It’s crazy, with everything that’s happened in the last year, it seems like it’s been ages since the Leafs fired Mike Babcock, and yet it also doesn’t seem like it’s even been a year with how much hockey has happened since then.
I still remember when it happened. I was filming an interview for a school project, and I checked my phone as I was packing up to find at least 30 missed calls, texts, and messages from other social media apps asking me about my thoughts. Considering how I had been on the “Fire Babs” bandwagon for almost a year at that point, a lot of people figured I’d be happy about it, I guess.
Which I was. I was growing frustrated with Babcock during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 due to his very inconsistent analysis on player talent, but I always defended him because he was at least a good systems coach. Come 2018-19, and he was making very interesting choices on his systems for a highly skilled team, and after a hot start, the team was starting to show it’s inconsistencies as the season went on.
But it wasn’t until February 12, 2019 that I had finally had enough. Why that game? Well, after the Leafs had acquired Jake Muzzin, they had, on paper, a very solid top four of him, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott, with Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev being suitable, but not ideal bottom pair options. But, that’s not how Babcock saw it. Instead, he had Jake Muzzin on the bottom pair with Travis Dermott, and our two worst defensemen in the top four. That’s when I finally realized that Babcock wasn’t the right coach for this team.
Of course, it wasn’t just the ice time of that game. It was the fact that he had previously complained about how Muzzin wasn’t a right shot, and made it very obvious that he was petty that Kyle Dubas didn’t share his vision. Muzzin was one of the best defensive defensemen in the game, a huge factor to the Kings 2014 Stanley Cup victory, and the fact that Babcock either didn’t see that, or was willing to look past that just to try and prove a point to Dubas meant that he was going to be more of a problem than a solution to this team.
Now, I didn’t think they should fire him right there. At the very least, let the season play out, and if they’re ousted in the first round, he should be on the hot seat. Not only did that happen, but the Game 7 loss was full of controversy as Babcock decided to not give Matthews a lot of ice time in the game, particularly in the final stretch of the third with the game on the line. I still figured he wouldn’t be fired then, but he probably should have.
The pettiness continued into the 2019-20 season, as Babcock made it known that he didn’t like Dubas’ attempts to create a highly skilled team. Whether it was Jason Spezza getting scratched on the home opener against his old team, playing Tyson Barrie in a position that Babcock probably knew he wouldn’t succeed in, or having the team play this bizarre style where they would play a 0-0 tie as if they were defending a lead.
Babcock was sending a message to management, and it was very clear that there was a divide. So it was absolved the only way they could have, considering Babcock’s history of being quite stubborn. They fired him.
And suddenly the dynamic in the organization changed. The players were happier. The team was playing well. Even though they had some rough moments in 2020, let’s be honest, can you really blame them considering the year we’ve all had.
Of course, one big reason for this was revealed to us when the story first came out of Babcock telling Mitch Marner to make a list ranking every Leaf’s competitiveness. Suddenly, more stories came out from players around the league, and it was clear that Babcock was using manipulative tactics on his players.
This had a trickle down effect of it’s own, as suddenly more stories were coming out about other coaches, and saw other firings around the league, most notably Bill Peters in Calgary. Babcock’s firing suddenly created a very important conversation about the toxicity of hockey culture, and we’ve since started to see some progress towards fixing that. We’re still nowhere close to that, but it’s a start.
From a Leafs perspective, they became a much better team under Sheldon Keefe, partially because they started playing a system that actually benefitted the team. While their regular season was plagued with inconsistencies on the surface level, their underlying numbers were pretty good under Keefe during the regular season, and they probably played their best hockey in the playoffs once Keefe finally had a training camp with this team (too bad that went to nothing because the team shot ~2% all series).
While their shot attempts have been relatively the same over the past couple seasons, it’s their expected goal share that saw a significant spike under Sheldon Keefe from even Babcock’s best season, never mind the 2019-20 season that saw him get fired. The playoffs saw a significant improvement as well, as they saw the shot attempts go in their favour for the first time in the Matthews era, and the expected goals share go in their favour for the second time, and also a much bigger improvement over the last time.
The Leafs also saw an increase in production from their big four forwards, as shown here by their 82 game scoring paces under Babcock (red) and Keefe (blue) this season.
Aside from Matthews assist totals dropping enough to bring down his point total (but his goal total increasing), the other three saw increase in goal, assist, and point production after Keefe took over, particularly with Marner seeing increase overall, and Nylander seeing a huge jump to becoming a 40 goal scorer. Keefe definitely did a better job of making them break out more this season than Babcock did.
At the end of the day, Mike Babcock getting hired was an important step for the team. The franchise was a joke when he arrived, and him (and Lou Lamoriello as well) added much needed culture and stability to the team. They were what the Leafs needed to become a competitive team again.
But, it became clear in the past couple years that Babcock’s ego and stubbornness were only going to hold this team back from winning it all, and it was important that they moved on from him. They did, and this franchise is much better for it. Hopefully it pays off for them.