In the wake of Mike Babcock’s firing Wednesday afternoon, it took no more than five minutes before some started to wonder aloud – whether earnestly or in jest – if the next time we saw the now-former Toronto Maple Leafs coach step foot behind a bench would be at the annual December tournament.
And, hey, kidding or not, it was a question worth asking. On a resume that includes 700 NHL wins, one Stanley Cup, two Western Conference crowns, top-of-podium finishes at the World Junior Championship, World Cup, World Championship and two Olympic golds, the lone major competition (depending on your definition of major) that Babcock hasn’t won is the Spengler. So, if he wanted to further round out his resume, the thought was that Babcock could consider stepping back into coaching duties and attempt to pick up another piece of hardware.
Turns out, however, that Hockey Canada had different ideas. Late Thursday morning, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Craig MacTavish will be coaching Canada’s Spengler Cup club. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be all that long before we see Babcock patrolling the bench once again. His above-mentioned resume is too rich, his ability too well-respected, for him to be overlooked for another gig in the seasons, or possibly even the months, to come.
But who will be next to bring Babcock aboard? Here’s a look at five NHL clubs who could come calling:
Not hard to connect the dots. Come the end of the campaign, current Wild bench boss Bruce Boudreau’s contract will expire. There’s little reason to believe that he’s going to last beyond this season, not with the Wild mired in the NHL basement and treading water as a franchise. So, add one part pending coaching vacancy with one part historically successful free-agent coach and there’s every reason for Minnesota to at least kick the tires on Babcock.
There’s potential for the move to be one that works in the short-term, too, particularly if GM Bill Guerin commits to a scorched-earth rebuild similar to the one the Maple Leafs undertook during the early part of Babcock’s tenure. Trading aging pieces for assets and building from the ground up could give Minnesota – and, in turn, Babcock – a roster with which the job-searching coach can work some magic. There’s also the upside of the Wild possessing an already-deep blueline with which Babcock could do some damage, especially if he finds a way to milk the offensive pieces Minnesota will still have in place.
Worth noting, though, that putting Babcock at the helm with little proven talent doesn’t mean success is a sure thing. The drafting the Maple Leafs had done prior to and in the early years after his arrival in Toronto were instrumental in Babcock’s and the Maple Leafs’ success. The Wild’s cupboard is nowhere near as stocked. Not yet, at least.
New Jersey Devils
How soon does Babcock want to go back to work? If it’s sometime within the next few weeks, is it all that far-fetched to believe he could get his wish in New Jersey? The Devils are grasping at straws. They’re one clear of dead-last in the Eastern Conference and NHL. Cory Schneider has been demoted to the AHL. Heck, Taylor Hall, who has one of the worst shooting percentages in the league, couldn’t buy a break right now if he took out an advance on the truckload he’ll command as a free agent this summer. There’s very little about this season that has gone according to plan, with New Jersey failing to even meet their bubble-team expectations.
All of this is to say that if John Hynes’ seat isn’t already sun’s-surface hot, it’s likely only a few degrees cooler. One of the league’s winningest coaches – and one who ranks fourth in victories among all active bench bosses – landing on the unemployment line will do little to cool it off. Hiring Babcock could be intriguing for the Devils brass, too, because it’s clear the he has the ability to right a ship. While Toronto suffered through poor results in his first season behind the bench, it was a 40-win team by his second season and a 100-point team in back-to-back campaigns after that.
With one post-season appearance in the past seven seasons (quickly heading towards eight) and only one trip beyond the opening round since 2006-07, Babcock could be the answer.
San Jose Sharks
Following a woeful start, the Sharks are seem as though they’re beginning to settle into the season. Their 21 points put them outside of the post-season picture, but San Jose is only three points back of the Vancouver Canucks for the final wild-card spot and four points back of the Vegas Golden Knights, who sit third in the Pacific Division. A recently snapped six-game winning streak helped matters, to be sure. It might have also kept Peter DeBoer from being the first coach axed this season.
DeBoer’s continued safety, however, is dependent upon a continued climb up the Western Conference standings for the Sharks. Simply put, mediocrity won’t do, and San Jose will have to maintain a healthy win-loss ratio over the remainder of the campaign if he wants to keep his job. At bare minimum, DeBoer needs to coach this team to the post-season. But given the money invested in this team, it is possible that anything less than a deep playoff run saves DeBoer’s job.
If the Sharks fail to reach the conference final, that might be where Babcock comes in. A word of caution, however? Many of the same issues that plagued Babcock’s Maple Leafs this season – far too many scoring chances and high-danger chances against despite being a dominant possession team – are similar to those currently afflicting the Sharks.
Speaking with reporters this past week, Seattle GM Ron Francis divulged that the NHL’s newest franchise wasn’t working on a tight deadline as it pertained to naming the first coach in franchise history. In fact, Francis went as far as to say that it might not be until 2021 that the organization hired a bench boss. But, hey, these things can change in a hurry, and it’s not every day that a three-time conference championship-winning and one-time Stanley Cup-winning bench boss is on the job market. So, this could turn into a matter of striking while the iron is hot.
There’s plenty about the Seattle gig that Babcock could find intriguing, too. He’ll no doubt see the job Gerard Gallant has been able to do in Vegas – coincidentally the team against which he coached his final game as Maple Leafs coach – with a blank slate and see potential for the same kind of ground-up success the Golden Knights have experienced. In Seattle, Babcock could have a hand in picking the personnel. No doubt, that is every coach’s dream.
And while there’s little reason to believe Seattle is interested in a splashy-for-the-sake-of-it hiring, particularly as the market will be white hot with excitement from Day One, Babcock’s name carries a certain cachet that is going to lend the organization some on-ice credibility on opening night. It’s worth consideration, if nothing else.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have 20 points in 18 games, which is the equivalent of 91 points across an 82-game campaign. Most projections would suggest that’s going to either barely or simply be not enough points to put the Bolts into the post-season. Of course, few expect Tampa Bay to actually fall short of the post-season. It’s a team too talented, too overpowering, to end up on the outside looking in. There are even some who believe a slow start might be best for the Lightning, some adversity for the team to overcome so they enter the playoffs somewhat battle-tested.
But let’s ask some hypotheticals. What if Jon Cooper’s bunch suffers a 30-plus point decline and misses the post-season? What if the Lightning eke their way into the playoffs and fall in the first round again? And what if they make it in, get on a roll, but, once again, can’t get over the hump? Three times this team has gone to the conference final. Only once have they won the thing. At some point, for better or worse, management will begin to think a coaching change is what’s necessary to take that final-but-all-important step. There’s a possibility, however slim it might be given Cooper signed an extension in March, that it could come by the end of this season.
If that’s the case, the door could be wide-open for Babcock. He’s proven that he can take a team with elite talent all the way to the promised land. (See: Detroit Red Wings, 2007-08.) Maybe the Lightning gamble that he can do it again. But Tampa Bay better feel awfully sure if they’re going to show Cooper, the winningest coach in franchise history, the door.
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