Let me first preface this article by mentioning the fact that I still believe that Mike Babcock is still one of the greatest coaches in NHL history, and the decision to sign him when the Leafs did was 100% the right move to make. The numbers speak for themselves; three Stanley Cup appearances, one cup win, playoffs in all but two seasons as a head coach, finishing above .500 every year except for those two seasons (one of which being the Maple Leafs rebuild year), needless to say, the guy is good.
With that being said, after what I’ve seen over the course of his last two seasons as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I am beginning to believe that this may never be the team that Babcock can coach to a Stanley Cup.
For my entire life, Babcock has seemingly tried to use his roster the same way. He would take a team and play a hard defensive style that made it really difficult for other teams to score. When you have guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Chelios, and Brian Rafalski on your back end, coupled with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Kris Draper, Jiri Hudler, and Henrik Zetterberg on your front end, you’re going to have a pretty easy time shutting down the opposition.
The problem with Babcock is that he hasn’t found much success with any other variations of his lineup. When you take away hall of famers like Lidstrom and Chelios, and replace them with offensive minded guys like Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, it’s a whole lot harder to get your team to play a defensively sound game.
This is where the truly elite coaches will find a way to adapt to his players and create a system that works with the pieces that it has. Babcock, unfortunately, hasn’t even attempted to do something like that. Instead, he tried to shoehorn his oldest, slowest defenceman onto the first pairing, and played him 20 minutes a night.
His usage really came under fire in game seven against the Boston Bruins, in which he only used superstar center Auston Matthews for 18:48 (the second least in the series for him) in arguably his best game of the series. Meanwhile, he continued to strut out his fourth line of Ennis, Gauthier, and Moore to a tune of 11:53, 8:23, and 9:07 respectively. That’s just not good enough when your season is on the line and you spend most of the game needing a goal.
Ice time wasn’t the only problem that I saw for Babcock this season. The lineup stayed nearly the same for the majority of the season. Guys like Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, and for the first part of the year Josh Leivo saw significantly less games than most NHL replacement players. All that before he basically banished deadline acquisition Nic Petan despite his impressive play in the limited action that he saw. In the most Babcock move of the year, Mike finally listened to the entire hockey world and put Ennis, Moore, and Petan together… for one game. It was very clear with that move alone that his vision of this team, and Kyle Dubas’ vision for this team are very different.
That leads me to the second reason I don’t think Babcock is the right guy for the job is the seemingly damaged relationship between Babcock and Dubas. While they have said a few times publicly that there is nothing wrong between them, it is very evident that they do not agree on much, and neither person listens to one another.
Whether it’s Holl or Petan’s games played, the lack of minutes for young stud Travis Dermott, or the clear ignorance of analytical numbers when putting together the defence pairings, It was very clear that the two had very different ideas on what this team should look like.
Finally, the tension between Babcock and some of his players frightens me a little bit. While his brash attitude was very common early on in his career, it doesn't seem to have much of a place with successful teams in the NHL these days.
It's well documented by many of his former players and opponents players that Babcock is sort of terrible to play both for and against(just listen to any episode of Spittin' Chiclets featuring Mike Commodore). It's so bad that it was rumored to lead to the refusal from certain players to play for the Leafs.
It's one thing for other players to not want to play for him, but It's normally not a great sign when after back to back playoff exits there seems to be some sort of tension between the head coach and the teams best player. Last year, Babcock and Matthews ended off on such a bad note that Mike flew to Arizona to smooth things over with the star center. This season, Matthews made some comments about his usage essentially calling out Babcock for not using him.
While Babcock may have played an essential role in turning this team into the unit that it is today, it seems as though he may be wearing out his welcome with certain players on this team. A change of scenery may just inject some life into a team that could probably use it.
While some of the big fish may already be off the board, there are still a few names out there that wouldn't be a bad idea. One name that hasn't been talked about in a while but I feel could have some value is Dan Bylsma. Currently serving as an assistant for the Detroit Red Wings, Bylsma has some experience as a head coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is new school enough that he would be able to get the full potential out of this lineup while not getting the players to turn on him.
The biggest name, however, is the one that I agree with the most. Sheldon Keefe has been the Toronto Marlies head coach since 2015 and has done a spectacular job for that team. He already knows a good chunk of the players on the team, along with a few that will be up in the next couple years, and it is very evident that he knows what he's doing (Keefe won the Calder Cup last year with one of the best AHL teams the Leafs have ever had). His style fits in with the team, and he's already in the organization... it's a match made in heaven.
While it's probably unlikely that the move happens, and it's going to be an unpopular move for some if it does, I personally believe that given what we've seen over these past three years, it's time that we see a change for this team.