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Photo Credit: James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports

The “what ifs” in this supposed Dubas vs Babcock fiasco

In case you haven’t heard, Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas are not on the same page. Or something.

Maybe all of this talk about the team’s off-ice problems are completely made up for clicks, or perhaps this team is actually at a more critical moment than most of us believe.

Personally I think things are somewhere in the middle; There are some disagreements over how the team is being run from both sides, there is tension, but the media (or even sites like this and people like me) will gladly weigh in and try to figure it out and put their spin on it.

Anyway, where is this all stemming from, you ask? Well, given the team has been in a hole the last couple weeks, there was a dark cloud circling on its own, but then some quotes got people’s attention and raised concerns of a rift between Babcock and management.

From 31 Thoughts after Toronto’s 3-0 shutout loss to Nashville (where the Leafs played pretty well in fact), Babcock had this to say:

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you… don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

This quote was seen as a shot across the bow of management, suggesting Babcock believes they haven’t done enough to give him a chance to win. Of course this sent people into a frenzy of opinions like “How can he say that when he plays veterans like Hainsey and Marleau over skilled young players?” Both sides of that argument aren’t 100-percent wrong.

But aside from the team’s general make-up and speculation over their philosophies, where exactly have Babcock and Dubas been at odds this season?

“They did not agree on the backup-goalie choice. The GM didn’t want Justin Holl lost on waivers, but, until injuries forced it, the defenceman couldn’t get into the lineup. The coach clearly is uncomfortable with a smallish fourth line. And he had a jaw-dropping quote about the Jake Muzzin trade, noting his (then) roster of five left-handed shots, saying, “It’s not perfect — it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work.””

These are all reasonable and somewhat expected disagreements, but do they really warrant serious talk about firing Babcock? And if somehow that nuclear option did happen after this season, who can step in and take over a contender in the most absurd market in hockey? It has to be an established option like Joel Quenneville, no? And if it is someone like him, do we even know what’s to gain there? Would a sixty-year-old like ‘Q’ do things so differently than Babcock?

Maybe I should have paid more attention to those good Hawks teams, because I have no idea. I do know one thing though…

Hiring Keefe right now is a no-go

There’s a segment of Leafs supporters constantly campaigning for Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe to take over the reins of the big club as soon as possible. Given Dubas’s long history with Keefe, this idea makes a lot of sense when it comes to having the general manager and coach on the same page, but I’d be floored if Toronto made that switch in the near future.

Keefe might turn out to be a great NHL coach, and his success at the other levels suggests he can be. But Dubas firing arguably the most popular coach in Canadian history to plunk an unproven in the seat right away would be a monster risk for his own career.

In this world of ‘what ifs’, picture this: Toronto fizzles a bit down the stretch here and goes out to the Bruins in the first round. Babcock and Dubas have a falling out and the head coach is fired. Keefe is his replacement and then next year the Leafs’ results don’t improve much, they get 105 points or so and take on a good team like the Bruins or Lightning early in the playoffs, again. If Toronto loses that series, no matter how close, Dubas is then on the block to be fired because he decided to pay Mike Babcock millions of dollars to go away and replaced him with someone who couldn’t move the needle any further ahead. To fire Babcock in favour of Keefe right now is to risk the whole house coming down within a couple years. And while Dubas seems to be willing to be bold to see his vision of the team become reality, I don’t think he’s that bold.

Work it out

There’s this radical idea that, you know, Babcock just sticks around and all these personalities in management and the coaching staff earn their money and figure things out. Babcock is rightfully criticized for over-use of veterans and the like, but let’s keep in mind we’re arguing about things like the margins around Justin Holl vs. Ron Hainsey — it isn’t like he’s out there spiking the season to prove a point. Toronto’s personnel on the back end is not good, full stop.

Perhaps putting too much emphasis on handedness and experience are Babcock’s weak areas, but that isn’t anything catastrophic in terms of a divide in philosophy, and there are things management can do this summer to make it so these battles of which fringe NHLer should be playing more are doused. I mean, it seems like even the players themselves aren’t exactly enthusiastic about playing their off-hand side, so it isn’t that Babcock is just making up issues. Management needs to try like hell to move out dead weight this summer, make a priority of shoring up things on the right side, and go from there. If coaching does seem like a glaring issue after that, well, the hot seat will totally be warranted.

In the meantime, while this overall Babcock vs. Dubas situation does seem somewhat real, without question it at least partially stems from a fear of what’s going to happen against the Bruins next month. That goes from management to coaching, all the way down to the fans buying the tickets. Win four games there and we’ll see how the tone of the conversation changes.

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  • Bob Canuck

    Ryan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

    The other thing that led some people to speculate about a riff between Dubas and Babcock was when Dubas liked a tweet that contained a cartoon. The cartoon showed a sign up above that said “Answer”. Just below that sign there was another sign pointing to the left that read “Simple But Wrong”. There were many people in the lineup on the Simple But Wrong path that ultimately led to a cliff from which people fell. The other sign, which was also below the Answer sign, pointed to the right and read “Complex But Right”. There were few people on the winding, Complex But Right” path.

    Some people thought that Dubas liking the cartoon was a shot at Babcock. In other words, Dubas was of the view that the Leafs problems are deeper than having to play your 7th and 8th defencemen. There are other issues such as player usage, systems, etc. I thought the intent of Dubas was the opposite: Dubas was stating that firing Babcock would be simple but wrong.

    In the end, I hope that Dubas and Babcock discuss these matters privately. There is no benefit to the team by having disagreements aired publicly. I also have faith in Brendan Shanahan to monitor the situation and step in as appropriate.

  • Brandon

    I agree with this. I do think Babcock has inappropriately started to pass the blame onto Dubas, and I do think Babcock makes a lot of head scratching decisions, but if people think Keefe or Quenville aregoing to solve everything, I’m not convinced. That said, i find it rich that Babcock give guys like Sparks a hard time for commentibg on others within days of him clearly blaming the GM for the troubles the team is having. Not being a very gud pro. Maybe Marleau should take Babcock under his wing.

  • magesticRAGE

    Good write up.
    ‘Q’ wouldn’t really be different enough. I mean, if you’re going to move in from Babcock, you’re looking to go in a different direction, not just changing the font.
    Promoting Keefe this season would be unfair. If done, Keefe has earned the right to have the time needed to prepare his own systems and lineups.

    Ultimately, Dubas can control the roster Babcock can pick from. Hainsey won’t be in the toolbox for much longer, and hopefully Marleau decides to hang them up or return to San Jose for a swan song (salary retention).
    I do think this rift is blown out of proportion, but Babcock had made sure that there is validity for the concern. Babs is more wrong than he is right, especially with his “right now” view. Dubas has had a great first year so far, and has to navigate the immediate future delicately, adding Babcock to that list.

  • Stan Smith

    As I stated elsewhere, Babcock, at some point in time gave an interview where he stated there would be differences of opinion between him, and any GM. It is a coaches job to win now. A GM has to balance the now and the future.

    Going through the 2nd quote point by point. Of course Babcock and Dubas disagreed on goalies. Babcock wants to win now. McElhinney gave them the best chance to win now. Dubas is thinking about the future. The 10 year younger Sparks has more potential for helping the Leafs in the long run. As for Holl, him and Dubas disagree, but it is a disagreement on a fringe NHLer. Of course Babcock was concerned with a small, (not smallish) 4th line. What NHL coach wouldn’t be? The statement about Muzzin was a statement of fact. Dubas probably thought that when he made the deal.

    As for what started this $hit storm. Babcock was asked why he thought the Leafs were struggling. He gave an honest, and correct answer. An answer even Dubas can’t argue with. The Leafs are lacking in depth. Plain and Simple. I’m sure Dubas will correct that, given time. Babcock wants it now. Typical.