By Cole Parkinson
Mike Babcock was fired last week and so far, so good for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have won two games in a row since.
Heading into T-Mobile Arena last week in Las Vegas, I couldn’t help but feeling this could be one of the last game’s Babcock would be behind the bench, and I was right. If you would have told me in September that I would be in the building for Babcock’s last game as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I wouldn’t have believed you.
But a six-game losing streak, in which the team looks like they have zero motivation, expedited that process and it was the right move.
The extremely embarrassing 6-1 shellacking handed to the Leafs by Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 was the final straw no doubt and an added loss to Vegas a few nights later didn’t help.
But was this a matter of Leafs management wanting to do this earlier but hoping for the best for the 2019/2020 season? While hindsight is 20/20, I think he should have been let go after yet another disappointing exit in the playoffs to Boston.
I understand management, and even more ownerships, desire to try one more time with the decorated head coach but I think it was obvious the players had had enough of the old-school head coach.
And now with even more stories of how Babcock was perceived by players in both the room and around the hockey world, it looks more and more like he should have been given his walking papers back in the offseason.
Not being privy to the locker room, or behind the scenes access, I can’t say this with 100 per cent confidence but in reading reports from people who are around the team a lot, it sure sounds like ownership was the biggest reason Mike Babcock returned behind the bench.
And look no further than Babcock’s departing letter which thanked part-owner Larry Tanenbaum, calling him ‘one of the finest people I’ve ever met’ and no one else in current Leafs management.
I wouldn’t read to much into him not thanking team president Brendan Shanahan or GM Kyle Dubas, considering they were the ones who let him go, but thanking the owner no doubt has some meaning behind it.
Babcock departs the Leafs with a decent record of 173-133-45, good enough for fifth all-time coaching wins behind Leaf greats Punch Imlach, Pat Quinn, Hap Day and Dick Irvin. When he was hired he was supposed to be the promised head coach who would lead the Maple Leafs back to former glory and once again bring a championship back to the Stanley Cup drought-ridden city of Toronto.
Coming off a Stanley Cup in 2008, and two Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, the hiring of Babcock in the 2015/2016 season was something of a rarity for the Maple Leafs. A proven winner was coming to town and was looking to finally end that god-forsaken drought dating back to 1967.
There were very few people who weren’t excited by the signing, myself included, but he didn’t get it done and he hasn’t gotten past the first round since the 2012/2013 season, so is the greatness of Babcock past its deadline? It looks like it, especially since the old school head coaching style deployed by Babcock is looking more and more like a thing of the past.
I highly doubt this will be his last NHL coaching gig though, but he will only come back if he wants to.
Considering the Maple Leafs will continue paying his salary of $6.25 million a season until 2023, he doesn’t need the money so unless a team in the right position to compete shows itself without a coach, he may not comeback until the timing is perfect. The Maple Leafs new coach Sheldon Keefe’s contract is up at the end of the 2022 season, let that sink in. And speaking of Keefe, from everything I have seen and read, it really does feel like Dubas wanted to make the change much earlier but was blocked from higher up.
Keefe was the head coach in Sault Ste. Marie when Dubas was the GM of the Greyhounds, both of which were employed by the Leafs in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
So once Dubas was named the 17th GM in Leafs history, it was only a matter of time before his guy was behind the bench, especially if the Leafs didn’t improve on their 2018/2019 season. A slow start to the season and a six-game losing streak was all it took and now the team is truly built like a Kyle Dubas team from the coach and the players.
No more safety net for Dubas, not saying the team has to win the Stanley Cup this year to keep his job but now more than ever is the success of the team solely on Dubas’ shoulders. And with Keefe guiding the Leafs to back-to-back wins against Arizona and Colorado, the comeback needs to continue if this team wants to make the playoffs. After two games, it is night and day of player effort, both in the offensive and defensive zones.
The team is still a work in progress in their own end, to put it lightly, but at least their offence has woken up to a more typical level as seen in the past few years.
With Saturday being the team’s most recent game, I’m sure plenty of practice time has happened in between now and tonight’s game in Detroit, let’s hope the team gets to work on more Keefe systems.
While a new face and voice behind the bench was needed, I think the team moving away from some of the ‘Babcockisms” is well needed.
In particular, the playing of the fourth line after a goal for or a goal against had to be one of the most infuriating things Babcock subscribed to along with splitting power play time between the two units, even with the first boasting more skill.
So far, both have been corrected under Keefe and I can only hope his ideas and coaching philosophies continue to be implemented to this team.
While Babcock continued to harp about toughness and big bodies, Keefe has already stated he’s going to work with what the team is and won’t worry about what they aren’t.
They aren’t a big physical team, nor are they defensively gifted, but they have arguably one of the most skilled teams in the league and I think Keefe is going to focus in on that. Will they have to outscore some of their problems? Probably. Is that a guaranteed way to win the Stanley Cup? Nope.
But It’s happened before, recently with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015/2016, and if the Leafs big boys can turn up the offence while Freddy Andersen holds it steady in the crease, why can’t this team win a Cup? They have 57 games to figure that out and at this point of the Leafs rebuild, missing the playoffs is not an option.