We obviously need to keep prefacing these types of articles by pointing out that there is no evidence of the Leafs’ management group leaning one way or the other with Mike Babcock’s return to the bench next season. It’s been covered in detail to this point that GM Kyle Dubas didn’t give the coach a ringing endorsement in the locker clear-out day, and instead chose to put the spotlight on himself, saying everything is up for evaluation. So as of now things seem pretty wide open, even if you or I believe the actual chances of Babcock getting fired are slim to none.
With that out of the way, let’s revisit the ‘what if they do’ side of this whole thing, even if that ‘do’ is only seriously considering pulling this trigger without actually doing it.
A big problem people have continually pointed out about the Leafs replacing Babcock is the sheer magnitude of the move. And with that comes the obvious factor of his salary, believed to be in the range of 6-million dollars annually and among the top of the league — at the time of signing it set the records and created a new market. It’s difficult for many to envision the Leafs sending Babcock out of town in his F-150 while they’re still on the hook for nearly $25-million due out over the back half of his eight year deal, and that’s understandable. It’s a tough pill to swallow, or at least it seems that way on the surface.
But Babcock’s salary on its own is essentially meaningless in this conversation. You could argue it adds to his prestige or rank or legend or whatever, and that’s fair, but as far as MLSE writing cheques goes, it wouldn’t be a factor in firing or keeping him.
The reason for this is two-fold.
First off, Babcock’s money obviously doesn’t count towards the cap so from a team-building angle there’s nothing there. But beyond that, the Leafs probably aren’t too worried about that kind of money in general if they think someone else can come in and get more wins to take them to the next level. This is a team that’s still paying millions to Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski to not play for them, and actually went out of their way to get Nathan Horton’s uninsured contract to get relief from the David Clarkson contract.
Dead money is no big deal to this organization, and considering we’re all assuming Sheldon Keefe would be Babcock’s replacement should the scenario play out that way, a rookie coaching contract on top of the money owed to the guy leaving town wouldn’t particularly break the bank. How much is winning worth? If Babcock’s $6-million salary gets you 100 points and a first round exit, then are you willing to eat that and pay an extra 1-2 million to get over the hump? That’s the type of question the Leafs’ brass might have to ask itself.
Then again, every point I’ve just tried to make is probably irrelevant anyway. If the Leafs fired Mike Babcock today, he would almost surely be hired by the Oilers or Sabres tomorrow. This is especially likely in Edmonton should their current frontrunner, former Leafs’ AGM Mark Hunter, get the job. If Toronto grants permission to another club to negotiate a new deal with Babcock, they’re off the hook money-wise, and this is all in the past.
Holding on to Babcock because he’s been paid so much money to run things these last four years is an example of sunk cost fallacy if that’s truly a meaningful factor in all of this. I doubt the Leafs’ management wouldn’t see through that, so it isn’t really something to worry about. It would be more concerning if they held on for this reason and lost Keefe to a team like the ones just mentioned. [There have been rumours the Sabres are looking to interview him, but we’ll get more into that situation in a future post.]
Dubas might retain Babcock, or maybe he won’t. But the money, what he’s made and is still due, shouldn’t be driving the decision-making either way.