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The pressure is on

Nobody expected this to happen. Well, I think many of us expected it to happen eventually, but not this early. If you told me back in the summer that Mike Babcock would be the first coach fired in 2019-20, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But here we are now. The Maple Leafs were off to such a shockingly bad start, there just wasn’t time to wait around any more. This team needs to get things together and it needs to happen fast. Thanks to a six-game losing streak, the Leafs are on the outside looking in. American Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and, generally, if you’re outside of the playoffs by that time of year, you aren’t in the dance come April.

There’s one key buck to that trend and the Leafs are hoping they can mirror what that team did. That’s the St. Louis Blues. On this day one year ago, the 7-9-1 Blues fired head coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. It took the Berube-led Blues a little while to get going, but they did the impossible and went from dead last in the NHL at Christmas all the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

That’s what everyone is hoping happens here. Everyone is hoping that Babcock was the one holding the Leafs back. Everyone is hoping that Keefe can provide the spark that Berube did with his team last year.

Will it happen? Who knows. What we do know, though, is that the pressure is on now. The pressure is on Sheldon Keefe, a rookie coach having to jump into a disastrous situation in the most difficult media quagmire in hockey. The pressure is on the players, a group that has yet to live up to their potential. And, finally, the pressure is on Kyle Dubas, who finally has his team.

I don’t envy the situation that Keefe is being put into. While I think that Dubas did ultimately want Keefe to be the Leafs’ head coach sooner rather than later, I don’t think he wanted him to come into this situation. While everyone likes to point to Berube as the blueprint of what Keefe can be, they’re very different situations. Berube had been a head coach at the NHL level before. He was also already an associate coach with the Blues. Keefe is a rookie, making the jump from the AHL without any NHL experience.

It’s going to be a difficult job for Keefe. That’s not to say he won’t do a great job, and his track record with the Marlies suggests he can, but the pressure is going to be astronomical. As I said, I figure Dubas would have wanted to give Keefe a chance to come into his new role over the course of an off-season. Instead, he’s going to have to quickly familiarize himself with the team, the dressing room, and the assistant coaches, all while the team is already behind the eight-ball.

When Berube took over the Blues, the team responded slowly. They went 3-5-1 in his first nine games before Jordan Binnington got called up and things really flipped. A slow start like that for a rookie coach in this environment would be difficult to navigate.

For all his faults, one thing Babcock was particularly good at was his ability to deflect pressure from the team. All the way up until the end, Babcock made himself the centre of attention in Toronto, taking away the spotlight from Auston Matthews or John Tavares or Frederik Andersen or whoever else. Babcock truly was the face of the team while he was here. With him gone, so are the training wheels. The pressure is on the players now.

If Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander aren’t scoring goals, it isn’t because Babcock’s system is too limiting anymore. If the power-play, loaded with tens of millions of dollars worth of talent, can’t produce, it isn’t because of the tactics anymore. If the team gets off to slow starts or doesn’t appear focused in games or can’t grind it out in the third period, it’s on the players, not Mike Babcock.

It had been said for quite some time that Babcock was old and stubborn and that his style didn’t work with this high-pace, high-skill roster. The narrative was that Babcock was holding the roster back. That isn’t the case anymore. Kyle Dubas finally has his guy behind the bench. This is his team now. As a result, the pressure is on him too.

Dubas has been the general manager of the Leafs for a year-and-a-half now. Over the off-season, he was able to jettison a wealth of Lou Guys, like Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau and replace them with players like Tyson Barrie and Jason Spezza that fit his style more. He also now had his ideal coach behind the bench.

Everyone knows that Dubas and Babcock didn’t see eye to eye. They had completely different philosophies. Dubas is all about the new-age high-skill game and Babcock is old-school. But Sheldon Keefe has followed Dubas from The Soo to the Marlies and now, finally, to the Leafs. If this thing doesn’t work out, it isn’t Lou or Babcock’s fault anymore, it’s on Dubas.

The pressure is on in Leaf Land. Let’s see how everyone responds.