Coaching dismissals usually tell you a lot more about the organization than the coach.
Mike Babcock’s legacy in hockey is secure. As with Larry Murphy or Grant Fuhr, his time in Toronto will be but a small footnote on his terrific résumé when he goes into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Leafs, on the other hand, remain a team in search of something even remotely close to success. Babcock has known a good deal of glory at the NHL and international level. The Leafs, since Terry Sawchuk, have known none.
So this wasn’t really about Babcock being fired. This was about the Leafs pink-slipping another coach.
Having now observed 20 Leafs coaching changes since my dad first took me to watch Johnny MacLellan guide Toronto’s hockey team back in ’71, the common ground is that these firings are usually generated when the quality of the roster and/or the gravity of the team’s struggles are exaggerated.
In this instance, it’s both.
The Leafs roster as constructed by general manager Kyle Dubas isn’t nearly as talented as either he or ardent Babcock-bashers would have you believe. Not yet. The most talented Leafs are also the youngest — such as Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner — which means that skill has not yet been augmented by the competitive experience required to navigate deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Those who admire the Leafs’ talent base simply choose to ignore this fact. They see Matthews and his wondrous puck-handling skill and can’t imagine there are other skills he doesn’t yet possess, but there are.
As well, Dubas was forced to shrink the talent base over the past few months in order to accommodate the paycheques of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, not to mention John Tavares. The team’s third and fourth lines are now built with NHLers making the league minimum or close to it. Cap savings on backup goaltending have backfired.
By firing Babcock, however, team president Brendan Shanahan and Dubas are implicitly saying they believe the depth, quality and flexibility of this group is much greater than it has produced.
They should feel that way — they built this team, picked the players — but that doesn’t make it true.
In terms of the depth of this current crisis, meanwhile, when it comes to the Leafs it’s always worth remembering that the last time they did win the Cup they also lost 10 straight games in the middle of the season. If that’s too ancient for you, the Blues were the worst team in the league last year, long after Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as coach.
Just two weeks ago, the Leafs were riding a tidy three-game winning streak, having beaten Philly, the Kings and Vegas while allowing only five goals against. All was well. But six consecutive losses followed. In a league now driven by streaks, both hot and cold, that’s not a particularly lengthy slide. Ask Buffalo. Or Nashville.
But the situation was widely perceived as a major crisis because this is Toronto and everything’s a crisis.
The truth is that this is a young team with substantial shortcomings, playing maddeningly inconsistent hockey. That Dubas and Shanahan decided this could be rectified by Babcock’s departure tells you something about their thinking. They obviously believe the quality of the roster is much stronger than it appears to be, but that Babcock simply wasn’t using it correctly.
Dubas is a young exec, Babcock an old lion. Dubas wants someone to follow his innovative game plan, not question it. Such young execs also need lots of moral support, which is why Shanahan showed up in Arizona to help out.
Together, they tried to exude an air of calm, but there was panic detectable. This is the first time in years that the upward curve of Toronto’s progress under the Shanaplan has swerved downwards. The Leafs president hasn’t had to deal with severe dissatisfaction with his product since Salute-gate, and that wasn’t seen as his fault because he was so new in his job.
This was different, and it’s interesting that his first reaction to this sudden change in attitude was to abruptly fire a highly decorated coach, or at least go along with his sophomore GM’s impulse to fire that coach.
Perhaps it will prove out that the instincts of these two men were absolutely perfect. Shanahan said he saw a “lack of belief” in the players’ eyes, and I’ll buy that. He should be able to observe things that a hockey layman can’t.
Still, it was disheartening to hear him publicly list the team’s deficiencies and seemingly pin them all on Babcock. He knows that’s not true, just as he knows Babcock is no worse a coach today than the day he hired him. That’s how hockey works. It’s all a “family” until somebody has to go.
Allegiances shift. Shanahan and Babcock posed at a triumphant press conference five years ago. On Thursday in Arizona, it was Shanahan and Dubas posing together because, as Shanahan put it, he wants people to believe he and his GM are “aligned,” presumably in the same way we once believed he and Babcock were “aligned.”
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Everyone’s singing from the same hymn book now. At least until it’s panic time again.
The history of the Leafs over the past 50 years is that when it comes to choosing between upheaval and stability, they usually can’t resist choosing upheaval. So, dealing with a moderate six-game losing streak in mid-November with a very young team, the Leafs again chose upheaval.
Babcock’s the same coach he always was. And the Leafs once again have demonstrated they’re the organization they’ve usually been.