Who should the Leafs hire when they miss out on Babcock? How about a GM

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs have likely lost out on the most highly regarded head coach in hockey, Mike Babcock. Toronto’s dismal 2014-15 campaign ended a month ago and the Maple Leafs are still losing. On the bright side, its been a long while since the Maple Leafs lost anything of consequence in mid-May…

Assuming that the Maple Leafs’ efforts to lure Babcock to Toronto will fail – and at this point that’s what everyone from Bob McKenzie, to Pierre LeBrun, to Elliotte Friedman believes will happen – who should the Maple Leafs hire as their bench boss? 

There are still some decent head coaching candidates out there, but maybe we should stop putting the apple cart before the horse here. If and when the Maple Leafs lose out on Babcock, and excuse me if this seems self evident, but they should refocus on hiring a general manager first.

Bucking Convention

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has been anything but conventional in his first year on the job.

The rookie executive was criticized when he fired veteran assistant general managers Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle in mid-summer, and then turned around and hired a couple of young whiz kids in NHL head office CBA ace Brandon Pridham and up-jumped OHL general manager Kyle Dubas. Shanahan didn’t just visit extraskater.com, he took it off-line. 

Even as Shanahan began to put his finger prints on the Maple Leafs organization he notably didn’t clean house off the hop, something we’ve come to expect from incoming executives. Instead Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis were kept around for an additional – and disastrous – season.

While Shanahan’s sword was delayed, it wasn’t stayed, and when he did get around to gutting a bloated front office and scouting department in late April, he did so with the sort of ruthless thoroughness rarely seen in a tightly knit, relationship-based business like professional hockey. 

Shanahan has marched to the beat of his own drum since arriving in Toronto, and over the past month we’ve arguably seen him disregard the customary course of things yet again by pursuing Babcock in the continued absence of a general manager.

Pursuing Babs

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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Shanahan’s shirking of tradition in pursuing Babcock without first installing a general manager was probably the right approach. At the very least, it was defensible.

There aren’t many hockey coaches like Babcock, after all. There might not be any. 

Forget the Stanley Cup and the Olympic gold medals, you’d be very hard pressed to find another NHL bench boss capable of taking a thin Red Wings defense corps – the sort of blue-line group that has had to regularly rely on Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith in the top four – and still find a way to dominate play. 

What the Red Wings have accomplished over the past few years, in terms of winning the neutral zone every night and managing a stellar shot attempt differential with an undermanned roster, reflects very well on Babcock’s abilities as a tactician.

Pursuing Babcock as the Maple Leafs did, even if unsuccessfully, was the sensible course of action. Now that the Babcock sweepstakes is over for the Maple Leafs though, landing a general manager should take priority over finding the club’s next head coach.

With Babcock and new Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan off the market, there are no longer any available head coaching candidates with enough lustre and profile to justify imposing on an incoming general manager – whom ever it may be. Maybe you could maybe make an argument for St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, and fair enough, but that’s officially the end of the list.

Landing Babcock is one thing, but if you’re hiring a retread like a Paul MacLean or a Guy Boucher prior to hiring a general manager, you’re not exactly signalling to the rest of the league that an incoming general manager will have much in the way of autonomy. 

That matters if you want to land the sort of front office talent sharp enough to justify the cost of executive compensation.

Rebuilding in an Age of Executive Compensation

Toronto is going to lose out on Babcock this week partly, maybe even primarily, because they’re just beginning their latest rebuilding process. It’s a process that’s going to take a while, as Maple Leafs executives have taken pains to emphasize

This organization has to get down to the business of accumulating assets, and we might reasonably expect them to be busy on that front over the next six weeks. A major part of that long-term process will be hanging on to draft picks, rather than losing them in order to land an off-ice employee. 

Landing a currently-employed assistant general manager prior to the NHL draft – whether it’s Jeff Gorton or Laurence Gilman or Julien BriseBois – will cost the club a second-round pick at the some point in the next three years. Even if you believe one of those guys is the right fit, that’s a steep price for a club that’s in the preliminary stages of a rebuild.

Conclusion

However Shanahan proceeds, it’s apparent that he should err on the side of avoiding an executive compensation payment unless he’s really confident that he can land the next Steve Yzerman. And he’s definitely not going to land an executive of that quality without ensuring them some level of autonomy anyway. It’s a delicate balance, and a complicated one. 

With a resolution to the Babcock saga nearing, the focus will shift to what Toronto does next. 

And what the Maple Leafs should do next is apparent. They should hire a general manager, ideally one that comes unattached to a mid-round draft pick.

    • Benjamin

      Actually, let’s have some fun with this.

      You know David Clarkson, the player so bad that paying someone else $26.5M to never play in the NHL again was the most universally praised move of the Dave Nonis era? Remember him?

      Well, way back on July 5th, 2013, the Edmonton Oilers offered him a bigger contract. That’s right, the Oilers actually outbid the worst contract in the history of the NHL. And the only reason he didn’t accept it was because Edmonton is unquestionably the worst city and organization in the entire NHL (a league that includes Columbus, Ohio I might add).

      Now the post lockout years here have been pretty embarrassing and I can make fun of the Leafs better than anyone I know. But I still thank God every day I wasn’t born in the abyss of hope that is Edmonton, Alberta and Oiler fandom.

      • Smuckers

        So are you mad that Clarkson signed with the Leafs?

        I don’t blame any NHL’er not wanting to sign with the Oilers the past 9 years. The management group has been horrendous and hey, I’ll call a spade a spade, there’s not as much to do in Edmonton when compared to say New York or Toronto.

        Were you expecting me to defend the Oilers and their past management group?

        Let’s hug it out.

  • Benjamin

    I really don’t think the GM of the Leafs is going to be a full authority GM. Shanahan is the GM in everything but name I am convinced any incoming GM will be running all moves past Shanny first. So i personally don’t see it as essential to get the GM on board now the Leafs are much better off waiting for the right candidate rather hiring someone who is the best of a bad bunch.
    In Shanny we trust!!!!!!