Initial Thoughts on What Mike Babcock Means for Toronto

Today was a lot of fun.  First the Leafs were out of it, then they were back in it, and then somehow they ended up getting the coach that they wanted all along.  I know I haven’t had a good long Twitter refresh craze like that in quite some time.

So as the dust begins to settle on the Leafs’ hiring of Mike Babcock as the 30th head coach in franchise history, we can now begin to look more broadly at some of the implications that this move has for the team now and in the future.  Babcock is a significant addition, and yet he’s only one significant move in a myriad of changes that the organization is making as they begin an attempt to rebuild the team from scratch.  Let’s take a closer look at what Babcock means for the Leafs and what changes it could imply.

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

Mike Babcock immediately makes the Leafs a better team.  Throughout his coaching career, Babcock has boasted gaudy on-ice numbers while creating an admirable off-ice culture rooted in discipline, hard work, and responsibility.

Granted, the Leafs roster isn’t very good.  It certainly won’t be easy for Babcock to get this team to where it wants to go.  But his reputation as a hockey mind, as a leader, and as a coach certainly leaves significant room for optimism.

Say what you want about the roster Babcock had to work with in Detroit versus what he’ll have to work with in Toronto.  That’s a very fair argument.  I believe that a bad team with a good coach is still a bad team.  But, there are varying degrees of bad.  There’s Randy Carlyle bad, where the team is bad and the coach is bad.  If the team is going to lose, I’d certainly prefer they look good while doing it, which could very well be what happens under Babcock for now.

But could the Leafs actually win as early as next season under Babcock?  Could they make the playoffs?  Who knows.  With strong puck possession numbers and some good goaltending it isn’t out of the question.

CF

And those who have previously played under Babcock are big believers.  Former Red Wings goalie Manny Legace had this to say when asked if Mike Babcock could handle losing for a couple of years in Toronto: “I don’t think it’ll take him a couple years . . . I really don’t.”

If nothing else, Babcock provides a big upgrade from the likes of Randy Carlyle and even Peter Horachek as far as putting the team in a position to succeed goes.  And that’s really all you can ask to get from your coach.

LONG-TERM FUTURE

This one is a bit more interesting.  Sure, Babcock is an upgrade at coach.  We already knew that though.  What we don’t know is what Babcock’s hiring means for the long-term future of this team.  After all, every expectation has been that the team will be undergoing an extensive rebuild that sees them tear down the current roster.  Does that plan change at all under Babcock?

I still think you need to tear it down.  Sure, put the likes of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in a system run by Mike Babcock and you might be able to get more out of them.  But like I said, a bad team with a good coach is still a bad team.  And this team, in spite of now having a great coach, isn’t good enough to contend as currently constructed.

Tyler Bozak is still your “first line center”.  Dion Phaneuf, as your #1 minute-eater and team captain, is now 30 years old and clearly on the decline.  The team’s cupboard of prospects is nearly barren.  The roster just isn’t good enough to sustain winning long-term and Mike Babcock doesn’t change that at all.

But, can you speed the process up a bit?  Do you maybe hold on to someone like Phil Kessel?

I still think the answer is no.  You have to do this thing the right way, which means tearing it down, accumulating lots of draft picks, and getting way younger.  At the same time though, it’s tough to imagine that, in spite of all the money and organizational influence the Leafs are giving to Babcock, he would come here without some belief that he could win with this team.  It’s tough to imagine he’d want to come here if his understanding was that the team would be losing most of their hockey games for 5 years or longer.

So I guess the boring answer to the question of how much Mike Babcock changes the long-term future of this team is “I don’t know”.  That’s something that hopefully becomes at least in part more clear at tomorrow’s 11AM press conference.  The team still needs a significant overhaul to it’s roster, but it’s tough to picture Babcock wanting to be a part of that.  At the same time though, he did sign on for 8 years.  Someone as calculated as Babcock may very well be willing to sit through short-term pain for long-term gain.  Babcock as much as anyone seems to have a commitment to “doing things the right way”, and so he’s probably come to terms with that to some extent.  And hey, if you can stomach a few years of losing in exchange for potentially bringing a Stanley Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs, well, that’s absolutely worth it.

Maybe the team thinks Babcock is enough to put the rebuild on hold.  Maybe they think that if they can create a puck possession powerhouse they can win sooner rather than later through unconventional means.  But if I’m a betting man, I’d still say the team undergoes a significant rebuild with Babcock as the coach to make sure the Leafs’ have a new program in place that demands excellence right from day one.

MANAGEMENT STRUCTURE

Mike Babcock (probably) only changes the immediate and long-term future of this team marginally.  But it does look like his hiring could influence how the team constructs its front office in a big way.

The Leafs, of course, still need a GM.  However, indications are that Mike Babcock could have some say in managerial decisions as part of his new deal with the Leafs.  So how does that change the management structure moving forward?

Maybe you just roll with what you’ve got.  Even before the Leafs landed Babcock there were plenty of fans calling for the team to just stick with the current front office of Brendan Shanahan, Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas, and Brandon Pridham.  After all, how many more people in your front office do you really need? 

All that considered, it might not make sense to go out and get an additional person for the front office, especially with Mike Babcock now in the loop.

But who knows.  The Leafs seem very content to go against the traditional grain of how a hockey team should be run.  The Babcock hiring in itself reflects that. But if the Leafs are a really big fan of someone, say Sean Burke, I don’t think they would hesitate to add them into the mix either.

In any event, this does change things.  Whether the team names a GM from within or goes out and gets someone else, Babcock could have some managerial influence.  Either way, the coach is going to have some input and that is going to change the dynamic.  It’ll be really interesting to see what exactly the Leafs do now at GM.  Speculation is abound that, while Brendan Shanahan would keep “final say” on personnel decisions, maybe Mark Hunter could be named the club’s new General Manager.  After all, it appears he was a big part of helping to land Mike Babcock in Toronto in the first place.

Whatever the case may be, the Leafs are certainly going to be operating under an unorthodox managerial structure moving forward.

QUESTIONS THAT STILL NEED ANSWERING

As much as we now know about the Leafs’ situation, there are still more questions than answers.  Here is some of what remains largely unknown to the outside world that we’ll have to continue to keep our eye’s on moving forward:

  • Who will the GM be?
  • Who will the assistant coaches be?
  • Does hiring Mike Babcock change the team’s plan for a rebuild?
  • What, other than a significant amount of money and executive sway, ultimately convinced Babcock to choose Toronto over the likes of Detroit, Buffalo, and San Jose?
  • When does the team hope to be, in the truest sense of the word, competitive?
  • Does Mike Babcock change the team’s intention of trading away the likes of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf?
  • Which other players might the team either look to keep or trade now that Babcock is the head coach?  Which players stand to gain from this hiring and which players stand to lose from it?

Again, hopefully tomorrow’s press conference shines additional light on some of these questions.  But the reality is we are probably going to be kept guessing for a long time, only to have the moves that the team ends up making in the coming weeks and months to serve as possible answers.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I would say that objectively speaking Mike Babcock was the best coach available and the Leafs got him.  That’s great news for Toronto.  More subjectively though, is he the right person for the job?  Would someone else be more tailored for a rebuilding roster?  That’s hard to say.  And in reality, we won’t know the answer to that question for a very long time.

But that question also doesn’t matter.  Mike Babcock is now the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He immediately, in more ways than one, significantly changes how the team will be run on a day-to-day basis.  He’s here now and he’s here to stay for a good long while.

The Leafs promised changes this off-season.  They’ve already made some pretty big ones.  And today’s move is just one on a long continuum as the team looks to new frontiers in the hopes of finally making not just their hockey team, but their entire organization, one that is world class.  We’ll see if hiring Mike Babcock helps them achieve that goal.

Here are some other articles you might find interesting based on today’s big news:

  • MatsSundin#13

    Surprised he went to Toronto, the team is going to have a few years of pain. I thought he would go to Buffalo, and so did Buffalo, perhaps he was not given the control he wanted. Buffalo has more potential than Toronto at the moment. However If I were choosing between Detroit Buffalo and Toronto as a city , the choice would be easy Toronto by miles

  • MatsSundin#13

    I agree with the general system that this roster will eventually need to be blown out. And initially I thought having Babcock, despite how good he is, right away might be bad precisely because presumably the Leafs will have a worse draft pick next year. But it may this ends up being *better* for the rebuild. Babcock might be the guy that gets guys like Phil and Dion playing at their best, so that we Phil can still be considered a top-5 player in the league and Dion a legitimate top-2 defenseman. Imagine what this would do to their value. It could get Toronto in a position to get a handful of legitimate blue-chip prospects right away by trading these guys.

    So I say: Now that you have Babcock you hold on to those guys for next season since their price is probably at an all-time low. You let Babcock work his magic and wait for them to regain their game. Then you trade them for the ultimate ransom.

  • Jeremy Ian

    It’s great news for the Leafs. Period. One has to think he was on board the rebuilding program. Why he’d come to a “bad team” would otherwise make no sense. Buffalo may look better on paper right now, but they’re two years ahead of the Leafs.

    It’s by far the most interesting project than anything else in the hockey world. He must have been persuaded by Shanahan’s vision and style.

    He’ll instill the right ethics and program in a becoming-younger team desperate for both.

    It means management has to stay committed to its plan to succeed.

    It means he’s not coaching for a rival.

    • STAN

      All good points. Especially the fact that it is, by far, the “most interesting project than anything else in hockey”. I’d add that it is also the most challenging. Bar none.

      There is this myth that the only way to become a top six team and be a perennial Stanley Cup contender is to have at least one or two cream of the crop draft picks. It doesn’t always work. (see Edmonton Oilers)

      Detroit has proved that wrong for at least 20 years. Holland and the Red Wings scouts have done a masterful job of recognizing talent and then Babcock took what they handed him and he brought out the best in them.

      So it is feasible that even if the Leafs start to resemble a competitive team this coming season and either finish JUST in the playoffs or in the 10-15 draft spot, they still need to make great drafting choices. (see Tyler Biggs)

      I think Babcock, along with Mark Hunter, will have a huge influence on getting character players that will fit a winning, long-term system.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Definately the most challenging, not just for the nature of franchise and its impetuous fan base. But the nature of the CBA and the hard ceiling on the cap for the foreseeable future means the onus is on development of homegrown talent. And given where the Leafs are so far behind the curve, it’s going to take a while. But it’s so clear that this management team understands this. Babcock is no fool — so he’s on the same page.

        It’s a bit of a high wire act, though, not improving too much that you lift yourself out of the top picks, but still keep improving. I suspect this is why there’s so much attention being placed now on the farm system — because that’s where they are going to have to park the developing players while the team wallows near the bottom of the rankings. This is what the Oilers failed to do, maybe even Buffalo too — and what the Red Wings have been doing.

      • silentbob

        You do need a few “cream of the crop” players though, often they come from the “cream of the crop” picks.

        The Red Wings do/have done a great job drafting and developing talent, but they also get very lucky drafting Datsyuk and Zetterberg where they did.

        You can’t/won’t build a championship with only good and character players, you do need a few great players in that mix as well.

        • Jeremy Ian

          The take away is that the best road to success involves multiple strategies. Can’t rely on just ultra-high drafts, luck, or lots of patience or investment in the farm system. We are going to need all three. But the luck only comes if you sign a lot of guys and see what surprises come up — which is what the Leafs have started to do. They have decent picks coming. And are revamping the farm system. Seems to me that management has this concept.

          • silentbob

            I don’t think anyone is suggesting the Leafs have to pick in the top five 22 times.

            I see a team has having 3 layers (I’ll use Tampa as my example). The Core (Stamkos, Hedman, maybe Drouin in a year or two). The Support (Johnson, Callahan, Stralman, Bishop, Filppula, Garrison) and the Role/Depth players – the rest.

            When talking about the players you get with early picks, like this years 4th, we are talking about players who could/should be Core players, a teams top 2-3 players. Obviously if the opportunity to get a Stamkos or Hedman later in the draft (I’d say that’s mostly luck) or in a trade or via-free agency is there, you take it. However, most often they come from the first few picks. Its filling out the Supporting Cast and Depth/Role players where a teams ability to maximize multiple strategies to find talent really comes into play.

            The Leafs, right now, lack those core players. That needs to be addressed before they can/should focus on the Support and Depth players.

          • Jeremy Ian

            There are a few of your core elements in place, Rielly, Nylander, this year’s 4th. One implication of your argument is that it may be worth maneuvering in this draft with the NSH pick and some trades to land NJ’s 6th. If the Leafs start improving, they wind up drafting outside the top tier — and there goes your future core. So, maybe the emphasis should be an aggressive draft this year.

          • silentbob

            Maybe. Its way to early to say that Rielly and Nylander and whoever they pick this year are/will be on the same level as Stamkos/Hedman or Toews/Kane/Keith. Rielly and Nylander are not on the McDavid/Eichel level of certainty, they may get to that level, they may not.

            I have no problem with them aggressively improving, but I think its more going for a top 3 pick then adding the 6th. And who says they HAVE to do it all this year at this draft? Maybe Matthews will be that guy for us. Maybe McLeod will.

  • MatsSundin#13

    I remember maybe a year ago, this site was good. The quality of writing was good. This piece is as bad and bland and lacking any kind of insight as anything in the Toronto Star or Sun. Blech!!!

    • passelin

      Give me a break man – the writers at Leafs Nation do just fine (that’s why we Oilers fans check it out). If you can’t be happy as a Leafs fan today, you are in for a long season.

  • FlareKnight

    I think it’s absolutely a fantastic move. It doesn’t change the rebuild and doesn’t change this is a long road.

    What it does do though is mean we don’t have to find a coach. Once we’ve lost out a few years and drafted, then we already have a guy who can lead and coach this group into a good and winning team.

    So yeah, awesome day.

  • CMpuck

    Wonder how quickly the advanced stats backseat coaches turn on Babcock the second he doesn’t play Kadri at 1C or plays the wrong guy on the second power play unit.

    Randy Caryle’s record is evidence enough that he was a much better coach than Horachek. Not wins and losses matter in cyberspace.

    • TGT23

      And what if he does? What if he does decide the “backseat coaches” are right and thinks the same way?

      What do you know?

      And you’re still seriously going to sit there and tell us that a coach that led the team to two epic collapses and was well on his way to a third straight season ending in collapse before being fired was the right coach to lead the team? Horachek’s time as HC proved what many advanced stats proponents were saying all along. The team wasn’t good enough.

      So, they keep Carlyle and they finish 9th… Is that really better? Lose the #4 pick, pick 8th or 10th again. Don’t trade Winnik, Franson, Santa, etc. Don’t sign Baile… Don’t trade for Leipsic… Is that somehow BETTER in your mind?

      At least with P.H we learned that the team as it was constructed could not play a playoff style system. A system like Babcock will bring in can’t be run by players like Kessel and Bozy who don’t play D. P.H’s time proved that and now Shanahan, Dubas, and Hunter can make proper changes rather than waste yet another season.

      • CMpuck

        Oh the strawmen you burn.

        I was the guy saying Shanny should have blown the organization up the day he walked on the job… Just pointing out the reality that Horachek couldn’t be trusted with getting Randy’s Tim Hortons order right, Horachek was a historically bad coach, hardly an upgrade.

  • STAN

    Great article Shawn. You are absolutely right in we obviously don’t know what influence he will have on the the club. As was stated by yourself and posters, the leafs were in the full tear down the whole structure phase. Does a talented coach allow the leafs to improve enough to where they are back to drafting 9th to 13th?? Instead of baring the pain for the long term gain. Oh sure the Edmonton example is always thrown out. But somebody in the N.H.L. has to be the equivalent to the L.A. Clippers. Check their drafting record over the years.

    What we do know Shawn is that M.L.S.E. had to stop the financial bleeding. Yesiree a funny thing happened on the walk to the forum or in this case the walk to the Air Canada center. After 48 years much to the chagrin of M.L.S.E. some of the fans stopped walking, some of them stopped watching the leafs on t.v. They quit following as the team quit on the fans in the new year. They only bought a Kessel sweater to throw it rather than wear it.

    Thus the brilliant p.r. move of hiring the best coach available. It gives the club credibility and obviously buys M.L.S.E. valuable time to once again have the loomis trucks brimming to the top after a home leaf game. Who would have thunk that Mike would come to Toronto. But as the great Shakespearean actor Ted Dibiasse so eloquently stated EVERYONE HAS A PRICE.

    Leaf fans are a bit wary as they have had Lucy pull the old football away far too often as Charley Brown roared down the path to kick the pig skin.

    After all the bull in the china shop Burkie was going to be the saviour. Why statues would be built for him. He would be on the cover of a $10.00 bill. How did that work out.

    Randy Carlyle had won a Stanley Cup.

    Scotty Bowman was to be the saviour of Buffalo, okay, okay, okay nothing could save Buffalo.

    We all hope for the best. Time will indeed tell us. Say was it only 52 years ago that Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale held out in spring training for one hundred thousand dollars???

  • Gary Empey

    Training camp this year will be very interesting to watch. I am sure that Babcock will only keep and play players that come to the rink that are willing to do what it takes to win.

    Being outshot every game is a very telling stat.
    Losing most of the faceoffs also will have to be addressed.

    Contrary to what a lot of people think the Leafs have a lot of talent.
    Expect Babcock to have them playing as a team.
    Babcock after assessing the team closer, will let the GM know if he has players that he can’t work with.
    Forget about Leafs 2016 draft pick order.

    • silentbob

      Well Gary that could be a major problem if the leafs improve and end up with the 9th to say 13th pick, they are in reality back in the same old position of having difficulty in obtaining true top draft picks to be pillars of the total rebuild intelligent leaf fans want and demand. After all that is what most posters in here have demanded. A total rebuild of management and more importantly a total rebuild of the hockey club. Finishing anywhere from 8th to 13th ain’t going to cut it.

      • Gary Empey

        I would agree getting a top five draft pick would be ideal.
        Surely you don’t expect Babcock to tank the team for a draft pick.

        Draft lottery will be expanded to determine first three selections in 2016.

        Follow link- http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=728795

        I expect they Leafs will try to pick up some high draft picks through trades. Now if we only knew who projects to have the worse record next season.
        Sabres, Oilers Mmmm I wonder.

  • Jeremy Ian

    What’s the over/under on Mike Babcock turning into Randy Bablyle? 2.5 years? It will be interesting to watch the battle between Babcock vs. Simmons, Kelly, DiManno et al. I think the Toronto media will take this as a challenge – is Babcock too big to swallow?

  • Jeremy Ian

    The Tampa Bay Lightning completely rebuilt their roster (except for Hedman & Stamkos) between the 10-11 and 13-14 season.

    During that time they got a 10th, 19th, and 3rd (Drouin – who isn’t really playing right now)…

    We don’t need to get four 1st overall picks like Edmonton in order to rebuild.

    • silentbob

      You’re right, no team “needs” four 1st overall picks in order to rebuild. What teams need, at least 1 element that teams need, are franchise players like Stamkos and Hedman, who the Lightning did draft 1-2 overall.

      It matters less how many early picks the Leafs get in the next few years and more that they acquire a couple franchise players, they just most often come early in the draft. The trick is to not take 4 or 6 years to get 2 franchise players (like the Hawks and Kings and Oilers did/have done). Hopefully the Leafs are able to do it quickly.

    • silentbob

      You do realise Stammer was a 1st overall and Hedman was a 2nd overall, right? So they do have three cream of the crop draft picks, a goalie that they got lucky on (nobody expected Bishop to be this good after the trade) and Tyler Johnson, an unsigned STEAL. These aren’t things you can count on for a building team. Plus the Florida no-state-income tax likely allows for their team to pay less for FA – Stralman and Callahan come to mind.

      Yzerman has done an outstanding job, but you can’t expect every GM to nail it the way he did.

    • silentbob

      Yep all it takes is a big strong young elite defenceman who is becoming an elite player and a true young leader and scorer, who by the way plays a 200 foot game and you are on your way. The leafs need at least two more high draft picks and hope and pray they turn out to be in the category of Hedman and Stamkos.

      • Gary Empey

        I agree on the most pressing need is an elite defenceman. The problem this year there are also two top centers in the mix.

        Expect the comments here to get hot and heavy as we get closer to draft day.

        I wonder if the management are thinking of trading up their 24th overall pick to try to get one of Ivan Provorov, Zachary Werenski, Jakub Zboril, or Thomas Chabot

  • silentbob

    I 100% agree. Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, Bozak etc… have had plenty of time here with several different coaches already. Carlyle was suppossed to be that tough coach to get them in line, Horachek was supposed to get them playing better defensive hockey/in a system. I see no reason to give them “1 last chance”.

    I don’t think this hire will affect the rebuild plans at all. If Babcock wasn’t on the same page as Shanahan in co. they wouldn’t have hired him. My guess is Babcock came to Toronto because he wants to be part of the rebuilding process, he wants to try to build something from the ground up.