Do the Toronto Maple Leafs believe in omens? It was probably just a coincidence to see Mike Babcock fired on Nov. 20, 2019, one year and one day after the St. Louis Blues axed Mike Yeo. But maybe Leafs GM Kyle Dubas hoped he was placing his team on a parallel path with a drastic mid-season move, pink-slipping his $6.25-million coach after four-plus seasons, which included a playoff miss during a tank year and then three first-round exits.
We all remember what happened with the Blues last season. Sure, goalie Jordan Binnington played a significant role in carrying the team from last place in early January to a Stanley Cup, but we can’t forget that Binnington faced one of the league’s easiest workloads according to shots against and expected goals against. In other words, the team in front of him under promoted coach Craig Berube played pretty darned well.
A comment from center Tyler Bozak at the Stanley Cup media day last year has lodged itself in my head. He said the Blues were always a good team but just needed time to gel because GM Doug Armstrong had made so many radical changes the previous off-season. He was one of the new guys, brought in as a free-agent signing. Joining him from the UFA pool were wingers David Perron and Patrick Maroon. The Blues got top center and eventual Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly in a trade.
So maybe the Leafs, who made many off-season roster changes over the summer, want to be ‘The Next Blues.’
That said, the Blues aren’t the only recent team to fire a coach during the season and rally to become champs. The Devils famously fired Robbie Ftorek in March 2000 with the team in first place and won the Cup with Larry Robinson behind the bench. The Pittsburgh Penguins turfed Michel Therrien for Dan Bylsma in February 2009 and won the Cup. The Los Angeles Kings replaced Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter in December 2011 and won the Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave up on Mike Johnston in December 2015 for Mike Sullivan and won the Cup.
Bylsma’s and Sullivan’s stories warrant extra attention, as they have potential to mirror the path of new Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. Bylsma and Sullivan weren’t assistant or associate coaches promoted to the big job like Robinson and Berube were, nor were they established “celebrity” hires like Sutter. Bylsma and Sullivan were call-ups from the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Sullivan is a particularly interesting comparable to Keefe in that Sullivan had shepherded several minor-leaguers who ended up on the NHL roster the same season he did, such as Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray, each of whom played crucial roles in the Pens’ run to the 2016 title.
Keefe has already coached almost half the players on Toronto’s roster at some point, including members of the 2017-18 Calder Cup-winning Toronto Marlies.
So while the Blues caught a perfect wave with a brand-new roster and a promoted associate coach, ‘The Sullivan Route’ might be the better template to follow for any team looking for a significant in-season turnaround. Lightning coach Jon Cooper took over for Guy Boucher in 2012-13 and ushered in an era of dominance beginning in 2013-14, helming a group of young guns with whom he was already familiar from winning a Calder Cup in Norfolk. The retooling Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks have followed suit with their most recent hires, promoting Travis Green, Jeremy Colliton and Dallas Eakins from their AHL affiliates.
Over the past five NHL seasons leading up to 2018-19, there were 19 mid-season coaching changes. In seven of those cases, the swap led to a playoff berth. So while it’s not impossible to execute Blues-caliber magic, going from worst to first, that’s the exception rather than the norm.
Hiring up from the farm club, then, as the Leafs did with Keefe, makes for a wise hedging of bets. It gives the team the potential for that short-term shot in the arm while mixing in a developmental rebuild approach, letting a new coach continue to grow with the kids he coached at the lower level.