TORONTO — Mike Babcock was at his daughter’s graduation when he received a text message from a friend about reports of a strained relationship with star centre Auston Matthews.
“I’ll find out in the morning,” the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs replied. “I’ll meet him. I’ll ask him in the morning.”
As the Leafs cleaned out their lockers Friday in the wake of a seven-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, Babcock and Matthews both addressed speculation the coach had “lost” his player during the series.
“I said, ‘What’s going on?’” Babcock told reporters of his conversation with Matthews. ”It’s interesting in Toronto, you (media) do such a good job. You’re everywhere. You’re under the bench, you’re in the crack in the door, you’re in the car, you’re in the parking lot. You’re everywhere, and any time anybody does anything there’s a big story.
“I asked him flat-out, ‘Do we have any (issues)?’ He was sitting right there. We don’t seem to.”
Matthews, who had just a goal and an assist against Boston, said talk of friction was also news to him.
“I don’t know what that’s all about,” he said. “Our relationship’s fine. Obviously you guys can speculate all you want, but I think it’s pointless.
“Stuff happens, people speculate. I can tell you right now it’s not the case.”
The 20-year-old scored 34 times in regular season despite missing 20 games due to injury, but admitted to being frustrated in the Bruins series following a Game 7 where Toronto blew a 4-3 lead in the third period before losing 7-4.
“Auston’s a young man trying to be the best player in the world,” Babcock said Friday. “The hardest part in life is when you’re disappointed and you thought you maybe could have done more. I know that from me as a coach … it makes you sick, almost.
“He’s a good young man. We’re lucky to have him. I’m lucky to get to coach him, and we continue to grow our product here with him leading the way.”
That growth saw the Leafs set franchise records for points (105) and wins (49) in the regular season, but unlike the 2016-17 campaign where they were just happy to make the playoffs before losing in six games to Washington after bottoming out the previous year, Toronto expected a lot more this spring.
“It rips the heart out of your chest,” Babcock said. ”You’re set up, you’re right there, you’re ahead, you’ve got it going good.
“It just goes to show you how fragile things are at times.”
Despite having their season end at the same stage, the Leafs will see a number of positives as they head towards the summer.
Matthews got off to a great start before getting hurt on three separate occasions, but still nearly cracked the 35-goal mark, Mitch Marner had a terrible first half before finding his game midway through the schedule, and goalie Frederik Andersen set a franchise record for wins in a season with 38.
“We all wanted to be not in this position today — we wanted to be somewhere else,” said Marner, who led the Leafs in points in both the regular season (69) and playoffs (nine). “We’re very excited for next year. We expect a lot out of ourselves.”
But like any off-season, there will be change.
Veteran forwards James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov are among the players set to hit unrestricted free agency, and it’s hard to envision any of the three will be back with Matthews, Marner and William Nylander all due big raises in the not-too-distant future.
“Playing in front of these people has been a thrill,” said van Riemsdyk, who led Toronto with 36 goals this season and has been with the team since 2012. “I’ve loved playing for them and living in this city.
“We’ll see what happens.”
Another potential free agent of sorts is general manager Lou Lamoriello, whose contract is also set to expire.
The 75-year-old was in no mood to discuss his future Friday. He did, however, allude to the fact the Leafs will be looking to upgrade a defence that was exposed during the playoffs.
“There’s no one position that you’re ever satisfied with,” Lamoriello said. ”It’s not a hidden secret that we tried to upgrade our defence, but at the (potential) expense it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
One member of the blue line that had an especially rough end to his season was Jake Gardiner, who was on the ice for five Boston goals in that disastrous Game 7.
He faced the music with reporters immediately afterwards with tears in his eyes — no one forced him to speak — and said Friday he felt it was the right thing to do.
“If you don’t perform and go hide in a corner, what good’s that going to do?” he said. ”You’ve got to face what you did.”
As the Leafs pick up the pieces and go their separate ways, Babcock hopes they take lessons from a season that saw them take strides, but in the end play just one more game than last year.
“There’s those little speed bumps in life, and they lead to taking the next step because they challenge you mentally and physically,” he said. ”Sometimes getting slapped is the best thing.
“You don’t like it. You don’t like the feeling.”