisconsin.

And in Toronto, I know they’re looking at Babcock the same way.

He’s their Luongo. He’s their game changer. He’s the guy the fans, the players, maybe even the executive who forgot are staring at and saying, “Oh, see. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.”

“That’s the ‘attention to detail’ so many people speak of when they describe him,” wrote the Toronto Star‘s Kevin McGran on Monday night, in fresh love with the Leafs’ new coach and just how in control he was of what was just recently last year’s most pathetic big-market team.

“It was just a training camp game, but he wants to win. And details matter.”

On the bench, photos show him leaning over the shoulders of anyone – could be teenager William Nylander, a hot shot with European confidence and Point Break hair, or a grilled vet like Roman Polak, or a recent acquisition like Michael Grabner, a 30-goal scorer who was traded to walkabout Ontario from a comfier roster in New York.

Thought is, the Leafs traded top scorer Phil Kessel because the player exemplified the laziness and the complacency that was holding this franchise in neutral. It’s perhaps true – perhaps – but it’s also a terrifically blasphemous conclusion to draw on Kessel.

He wasn’t the only one-way player on Toronto’s roster last year. He wasn’t the only one who quit before every opening face-off from January to the end. He’s the scapegoat because he’s the common denominator between last year’s staleness and this year’s hope – it’s just that he’s still a Leaf in the former, gone to Pittsburgh in the latter.

But Randy Carlyle wasn’t a bad coach. Ron Wilson isn’t a bad coach. Brian Burke isn’t a bad GM. Peter Horachek’s probably not a bad coach, either.

It’s just that Babcock’s fresh, and he’s still somewhat of an outsider. He can see the angles where the Leafs have trained themselves not to look. Just like there was nothing left for the coach to accomplish in Detroit, so he got out while he was still coveted – while he was still a clever step ahead of the game’s long, looping trends.

‘Cause hey, when the Canucks were a goalie graveyard, there were plenty of guys who had no business dying there: Sean Burke, Arturs Irbe, Cloutier, Auld, Bob Essensa, Garth Snow, and Kevin Weekes all suffered in Vancouver, where all were forced to breathe with a plastic bag around their head.

It’s just that Luongo then – like Babcock now – had no loyalty to whatever regime came before him.

When you’re sick, everything tastes the same. Don’t blame it on the food – blame it on your diet.