The words hung there as if few believed what they’d actually heard.
It was April 25, just a few days after the Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and a softball question to general manager Kyle Dubas about Mike Babcock’s job security received a hardball answer.
“With how fluid the situation is,” Dubas said that day, “I wouldn’t give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization, starting with me. We’ll do what we think is best, and we’ll let you know when we know. That’s my expectation.”
It was probably more of a shock than it should have been: Babcock’s job was on the line. That he’d guided the Leafs to the playoffs three times in a row — after they had missed the post-season in 12 of the previous 13 years — was not enough.
It stands as the bellwether moment of 2019 for the Maple Leafs, the point at which the tables began to turn on hockey’s most celebrated coach.
When Babcock was hired, it was groundbreaking. He was the highest-paid coach in the NHL: eight years, $50 million (U.S.). Other coaches have him to thank for raising the bar on salaries. And under his guidance, the Leafs went from laughingstock to contender.
But when he was fired, the ground shook even more. Hockey’s culture came under attack with the power structure of teams, mental health of players and abusive conduct under the microscope.
It would take a while to get to the firing, but it was perhaps inevitable. There were already questions about line deployment, ice time for top players, using grinders instead of skilled players, and goaltending: from playing Frederik Andersen too much, to using him too little.
So on May 6, when Dubas said he was “all in” on Babcock keeping his job, few believed him. The knives were out. It was more or less a waiting game. And the game may have been rigged, with a slow start to the season the excuse Dubas needed to make the change.
The Star has subsequently learned that Dubas had wanted Sheldon Keefe to coach the Leafs for some time, and even suggested Keefe to club president Brendan Shanahan before Babcock was hired in 2015.
Dubas had hired Keefe in 2012 to coach the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, and in 2015 to handle the AHL’s Marlies.
Dubas and Keefe clearly see the game the same way: Let highly skilled players be creative. Mix and match lines. Play Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie together? Oh my.
Babcock was stubborn and had his own ideas: He loved to grind out wins. He needed stay-at-home types, guys who’d be tough along the wall and in front of the net.
Despite a very public disparity between how Dubas wants a team built and how Babcock likes a team to play, Babcock kept his job to start the season. But suddenly the world the Leafs inhabited was no longer calm and predictable, as it had been under Lou Lamoriello.
In Dubas’s time as GM — he’s now into his second full season — there has been massive change.
- There’s a new salary structure with four players earning half the salary cap.
- Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey were let go or traded to make room for the fourth of those players, Mitch Marner, to hit the jackpot.
- There has been a lot of change throughout the roster with the additions of Barrie, Cody Ceci, Ilya Mikheyev, Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Dmytro Timashov, Pierre Engvall, Nic Petan, Michael Hutchinson, Pontus Aberg and others. So, chemistry has been an issue.
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To be sure, injuries took a toll at the start of this season, starting with Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott. John Tavares, Marner, Kerfoot, Trevor Moore and Andreas Johnsson also missed considerable time.
The Leafs went 29-27-10 in 66 games from Jan. 1 to Nov. 20, when Babcock was fired. That was the 22nd-best record in the NHL over that time. Not good enough.
Backup goaltending became their Achilles heel. One point from a possible 12 with the backup in net is all Babcock’s Leafs got to start the season. If that had been even four or five points, perhaps it would have been harder to justify firing Babcock. The Leafs would have been in a playoff position and perhaps played with more confidence as a result.
But there was something deeper at play: There was no jump in their game, no joy on their faces. They appeared to be tuning out the coach.
Why? The tipping point might have been the very first game of this season when Spezza, the hometown veteran who took a pay cut to sign with the Leafs, was a healthy scratch with friends and family on hand — a game against the Ottawa Senators, no less, the team he started out with and played for in his prime.
Babcock said Spezza needed more time to work on the penalty kill. Spezza played the second game without even practising the penalty kill in between. Babcock was laying down the law: He was in charge.
Even Babcock’s hardcore defenders had trouble with that one. When he was fired, that story resonated with former NHL defenceman Mike Commodore piling on — reminding the world that Babcock, then coaching the Red Wings, once scratched him and Mike Modano, denying Modano a chance to reach 1,500 games. Modano retired stuck at 1,499.
Soon after, the story broke about a mind game Babcock had played on Marner in his rookie season — urging the young winger to rate his teammates based on work ethic, then reading the list to the players. That resonated even louder, especially at a time of increased awareness about mental health.
On and on they came, stories about Babcock abusing Johan Franzen in Detroit, and about other coaches mistreating players under their charge.
Babcock’s hiring changed the Leafs; Babcock’s firing changed hockey.
Without him, the Leafs and the league are very different indeed.
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