TORONTO (Apr. 26) — When taking a moment to read between the lines of words spoken during the Maple Leafs’ annual locker clean–out on Thursday — and, for whatever the cryptic messages were worth — I’m sensing Mike Babcock will not return for a fifth season behind the Toronto bench. My suggestion of this is two–fold: the club’s general manager and its highest–profile player seem to not want him back.
To poach a horse–racing term, that’s a rather ominous exactor.
Only Babcock truly knows why he chained Auston Matthews to the bench for 41 minutes and 12 seconds of Tuesday night’s mutual–elimination game in Boston. With 18:48 of ice–time, Matthews certainly wasn’t overworked; nor did Babcock appreciably shorten his bench in the third period after Sean Kuraly scored (at 2:40) to provide the Bruins a 3–1 edge. “Depends on shift length; depends on how many centers [we] have,” said the coach on Thursday. “When we’re winning, [Matthews] plays more; when we’re losing, he plays less.” Which didn’t appear to be the case in Game 7. One would presume Babcock had reasons for this and wasn’t bent on sabotaging his own team. Yet, he refused to directly answer the question while, otherwise, coming off as pleasant and poised in nearly 11 minutes at the podium in Scotiabank Arena. When queried on the issue, Matthews took the fifth: “I’m not deploying myself out there,” he replied. Nor did Matthews appear to be much of a scoring threat Tuesday when on the ice… which likely played into Babcock’s decision process.
MIKE BABCOCK IN FRONT OF REPORTERS THURSDAY AFTERNOON AT SCOTIABANK ARENA.
For his part, Kyle Dubas should have gone straight from the arena to a ballroom. In his prime (with Ginger Rogers), Fred Astaire never tap–danced as adroitly as Dubas when addressing whether Babcock will return next season. No hint of an endorsement emanated from the GM, who brilliantly (if disingenuously) turned the focus toward himself… understanding, full well, he isn’t going anywhere. But, we do know this: At no point during their first season together here did Dubas speak glowingly about Babcock; not, at least, in the few times he appeared before cameras and microphones. The coach, on the other hand, freely alluded to depth issues with the hockey club while defensemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott were sidelined late in the season. And though he later back–pedaled, Saskatchewan–Mike is too canny allege by “accident”.
I wrote in this space on Wednesday that the Leafs should retain Babcock and work toward narrowing the roster imbalance between skill and tenacity. I stand by that comment today. But, I’m not Kyle Dubas. Or, Auston Matthews. Neither of whom seems — and I stress, seems — at all enamored of the veteran coach.
In the always–peculiar chain–of–command with the Leafs, Babcock was hired by Brendan Shanahan on May 21, 2015. Two months and two days later (July 23, 2015), Shanahan hired Lou Lamoriello as general manager to replace David Nonis. Normally, a GM is brought aboard first and allowed to pick his own coach. But, availability dictated that Babcock arrive before Lamoriello. With the club prior to each was Dubas, who became Shanahan’s first appointee (in July 2014) as assistant GM. At the end of last season, Shanahan chose to not renew Lamoriello’s contract. The Hall–of–Fame executive took his act to Long Island and presided over the surprise club of the National Hockey League this season. Dubas was elevated to the GM’s chair in Toronto less than two months later (May 11, 2018). Given that Shanahan brought Dubas to the NHL and chose him to replace Lamoriello, we’ll assume Dubas now has the authority to determine Babcock’s future — though a decision to fire Babcock would still likely require Shanahan’s consent, if not approval.
After three consecutive first–round playoff eliminations; with Matthews unlikely to be disappointed by a change behind the bench, and given that Dubas would probably wish to hire his own coach, is there enough ammunition for the young GM to make a change before next season? My assumption: an unequivocal “yes”.
HOW IT’S ENDED FOR THE LEAFS UNDER MIKE BABCOCK, COURTESY THE TORONTO SUN:
A fly in the ointment, clearly, could be the money owed Babcock to not coach the Leafs for the next four seasons — $23.5 million — an amount that would terminate only if Babcock were hired elsewhere. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would hardly go broke if having to lay out such cash while gambling that Babcock will not wish to sit idly for nearly half–a–decade. This corner has postulated that the NHL expansion team in Seattle, scheduled to debut in the 2021–22 season, might seek to reunite Ken Holland and Babcock; the two having worked together for 10 prosperous years in Detroit. Holland was kicked upstairs by the Red Wings last week to make room for incoming GM Steve Yzerman. Seattle could do a lot worse than Holland and Babcock, with respect to name–recognition and accomplishment in the sport. Pierre LeBrun of TSN reported on Wednesday that Babcock has no “out” clause in his contract with the Leafs and could therefore not move elsewhere at his own behest. That would obviously change if Babcock were fired by Dubas.
The important matter of replacing Babcock cannot be minimized. The name mentioned exclusively is Sheldon Keefe, coach of the defending American Hockey League–champion Toronto Marlies. Dubas had a say in MLSE hiring Keefe to guide its AHL affiliate in June 2015, and Dubas managed the team that won the Calder Cup last spring. If the GM is adamant about elevating Keefe to the NHL, there will be yet more ammunition to terminate Babcock. I therefore anticipate the Leafs to make a change before next season.
If Hunter goes on to GM the Oilers and is able to turn the ship around and get them deep in the playoff or at the Alter for the finals (against the islanders) then Leaf fans will loose their collective minds. Dubas is a good hockey man but is a bit young and doesn’t have the life experience of Lou or Hunter. As such I think there’s a metaphysical chasm between Babcock and Dubas whereby Babcock is mildly disrespecting the youngish GM. No disrespect to Dubas as he’ll acquire life experience as we all get old.
I fully praise Shanahan for turning the leafs around and stocking the fridge using the draft. I also praise him for making difficult decisions about the team that most people wouldn’t have the guts to make. That includes canning Lou for the Young Dubas. If a coaching change needs to be made I have full confidence that Shanahan will make the change. I’m not a big fan of Keefe (yet) but I will point out that the former St. John’s Maple Leafs coach Marc Crawford is likely available. I’ve always been a fan of Crawford. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way but he’s one heck of a coach.
I really don’t think Toronto will fire Babcock at his point but like Howard I kinda think they are discussing it behind closed doors.
I still think it is the goalie. After watching the Bruins Jackets I saw at least a dozen maybe more great Bruin scoring chances where Bob made the save. It looked to me like the Bruins had more offensive chances than either game 6 & 7 against the Leafs. Made me think the Leaf defense is not as bad as commonly believed. I don’t expect Andersen to make saves like Bobrovsky, just the routine saves that any NHL goalie should make.
I hope you’re wrong Howard, but fear you may be right. Too often people in lead positions try to “think outside the box” too much and end up with an organization worse off or farther from their goal.
I think we as fans had too much expectation for this year. The core of the team is 21 to 24 years old and the rest of the roster is not much older, or just not good enough.
We’re (fans) EXPECTING this team/group of players to win, and believe it will be a linear progression up the ladder to hockey heaven which is ridiculous. There will be set backs and steps backward among steps forward and actual progress, plus there’s other teams in the league that can and will win games against them as well as championships that leaf fans believe were theirs for the taking.
The truth is the leafs with Mathews, Marner etc. MAY NEVER win. Good (maybe great) teams have missed their opportunities before, so it wouldn’t be the first time.
The only certainty is if the leafs do win a stanley cup the cast of characters will be very different than the current roster with some significant names having been sacrificed in hopes of making progress.
I’m afraid you’re right. Your analysis makes sense. I absolutely hate the fact that this kid Dubas gets to fire people like Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock and I’m worried sick about this entire rebuild being sacrificed at the altar of the Corsi God. Babcock is as close as I can imagine a coach being to what Dubas is looking for – skill over size and grit in every instance, no-hitting, ‘science’-driven deployment (short-shifts, four lines etc.) kind of hockey, besides being, literally and certifiably the greatest coach in the sport. If that’s not good enough for Dubas than we’re dealing with a psychopatic narcissist that tolerates absolutely no dissent and that’s probably not a good thing.
I’m not saying numbers are stupid but I am saying that hockey is not pure numbers and that Dubas is more loyal to his spreadsheets than to the Leafs or the game of hockey. He clearly has one-track mind and he’s clearly not willing to tolerate divergent opinions.
Why can’t everyone work together? Why couldn’t we keep Lou and Hunter, even Carlyle and Horachek and have all the great minds work together?
We had a great thing going with Lou and Dubas and Hunter and Babs. Dubas, the last man standing, is arguably the least successful and proven of the 4. That’s not a good thing.
In game 7, the decision making by Babcock was poor, to the point it almost looks like he was setting the team up to lose (ie., playing Marleau, the injured Hyman, less ice time for Matthews, pull goalie with 3 minutes left). Maybe he wants to leave!!! Also, Nylander was set up to fail!! Dubas admitted that. Babcock (I believe) shows favourites and Nylander is not one of them. He gave him less ice time, didn’t play him with Matthews and had him “fill-in”. The kid was put behind the eight ball all season!! Babcock even ‘called him out’ on locker clean out day……very poor way to win friends and influence the players in a positive way.
Babcock may be a good teaching coach but he is unable to motivate, provide real poistive reinforcement and give confidence to the talented Leaf players who are young ,fast, and skilled “kids” who require a more postive approach to coaching. Babcock is too egotistical to provide this . He is one of the ‘old school’ coaches and their day is done…….Babcock should go quietly to another team, and make it look like it was his decision to save face. The answer: Keefe
It appears to me that Babcock played the victim role and not the orchestrator of the Leafs lineup. He has stubbornly stuck to the line up where Marleau has played nearly as much as Matthews and where he has iced the old guard rather than go with the talented young guns.
I also think he’s going to be let go, Howard.
I cannot get over him playing Hyman with one leg against one of the best face off guys in history over and over. And him playing as much as Matthews is seems nutty to me. Colorado is in the second round and a guy like Mackinnon ends up with 5-7 minutes more many playoff nights than Matthews.
I don’t see the point of “One more year…”. Babcock is who he is. He’ll never change.
And interesting side-note is Keefe. If they get to the finals again this guy will be hired by an NHL team. Do the Leafs want to wait and lose him?
Babcock is safe and I totally understand his reluctance to accept blame. Dubas made a ton of rookie mistakes as follows:
1) Choosing Sparks over Mac likely cost playoff home advanage
2) Nylander over paid for a one-dimensional player. Could cost Leafs Kappy.
4) Fourth line/penalty kill talent level was not playoff quality. Dubas poor assessment of talent handcuffed Babcock. Petan acquired at the trade deadline when compared to other teams. Boston’s trade deadline deals beat us.
5) Dubas not recognizing this was the year to go all out like other playoff teams. Next years cap and Marner and other signing looks like the team may take a step back talent wise. This was the year.
6) Promising Nylander he would not trade him. This is insanity.
Shanahan should be ashamed of himself for caving and letting Lou go. Dubas was not ready for the big time.
Hey ZZ you forgot to mention the whole Dubas signed the biggest UFA in the NHL in at least 12 years and added a solid top 4 D without losing anyone off the roster.
Why not include Muzzin in trade deadine talk and make it seem like he only added Petan? That’s not accurate at all. Did Boston add a Tavares and Muzzin? No, they certainly did not.
Dubas has been GM only 10 months. Not sure what more you’d want from him.
And as for taking blame, Dubas took blame for EVERYTHING. It made him look very good. Babcock won’t admit blame for anything. His player usage is an absolute joke.