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It’s time to talk about Mike Babcock

Is it too early to talk about firing Mike Babcock? I think for a lot of you frustrated by game seven and new to questioning the coaching of Mike Babcock, you might want to unpack things a bit more before you decide where you truly stand. For the Babcock true believers, well, this post probably isn’t for you at all, but the bone I will repeatedly throw you is that Mike Babcock is a good coach, Mike Babcock has been an important part of turning the Leafs around, and if we were assessing Mike Babcock on whether he’s done anything that is would make this a for cause firing, we wouldn’t be able to find it. What I am saying is that Mike Babcock is not the coach that moves the Leafs forward.

I feel it’s important for me to establish I’m not kicking dirt because the Leafs lost Game 7. In fact, the Bruins are a very good team, and right up until Game 7 it was one of the most enjoyable series of hockey I’ve watched in a long time.  What I am saying is that the onus was on Mike Babcock to prove me wrong and push the Leafs past the higher seeded team in order for me to not question his employment.

The Issues with Babcock

    • The Lineup Card: To be fair this will be the issue we always have with any coach. Especially when you look at the bottom of lineup. Why is Petan, Leivo, or Holl sitting instead of Gauthier, Ozhiganov, or Lindholm? Why is Marleau on the third line instead of the fourth? These are the small issues we will constantly kick dirt about regardless of who is in charge. Some of the bigger issues are Ron Hainsey on the top pairing, William Nylander being stapled to the fourth line, and pretty much anytime that Connor Brown or Patrick Marleau were played in the top six throughout the season. You can likely also include that very shortly lived Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin pairing which ended after two games and say both Rielly and Muzzin tethered to boat anchor partners.
  • Player Usage: Pretty much an extension of what is above, and that is the continuous rolling of four lines to the point of seeing far too much of Freddie Gauthier in the 3rd period of an elimination game. It’s the belief that Connor Brown and Patrick Marleau could be complimentary wingers to William Nylander who seemed on an island the entire series. There’s the amount of ice time that Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev have received throughout the season and there’s the lack of ice time for John Tavares and Auston Matthews in the playoffs. Again, none of this really seems to make Babcock a candidate for firing, but was damned frustrating, clearly ineffective, and at least warrants some serious discussion around what he’d do differently in the future.I’ll also make note of my objection to the high usage of Frederik Andersen down the stretch of the regular season after he returned from injury.
  • Coaching the team against their strengths: This comes down to a lot of leadership philosophy that again, is something where there are many schools of thought and I clearly don’t share the same philosophy as Babcock. The Leafs are built to be a fast paced offensive juggernaut, that will be light on defense, high on offense and with a goaltender that on most nights can bail the team out on enough of their mistakes. Mike Babcock is much more inclined to roll four lines, and three pairings of players playing a 200 foot game, and it was also very noticeable when the Leafs transitioned from trying to score, to protecting a lead, a task that seemed more costly than beneficial.The focus on fixing weaknesses rather than playing to strengths is a fault in my opinion, and one that make Mike Babcock an unappealing option as a coach. My personal preference lends itself to servant leadership, and a “players coach” who is going to give his players what they need to be successful in their roles, not the structured director approach taken by Mike Babcock.
  • No adaption: It seems like expecting things to change in game is never going to happen with Mike Babcock. You might get a couple of new line combinations, but he seems married to his game plan and deviating from it would be admitting early defeat for him. “Stay the course” is a lousy philosophy but it seems to be one he holds dear.
  • Line matching: He’s not good at it. A big part of this seems to come from the fact he hasn’t realized that his team should be setting the pace for the game. He’s not sending Zetterberg over the boards to matchup against Crosby and then having Datsyuk to matchup against Malkin, he’s sending Tavares and Matthews over the boards and should leave the Bruins scrambling to see which center they want Bergeron to matchup against.

The History of Babcock’s “Winning Ways”

We hear so much about the success of Mike Babcock and that has created a lot of buy-in to what he does and he enjoys a healthy dose of people appealing to his authority as a result, but it is somewhat unwarranted.

Babcock has two Olympic gold medals coaching Team Canada. If you want to remember what those rosters look like here’s 2010 and 2014. I’m not sure that Mike Babcock’s Olympic mini-camp and line combinations are what put Canada over the top, but he sure managed to create some of the most boring hockey ever watched in 2014. I mean, I guess Marc Crawford wasn’t able to win with a Canadian roster, so we at least know Babcock is a step above the Senators interim head coach.

There’s also his NHL coaching record that needs to be looked at in more detail…

Going in order, we can see that Mike Babcock had an impressive start to his time in the NHL. A 40 win season pre-shootout era is a big deal. And taking the Ducks to the Cup Finals in his first season is the stuff that gets you credibility for the next two decades. Of course, how much of that playoff success is Babcock and how much of it was J.S. Giguere’s .945 save percentage is a debate worth having, and the 2003-2004 season sure points to some unsustainable success from the year before, but losing Paul Kariya also plays in pretty big to that as well.

Next came the seven seasons that cemented Mike Babcock as a top NHL coach. Four consecutive 50 win seasons, two cup appearances with one win. Not to constantly throw cold water on things but during the stretch of 2005-12 the Red Wings had Niklas Lidstrom as their 1D. They also had Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and at times Marian Hossa, Brian Rafalski, in their prime versions of Kronwall, Holmstrom, Franzen, and Cleary, as well as a goaltender by the name of Dominik Hasek. Those were pretty good teams, and in the post Lidstrom world, there was a noticeable decline and only one playoff series won in Babcock’s remaining three years in Detroit.

The past three seasons for the Leafs mirror the post Lidstrom in Detroit nicely. The playoff success was slightly better in Detroit, as Babcock did pick up a series win in 2013, and pushed to a game 7 in the second round, but the 2017-18 Leafs posted his best win record since 2008-09, the last time Babcock went to the Stanley Cup.

The story here seems to be that Mike Babcock is a pretty darn good coach, but not so stellar that we can’t have an honest discussion about whether or not he’s the best fit for Toronto.

The Shit Sandwich

Like I said in the beginning, Mike Babcock is a good coach who has done a lot for the Leafs, and as much as I’m ready to move on from him, there are a few points worth celebrating.

  1.  When he got to Toronto the Leafs were in complete disarray. Mike Babcock’s systems and rigid structure is what the Maple Leafs needed in the first couple of seasons. The young players needed to learn the game at a pro level and the defensive pairings needed to know where their partner was going to be, and there were a lot of lingering bad habits from Randy Carlyle that needed to be purged from special teams. Mike Babcock’s approach might not be the most innovative or cutting edge, but it is tested and safe. That got the Leafs pretty far and talent got them the rest of the way.Remember, it’s not that Mike Babcock hasn’t been good for the Leafs, it’s just a question if he’s the right coach to help them take the next step.
  2. Mike Babcock is a hell of a lot better than most random coaches looking for work. Let’s say you’re picking between who is available at the moment which includes Mike Yeo, Dave Hakstol, Randy Carlyle, Phil Housley, Guy Boucher, and John Stevens. Throw-in all of the junior and AHL coaches, and NHL assistants that would jump at the opportunity to coach in the NHL, and that’s essentially the talent pool. It’s not easy to make a case for moving on from Mike Babcock. We’ll explore options in a bit more detail later, but for now he certainly seems like the best available guy.
  3. He knows the personnel. With a large number of players still in their early 20s and developing into the prime of their careers, perhaps there is an advantage to continue to move those players forward in a steady direction. He’s worked with Matthews, Marner, Nylander, etc. and knows what motivates them, and how to push them. We could also be operating under the false notion that there is more that he can get out of these players, when in fact he’s the one who has pushed them beyond what should have been expected of him. We don’t know and perhaps that familiarity is important.

Where does this leave us?

Well, here are the options…

  1. Chalk this up to an unfortunate loss. We recognize that Mike Babcock is good at what he does and he’s the best coach for the team moving forward. We still continue to question every action he takes since that’s what hockey fans do and we trust that Babcock, Dubas, and company will be spending a hell of lot more time than will dissecting what went wrong in the back half of the season through the playoffs. We acknowledge the leash is a little shorter, but understand that the organization thinks it is too early to move on from someone they’ve invested so heavily in, and has a reputation that draws in top talent from around the league.
  2. Baby steps towards a coaching change. The assistant coaching structure of the Leafs certainly seems like it will come under review regardless of what happens with Babcock. Special teams and defense have been completely unacceptable at times given the talent the Leafs have on their roster and that will need to be visited. Additionally the roster needs to continue to transition towards being as talented as it can be and not designed for heavy hockey, 200 foot hockey, whatever other cliche model you want to throw out there. The veteran comfort food players like Ron Hainsey need to go, including Patrick Marleau is there is a way of making that happen (probably not.) and players like Zaitsev who are seemingly used 20 minutes a night solely for the hand he uses to shoot the puck need to be jettisoned as well. The Leafs shouldn’t be a Mike Babcock team, they should be the team that Mike Babcock coaches and that could also mean that Kyle Dubas plays a bigger role in selecting future assistant coaches, which should include moving Sheldon Keefe up from the Marlies so he can gain NHL bench experience.
  3. The hell with it. Fire him. As much as this is where I sit, it’s got the greatest amount of uncertainty attached to it. I mentioned in those tweets above that I’d rush Mike Babcock out the door if Bruce Boudreau was available. He isn’t. I’d probably do the same for another round of Paul Maurice coaching the Leafs. As of this moment he’s still the Jets Head Coach. At this point Sheldon Keefe is too green to feel completely comfortable with as the option behind the bench, but there are plenty of times that inexperience has proven to work out for a team when they’ve moved on from experience. Bruce Cassidy in Boston is a fair example of that and Jon Cooper is the extreme example that we seek.Current assistant coaches like Todd Nelson, Kris Knoblauch, Kirk Muller, Todd Richards, Mike van Ryn, Larry Robinson, and Brad Shaw all have some appeal, and four of those guys have NHL head coach experience, while the other three have had the head coach role at another level. John Stevens is probably the most appealing option of the recently fired head coaches, but his track record isn’t inspiring.
  4. Promote him? Let’s get on the Oilers model and let Babcock fail upwards. Assistant GM Mike Babcock has a nice ring to it and there is a lot of worthwhile hockey knowledge in that head of his. Do I see this happening at all? No. Did I want to provide a fourth option that was a little unexpected? Yes.

What will happen?

We’re going to kick a lot of dirt in the coming days/weeks/months but the status quo being maintained is always the most likely option. We could see new assistants or a shuffling of assistant responsibilities. We might see Hiller or Smith coaching the Marlies next year and have Keefe as an assistant. It just seems like it would be a hard sell to move on from the guy they gave an 8 year, $50M contract to. I’d hope that Dubas’ exit interviews with players influence the direction of the organization the most.

I’ll close the post with a very simple thought. Something needs to change with the Leafs, that much is certain. And with that is it easier to change to change one coach or is it easier to change around 23 salary capped players? Mike Babcock is a good coach, but should be a victim of convenience.

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  • D

    Oilers fan here commenting. The Leafs this year (especially) needed to exploit their offense to the highest degree. If their coach is trying to “pound round pegs into square holes” because he’s stubborn, the coach needs to go.

    One thing Glen Sather doesn’t get enough credit for doing back in the day was just allowing his players to play their game. He had a bunch of Ferraris at his disposal and didn’t try to go off-roading with them. It wasn’t until later on that he brought in some structure in order to take the team over the top to win multiple Stanley Cups. But this was well after all the high octane players “had their fun” racking up points and were more than happy to buy in to the small changes needed to win it all, especially after some early playoff failures.

    When your team has many high talented players, the coach needs to get out of the way and let them play their way until they fail. Then it’s time to “bring in structure”. This Toronto team is the best one I’ve seen iced in decades. Had the Leafs made it even to the conference finals this year, it would be easy to say they had a good season and met expectations. But for their talent level, the Leafs fell way short. It happened because the top players weren’t able to play their game, and that’s on the coach.

    • JJDangler

      I agree with you. How the Leafs only finished a tiny bit higher than last year (despite adding a 11 million dollar man and a d-man with a sick beard), is beyond me.

  • Brandon

    Another thing I find frustrating about Babcock is that he doesn’t tolerate it when his players point elsewhere with blame, but he does it all the time. Have you ever heard Babcock in a post-game say that he has to be better? I haven’t.

  • Chelmsford Leafs

    Interesting, I’m in UK and know soccer much better than hockey (though these days I prefer hockey). A few years back soccer was built on solid defence and the likes of Arsenal and AC Milan did very well. Now it is built on offence and Man City and Barcelona take the occasional defeat as par for the course. JT scored plenty through the season but the Leafs need defence. The power play got sussed mid season. Second one prob the coach’s fault, the first one?