It’s all about Mike Babcock right now. With the Maple Leafs massively underachieving, the head coach is on the hot seat and fans are wondering when the plug is finally going to be pulled.
It’s no secret that Kyle Dubas and Babcock don’t see eye to eye. Dubas is a young, new-school type who wants to push the team into the future, opting for speed and skill over grit and physicality. Babcock is an old-school type, who believes in playing defence first and the importance of an all-around game. Dubas assembled a roster that suits his vision, while Babcock is trying to contort it to match his own vision.
Right in the middle of all of this is Brendan Shanahan, the guy who ultimately makes the decision as to whether Babcock gets canned and the Leafs move in a different direction. As Ryan Fancey wrote the other day, only Shanahan can pull the plug on Babcock.
While Shanahan surely believes in what Dubas is doing and that he’s ahead of the curb as to where the league is headed, he also certainly has respect for the man who coached him while with the Detroit Red Wings in the mid-2000s. Shanahan also had a front-row seat to when Babcock made a name for himself as a coach. Back in 2004, Babcock’s gritty Mighty Ducks took down the Red Wings and their six (maybe seven or eight) future Hall of Famers in a shocking first-round sweep.
Babcock was always a key part of the Shanaplan. As bad as things are right now and as impatient as fans might be, I wouldn’t expect Shanahan to rush to a decision like this because of a bad start to the season, as worrying as it’s been. Bob McKenzie appeared on Montreal radio this morning to suggest that the Leafs aren’t in a rush to fire their coach.
Bob McKenzie on TSN690: "I don't believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs are eager to fire Babcock". Says it's not their first option of what to do. Says response of how team plays like for next three games will be important. Cant play like they did in PGH or something has to change
— James (@Account4hockey) November 18, 2019
A good chunk of the fanbase is really to part ways with Babcock and promote Sheldon Keefe from the Toronto Marlies. But as Kevin McGran writes for the Toronto Star, if the Leafs were to fire Babcock mid-season, he figures that they would use an interim head coach as a replacement rather than throwing a rookie into the fire. That would explain why Dave Hakstol, who had previously coached the Philadelphia Flyers, was added to the mix this off-season.
To bring up Keefe, Dubas would have to believe in the roster. Otherwise, he’d just be handing an inexperienced coach a mess, telling him to clean it up. I believe Dubas would rather Babcock handle the mess or hand the problem to an interim coach. Then he’ll fix the roster for Keefe next season.
That’s a fair point. Everyone likes to point to Craig Berube as the example for what could happen to the Leafs if they made a mid-season change. It was about this time last year St. Louis fired Mike Yeo and promoted Berube and the last-placed Blues completely turned themselves around and ultimately ran all the way to their first-ever Stanley Cup. But Berube wasn’t coaching the Blues’ AHL affiliate, he was an associate coach already familiar with the inner workings of the team.
While Keefe might be the guy to push this group over the hump, bringing him in mid-way through what appears to be a disastrous season might not be the ideal way to start his NHL coaching career. If things truly are rotten on this team, Dubas needs to figure out what the issues are and fix them over the off-season before handing the keys to Keefe.
Of course, maybe this does all come down to Babcock. Maybe the pieces are all there for a successful run and it just isn’t working out because Babcock isn’t running the right systems and the players have tuned out his message. As James Mirtle alluded to over at The Athletic, there’s a very good chance Babcock’s message has gotten stale in a room full of personalities.
Sometimes the message gets stale. Sometimes big personalities can’t co-exist, after years together in the same dressing room. Babcock certainly didn’t have many fans in Detroit’s room by the end.
You don’t have to look very far to find veteran players critical of Babcock. Chris Chelios said in 2017 that Babcock was difficult to play for and he was a big reason why the Wings couldn’t bring in big-named free agents. Mike Commodore also chimed in, pointing out how Babcock healthy scratched Mike Modano at the end of his career so he came up one game shy of playing 1,500 in his career.
There’s a pretty funny conspiracy theory flying around that Jake Muzzin and Jason Spezza want to tank the season in order to get Babcock fired.
Hearing reports that a group lead by Muzzin and Spezza suggested to the team a plan to tank until Babcock is fired, everyone except Tavares and Hyman got on board, so until Babs is fired we won’t see any effort, the players are seeing this through #Leafs #LeafsForever
— TheCoach (@Askthecoach2) November 18, 2019
I mean, I really, really doubt “The Coach” on Twitter has any actual insight to what’s going on and this is nothing more than a work of fiction, but I don’t doubt there’s some kind of anti-Babcock sentiment in the Leafs’ dressing room. That said, it doesn’t seem that this will result in Babcock’s dismissal any time soon. It seems the Leafs are ready to see things through with their coach for now.