After all of Brendan Shanahan’s bluster about doing things the right way, about conducting a proper, methodical and ultimately successful rebuild, the Toronto Maple Leafs went out and were your father’s Toronto Maple Leafs. They got the big fish, won the press conference and made a larger splash than Kiska, the killer whale at Marineland.
For $6.25 million a year for the next eight years, they got Mike Babcock, the best coach and the most sought-after free agent coach in the game's history. He's also a man who has won one Stanley Cup in the last decade with an organization that strives for excellence, and who has won Olympic gold medals for the country that produces the best players on the planet and designates more resources to the game than all the other countries combined. He’s a coach whose teams have lost in the first round two of the past three seasons despite having Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the roster.
This corner has gone on the record as saying Babcock is a great coach, but he is not the right man for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not right now. After talking about not accelerating the rebuilding process, the Leafs went out and accelerated the rebuilding process.
Put it this way. The Leafs were the fourth worst team in the NHL last season. It would not be a stretch to suggest that with some creative “roster management,” they could have fallen further down the standings in 2015-16. Now, under Babcock, they’ll probably be better. Not much, but enough to take them out of the running for such high-level talents as Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Jakob Chychrun and Matthew Tkachuk – each and every one a franchise cornerstone stud.
Good job on the rebuild there.
Actually, the Babcock hiring works only if one thing has been made crystal clear to him. And that is that for at least the first three years of his eight-year deal, he can probably forget about making the playoffs, that coaching this team will be painful at times and will require all the patience he can muster, and that his legacy as a coaching magician might get tarnished a little. Because there will be losing. Don’t bother going into the office of the GM – whoever the heck that turns out to be – demanding that he get you players who can help you win now. You don’t have Datsyuk and Zetterberg and the host of promising young players the Red Wings had and you’re not in Detroit anymore.
As long as Babcock is willing to agree to that proviso, perhaps things will work out. But anyone who thinks hiring a coach will be the panacea for this organization is making a big mistake. As pointed out previously, Babcock won one Stanley Cup in 10 years with an organization that is far superior to the Maple Leafs. He has only eight years to do it in Toronto.
Which brings us to Shanahan. Can anyone please explain exactly what he is doing? A prominent former player I spoke to recently posed the question: “If he’s doing all this stuff, why doesn’t he just be the GM himself?” And it’s a valid question. By my count, since Shanahan joined the Maple Leafs a year ago, he has executed or presided as president over the following moves (you might want to grab and adult beverage right about now): Fired a head coach, hired an interim coach and fired him. Fired a GM, fired three assistant coaches, hired two assistant coaches, then fired them, plus the video coach and the goaltending consultant. Replaced the entire media relations staff, hired an assistant GM, hired an assistant to the GM, hired a director of player personnel, fired a number of scouts, hired an Ontario scout, fired the chief pro scout and director of player development, moved one of his assistant coaches back to player development, fired the minor pro team’s scouting staff and hired a coach.
Notice one little missing detail here? Oh yeah, he still needs a GM. You know, the guy who actually runs the hockey department and usually does all of this himself, usually hiring people with whom he feels comfortable working? By doing all these things on his own, Shanahan has likely taken himself out of the running for a lot of qualified candidates for the GM job, which, in case you haven’t guessed, is every bit as important as the man who is behind the bench.
Shanahan stepping up and taking the GMs job would not be without precedent in Toronto. After all, a fellow Hall of Famer did that himself a few years back. In the late 1990s, Ken Dryden held down the dual portfolios of team president and GM, but handed most of the hockey decisions to assistant GM Mike Smith. And things worked out quite nicely for a while. The Leafs were making progress and moving forward, until the inevitable happened and Dryden and Smith clashed, setting off a power struggle that rendered the front office dysfunctional and set the organization back years.
Not saying that’s going to happen now, but it’s pretty clear that whoever takes the GM job will have Shanahan looking so closely over his shoulder that he’ll be able to tell whether Shanahan brushed his teeth and gargled that morning.
That’s no way to run a franchise. But that’s how it’s going to be run. And Mike Babcock, who suddenly becomes the star of this team, is going to be right in the middle of it for a long, long time.
Good luck, Mr. Babcock. You’re going to need it.