The Leafs’ version of Morey-ball, and an emerging path to replacing Mike Babcock

The Maple Leafs likely have some substantial changes to make this offseason. I don’t know if moving on from Mike Babcock is one of them. He makes a lot of money on a long term contract and we can’t be sure how the organization sees him relative to how the media and fanbase is starting to. That said, while a decision like that certainly isn’t foregone, it seems like everything is on the table for Kyle Dubas this summer after a disappointing albeit weird season in Toronto.

We can talk all we want about trying to take positives out of 2018-19, about how the playoffs actually showed some encouraging trends with this team. And that’s understandable to a point, the Bruins were one of the best teams in the league this year and if you look around at the other contenders that dropped out of the postseason early, the Leafs got eliminated in the least-concerning way.

But we’re not talking about those other teams like the Lightning and Jets. The Leafs have their own vision for what they want to do, and “it was a weird season for the whole league” won’t cut it as an excuse internally – their problems stem back to nearly December. Heads could roll, and there’s growing chatter surrounding Mike Babcock’s future with the team in a way many of us didn’t expect so soon in his tenure.

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The question isn’t about if the Leafs will fire Babcock, we can’t really know that or even get an indication yet until end-of-season pressers and media spill-out. But there’s plenty to discuss about whether Dubas can, and more importantly if he should.

First off, I think Dubas as general manager has the autonomy to do essentially whatever he wants. The Leafs wouldn’t let go of Mark Hunter and someone as high profile as Lou Lamoriello if they didn’t plan on putting total trust in Dubas. He was groomed and ready for the job, and they gave it to him, all of it.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a level of politics that goes with making a decision as enormous as replacing a 6-million dollar coach. A while ago, when the Leafs were sputtering in the latter half of the regular season, there was a lot of reaction to what was growing talk of a rift between the Leafs’ upper management and the coaching staff. This was set ablaze particularly by a 31 Thoughts column from Elliotte Friedman titled “Can Maple Leafs’ marriage between coach and GM last?” wherein it appears Babcock and Dubas each take shots across the bow of the other. It was a weird time, but the facts still remained that firing a coach as famous and well-paid as Babcock is not something you take lightly, and by doing so Dubas would perhaps put a target on himself next if things don’t take a tangible step forward.

For those reasons outlined, I couldn’t see the timeline for Babcock’s potential departure being as soon as this summer. If Dubas wanted to make a change and presumably bring in his guy in Sheldon Keefe, that was taking a lot of risk earlier than needed. Next summer? Maybe. Not now.

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But now I’m not so sure I believe that. In my mind the Leafs can fire Babcock if they want to, so it’s really about that “should“.

The folks who obsess over every game, check the underlying numbers, make the charts, do the podcasts, we all do a level of projecting what we think Dubas and Babcock would be at odds about. We maybe go too far in thinking Dubas’s vision of the organization aligns with our own. But that can all be put aside and this point still remains: If the Leafs’ management and coaching staff are fundamentally at odds, it’s time to clear the bench. This is a team heading into a situation where its top four players are counting towards about $36-million on the cap. Players in their prime, to be surrounded by a supporting staff you need to get every ounce out of. Toronto is going to be good simply based on their star power for a while, but it’s the tightness of the margins that could be the difference in home ice during the playoffs, or winning a close series. Sitting around hoping the coach can get in line with what you want to do is simply wasting time for a team in its window, if that indeed is an issue management is facing. It’s especially true if you have another person groomed and waiting.

There’s a lot said about how “different voices in the room are a good thing” when we talk about how stagnant viewpoints need to be challenged and decision-makers need as much information as possible. That’s certainly true in some circumstances like scouting and such, and no doubt Dubas and everyone else in the Leafs’ organization is aware of it. But on some things you need total buy-in from the top to bottom, and this team might be struggling with that.

Dubas is pretty clearly in-the-know about other sports general managers and thinkers who are trying to push their games to the limit. Unsurprisingly Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets and co-founder of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, is one of those people Dubas and others certainly look up to. I usually try to read or listen to anything Morey does, and one thing that’s clear is that when it comes to the style his teams play, from the NBA’s Rockets right down through their affiliates, they all have to be on the same page in terms of using data and eliminating biases in their decision-making. It’s how the term “Morey-ball” came about, with the league essentially abandoning the mid-range shot for three pointers based at least partly on his philosophy. This seems like a common sense approach in hindsight but Morey was the first to really get his whole team on board with it.

He actually got into it recently with Bill Simmons on his podcast just this week:

Saying “you should shoot more threes”, it’s not like it’s rocket science. I think maybe we were the first organization from top to bottom to commit to that as the direction we were heading. It’s really more of a larger commitment using data and breaking the game down, so I do think that we are at the forefront of having a full organizational commitment which is obviously what we’re seeing first with our D-League club and now a lot of those principles with this club and then Mike D’Antoni (current Rockets coach) sort of turbo-charged it.

The entire league eventually shifted on this basis, and that’s where these types of managers, like Morey and Dubas, want to be – ahead of everyone else, pushing things constantly. To flip back to hockey and the Leafs, I’m not sure they just want to jam together some strong personnel and hope that Babcock just does an ‘okay’ job with it in a classic coaching sense. They need buy-in throughout on the waves of skill they want going over the boards, not some coach who’s afraid that Nic Petan is too small, or that he might hurt Patrick Marleau’s feelings by limiting his minutes. We haven’t even gotten into the apparent frustration between Babcock and Auston Matthews, but we’ll leave that for another day.

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Here’s Dubas himself talking about how being of one mind on their overall approach is important:

The Leafs have probably come a long way from using just Corsi%, but for reference, they were 8th in adjusted shot-share this season and 13th in Expected Goal % at even strength via Corsica and MoneyPuck, respectively. A good team, but by no means a juggernaut in the run of play. I can’t see how anyone in the organization could see this season as much of a success, and they never got the deep playoff run that would have maybe put some minds at ease. It seemed like they never could marry the skill level in their lineup with consistently strong territorial play. There was plenty of individual success but this team a lot of times felt fractured.

Babcock is arguably the most famous coach of all time in Canada, and while his track record in the NHL over the last decade has been somewhat mediocre (only one playoff series win after 2011), he’s always going to have those international gold medals to hang his hat on. He’s also a good quote and exudes confidence. He also seems like a genuinely great motivator at times. Firing him would be a massive headline-maker and create a firestorm in Toronto without question. It’s a difficult situation to get around.

And who knows? Maybe the Leafs aren’t even considering this. Dubas and Babcock might be on the same page far more than we’ve been guessing, for all we know management saw the decision-making this season as steps in the right direction for their overall process. But if that’s not the case, and there actually exists a divide and a lack of buy-in at the bench level, it has to be cleared out. The Leafs can’t waste time because of legacy.

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  • macreeves

    the leafs did not go into the play offs good having a poor record their last 25 games. Babcock must take some of the blame for the last third of the regular
    season. It could be that he can’t motivate the players anymore.

  • VK63

    Interesting piece. The Dubas presentation at Sloane was quite some time ago and is largely rooted in Kahnemans “thinking fast and slow”. Current readings include Anny Dukes Thinking in Bets and one of her key points revolves around “resulting”. Fixating on the Leafs losing as if it is revelaing of some sort of inherent flaw in their decision making, the coaching, player utilization etc. is a convenient bit of reductionism where in fact. The game of hockey is a dynamic set of systems and flows with massive levels of randomness. Looking at the season as a data set, Boston and the Leafs were a very close matchup and the seven game series was…. very close. Thus. Fixating on the loss as something explainable and obvious is not exactly fair to the entire group of decision making processes that eventualy ended in the well known final result.
    An excerpt from a discussion on “resulting”.

    RITHOLTZ: And you also spend a lot of time describing the focus on results and outcomes rather than the process that led us to those results. Tell us a little bit about what led you to that analysis and why so many people look at bad results and think immediately it’s a bad process when that may not be the case.

    DUKE: Well, I think that it’s really hard. So, we have this very uncertain relationship between decision quality and outcome quality. So, for example, in poker, I can have the very best hand and I can still lose. I could get dealt aces and you could have a seven and a two and the turn of the cards make it so that you win the hand or vice versa. I could have the seven and two and make terrible decisions in playing that hand and still win.

    And that’s really, really similar to the kind of decisions that we make in life and investing in business (and sports). And the problem is that getting to be able to see the processes and transparent, the thing that we can see is the outcome of the process.

    We can see did it work out or did not work out, did I win the hand, did I not? Did the, you know, did the stock I invested go up in value or down in value? And that’s what we can see and now working backwards from that into what was the decision process is really hard. It’s very opaque. And very often, the quality of the decision doesn’t reveal itself except over time.

    So, we can see the outcome right then but very often whether the decision process is good, it takes a lot of time to reveal itself. So, what do we do under those conditions of uncertainty, we have this bias, we have this heuristic which is outcome was bad, OK, that must mean the decision was bad, I’ll take that as a signal. Outcome was good, OK, decision was good

    And the problem is that that’s a really poor strategy for learning from your outcomes. It’s great if you’re playing chess, but it’s terrible if you’re playing poker, it’s terrible if you’re investing, it’s terrible if you’re running a business, it’s terrible if you’re choosing a romantic partner, it’s terrible if you’re driving (and its terrible when assessing sports post mortem).

    That’s the thing about it. So, there’s very good things like that.

    I can not recommend Annie Dukes Thinking in Bets enough. Its a treasure trove for anyone involved in sports analysis, as is her newsletter.