So, let me get this straight: Mike Babcock, one of the most respected, productive hockey coaches alive today and the most sought-after free agent this summer – player or otherwise – signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and this is a negative? The Maple Leafs use some of the millions they’ve saved under the NHL’s salary cap system and establish instant credibility in a dressing room that needed a full fumigation after the the toxic 2014-15 campaign, and team president Brendan Shanahan somehow screwed this hire up?
Sorry, not buying it.
No, Babcock isn’t a panacea for the flaws in the Leafs organization. He isn’t a 21-year-old No. 1 center or defenseman, nor is he a junior phenom on par with Connor McDavid. And nobody is claiming that. But here’s what he is: Excellent at his job. Secure in his approach. Beholden to nobody. All the things you want in a man who’s tasked with establishing a vastly different landscape in an environment that had been littered with highly-paid tumbleweed and the bones of those who believed they could short-cut the process.
And make no mistake – that organizational focus hasn’t changed, even with Babcock’s arrival. Shanahan’s plan doesn’t shift into a higher gear because an accomplished coach is on board. Remember his words only a few weeks ago, after he cleaned house by firing GM Dave Nonis and interim coach Peter Horachek? Let me remind you of this specific quote, in which he spoke of potential candidates to replace Nonis:
“This might not be the right fit for certain people, but they might not be the right fit for us.”
The same mentality applies to the coach. Babcock enters the picture knowing full well what lies ahead, and how Shanahan intends to fill the GM role. He’s obviously comfortable with a non-traditional arrangement, and the Leafs are obviously very comfortable with the increased expectations he will bring. Both parties are likely also comfortable with the fact Babcock will not have final say in personnel matters. That may mean they’re not a lock for last place and the best shot at a franchise player like Auston Matthews next summer, but with changes to the draft lottery process, no team can assure itself of the No. 1 pick by finishing last in the league. Besides, were the Red Wings – with whom Babcock won a Stanley Cup in 2008 – built on a steady stream of No. 1 picks? No, they were a collection of great players either acquired through trades or the draft, and the bottom line on Babcock’s tenure in Toronto will hinge on the same factors.
Babcock wasn’t universally beloved by his players in Detroit, and that’s another positive sign for the Leafs. The players don’t need to subscribe to his fan club for this to work. They just have to respect him, understand and appreciate his skills as a tactician, and capitalize on his ability to prepare them as well as any NHL coach and put them in positions to win. And he’s proven himself more than capable of getting those things accomplished on a year-in, year-out basis.
Babcock also has demonstrated he can integrate new NHLers into a veteran mix – Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar being among the most recent examples – and that will be crucial as Toronto rebuilds over time. If Shanahan, the new GM and Toronto’s revamped scouting staff can hold up their ends of the deal, there’s no reason at all to believe their coach won’t hold up his end.
While we’re at it, can we also please stop with the notion Babcock wronged the Buffalo Sabres? Whoever is complaining the Sabres were “played” because they believed they had a deal with Babcock before he settled on the Leafs needs to be reminded that this remains a business. If someone is using leverage – as Babcock did out in the open – to maximize their value, that’s the good, old-fashioned North American Way, isn’t it? And if you think a deal in principle is the same thing as a deal, go watch some episodes of Dragon’s Den, and pay particular attention to the parts where they show you how frequently deals in principle fall apart before they become actual deals.
In many ways, Babcock is the perfect man for the job. His pedigree is unimpeachable. He wants to work in hockey’s zaniest fishbowl. If the Leafs trade stars Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel this summer and don’t take back a player who makes an equal amount of money, Babcock will be the highest paid staff member at ice level next season.
And this is what some are saying is the wrong type of hire? When the coach makes more than any player, we’re supposed to believe this is the same old Leafs?
Nope, not buying it. This is a fresh start and a massive coup for a franchise in dire need of both. Babcock signed up for the long haul – eight years and $50 million – because he knows that’s about how long the rebuild may take. But he’s invested, and the Leafs sure as heck are invested.
That’s not a bad thing, even if it isn’t comfortingly familiar as the traditional way of building a Cup-winner.