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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Last Days of Mike Babcock?

I can tell this post is going to be universally loved. Shout out to everyone in the comment section who read the header and immediately dove in. You’re probably right to do so. I’m not looking to make much of a case for keeping Mike Babcock and if that’s what you want, we’re not going to see eye to eye on this.

I will make my usual positive Mike Babcock statements up front:

  • Mike Babcock was an important part of turning the Leafs around. He added important structure to the team and brought them back to the playoffs much sooner than anyone expected.
  • Mike Babcock runs one hell of a practice. I think that the conditioning and game readiness has improved significantly on his watch.
  • Mike Babcock seems to get a lot out of his players, and I don’t think you can accuse anyone of quitting on him. There’s certainly no shortage of 13th forwards and 7th defensemen who don’t think fondly of him over his career, but he’s generally good at making sure players are ready to play.

All of those things make Mike Babcock a good coach, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the right coach for the Leafs and I struggle to believe that he is capable of taking the Leafs any further than he has already, but we’ll get to that stuff later. First, let’s get to why this seems like the end of days.

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Why does it seem like he’s on his way out?

Clearly, I’m jumping to conclusions and connecting a lot of dots that may or may not be there, but let’s build off of a widely held initial perception last year, that the 2018-19 playoffs were going to be do or die for Mike Babcock. Obviously that didn’t pan out in either the playoff success or the dismal of Mike Babcock that people expected, but at least in Dubas’ statement of reviewing the organization there was some belief that the coaching position would be looked at.

The outcome was in fact that Mike Babcock has new assistants behind the bench this year, Jim Hiller being told to explore other opportunities, and DJ Smith taking the demotion to the Head Coach of the Ottawa Senators.

History has said that you change the assistants before the head coach, and that’s what we saw. That’s the early sign of the end of days, and the fact that Dave Hakstol has NHL head coach experience adds to the speculation, although I can hear many of you screaming for Sheldon Keefe, and we’ll get to that later.

So Babcock is back, and two of the main criticisms of him were brushed off rather cavalierly as he does not believe that he underutilized his star players in Game Seven against Boston, citing shift data vs. Ice time as his reasoning. And he seems hellbent on playing Freddie Andersen into an early grave, despite history to that effect shows injury, and late season save percentage drops.

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His unwillingness to adapt is showing up early this year with his refusal to adjust lines at the detriment to output from Tavares, Marner, and Kapanen. Additionally, he’s rigidly sticking with Andersen as the automatic starter of back to back match ups, and is locked in to keeping bottom pairing and 4th line scratch rotations going. None of this is truly worth firing a coach over, rather it’s just frustrating as hell to watch, but it’s certainly another drop in the bucket and not one that seems to fit with the direction of the rest of the organization.

Still that’s not necessarily a reason to believe we’re in the final days. The new assistants, and post playoff review are reasons, but Babcock being frustrating to deal with is pretty par for the course. Having a closed door meeting following the Lightning blowing out the Leafs is a sign that things aren’t great and not normal. At this point the fact that Babcock is in the room for the meeting probably means that his departure isn’t imminent, but when your season is off the rails before game 10 and you need to discuss the slow start and underwhelming performances, how much longer is it until the coach is absent from the team meeting?

The final piece of evidence that seems to be pointing to Babcock’s dismissal is the the demotion of Rasmus Sandin. The Sandin situation is already a little bizarre just based off of how little Babcock has used Sandin compared to previous first year defenders. In Dermott’s first six games with the Leafs he had exceeded 15 minutes of icetime 3 times, including once where he was over 20 minutes. Andreas Borgman averaged 15 minutes a night in his first six games, the same is true of Igor Ozhiganov. Sandin has one 15 minute game to his name and averaged 12:13 a night. The other defenseman to get that treatment was Calle Rosen, who averaged 12:47 a game, and was sent down after 4 games. You could look at Justin Holl being in the same boat as Rosen and Sandin, but even Holl averaged 17:22 ATOI in his two 2017-18 games before Babcock realized he didn’t like him in 2018-19 and reduced him to Sandin-esque icetime.

Underplaying a rookie isn’t anything new, and the Leafs decision to demote Sandin to increase his icetime isn’t a new or surprising tactic, even if you don’t agree with it. It is a decision that sparks one of my hotter takes in this article though, and that demotion isn’t solely to find Sandin icetime, but to get him out of what may be an increasingly unhappy locker room that is about to see a coaching change. I’m taking a leap with that, but there’s also the added benefit of more time with Sheldon Keefe, who we can probably assume will be the Leafs coach at some point in the future.

Wait, that Keefe thing?

Yeah, I say this as a person who isn’t 100% sold on Keefe as the next great coach to come to the NHL. I think he’s done well for himself and wouldn’t be opposed to giving him a shot, but the reason for Keefe being a good coach option is that he’s Dubas’ guy.

There is little doubt that Dubas and Keefe are on the same page, and even when they aren’t, there relationship is such that they will reach solutions together. Even if Babcock and Dubas work better together than most people believe, there’s little chance that they are aligned in vision as much as Dubas and Keefe, and perhaps that’s more important than line matching ability, and power play formations.

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Since there is no way of knowing if and when Mike Babcock will be fired this year, it’s definitely too early to predict who will be replacing him, but in the long term the safe bet is on Keefe becoming the head coach if Dubas is the GM. Although, I still wonder if Hakstol is looked at as a interim solution if Babcock is dismissed this year.

Can you dial this back and look at it more objectively?

Sure. The reality is I’m trying to see something that may or may not be there when I see Babcock on the outs. A 3-2-1 start isn’t so bad that a coach can’t come back from it. In fact, that’s slightly above average, and a better start than other top teams like Nashville, Tampa Bay, and Calgary. Of course you can look at who the Leafs won against, and be annoyed that they haven’t beaten a good team yet this year, and that’s fine. You can look at who blew them out, and recognize that it’s perennial cup favourite/ Presidents Trophy Tampa Bay Lightning that did it, and appreciate that is going to happen from time to time.

At this point what is largely driving me is my annoyance that Mike Babcock is still Mike Babcock. He line matches from game one of the season when his team should be setting the pace of the game with offence. He likes Cody Ceci when I do not. He doesn’t give rookies ice time. He rolls four lines and sits players I like. He’s brushed off valid criticisms of utilization of players and goaltenders. He’s still treated as the greatest coach who cannot be questioned when he’s now seven seasons removed from his last appearance in the second round of the playoffs, and a decade removed from his last appearance in the Finals, both of which things only seem recent by Leafs standards.

A slower start after a questionable end to last season gives many of us some wishful thinking that the Leafs will take this slower start as a reason to speedily move on from Babcock rather than to allow things to spiral to a worse place, but with a few years left of his record setting contract, it might be a hard sell to cut losses quickly.

The reality of this is that Mike Babcock gets the season to turn things around, but the bar needs to be set even higher than getting out of the first round of the playoffs. While being a playoff team is good, it’s gone from amazement to being back in the playoffs in 2016-17 to feeling that the prime competitive years are being wasted in 2018-19. If this continues much longer it’s entirely possible that the honeymoon period for Brendan Shanahan may come to an end as well, as the organization is no longer looking like it will explore every avenue to improve.

While there are no guarantees that a coaching change brings about the desired outcome, it seems like giving Kyle Dubas a chance to pick his coach seems like it’s worth a try.

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I am adding this footer to acknowledge everyone who wants to comment “It’s only been six games.” Mike Babcock has coached the Leafs for 354 regular season and playoff games and his entire tenure has been considered in my personal preference for him to no longer be in this role. Thank you for ridiculous argument though.