Mike Babcock is done in Toronto. Time has run out on the rebuilding chief, who managed to take an abysmal Maple Leafs club to the playoffs three straight years after finishing last in his first season in Toronto in 2015. It surely felt like it was coming, but not this quickly, not this abruptly and not at this point in the road trip.
Babcock was brought in before the Leafs replaced then-outgoing general manager Dave Nonis. Shanahan made the hire and shortly after, the Leafs secured veteran GM Lou Lamoriello to take the reins. Sure enough, the Leafs started building more structure, more accountability and digging their way out of the basement of the hockey world as the Babcock era went on.
Then, when Lamoriello’s contract was up in the spring of 2018, Shanahan decided to move on from Lou and eventually named boy-wonder (and Brock alumnus) Kyle Dubas the team’s new GM.
Babcock’s firing was the ultimate ending as a result of a not-so-coherent relationship between Babcock and Dubas. Ever since Dubas was hired to replace Lou Lamoriello, he and Babcock assured the Toronto media that they had a good working relationship. But what else were they going to say? ‘We don’t like each other’ — don’t think so, the Toronto media would have loved that too much. In Dubas and Shanahan’s press conference on Nov. 21, it seemed quite clear that Babcock and Dubas never truly aligned the way a coach and GM need to.
Now, with Dubas’ ‘guy’ Sheldon Keefe taking over for Babcock, the latest move is make or break for the Shana-plan. The firing of Babcock, who was arguably the most sought-after coach when he was a free agent in the spring of 2015, shows that Shanny is all-in on Dubas, more so than he was all-in on Babcock.
Babcock brought consistency to the Leafs that hasn’t been there for over a decade, up until the rocky start to this season, that is. Three straight years in the playoffs, a few franchise records along the way. There should be no doubt that Babcock is a good coach (or at least, was) — he’s been to the Cup final three times, won once and has only missed the playoffs twice in 16 seasons as an NHL head coach (this year was his 17th). He’s won Olympic gold medals, he’s won a World Junior Championship and a CIS championship. While the times have changed, and there are plenty of signs that Babcock may not have changed with it, he does have a history of success.
When I first wrote this article the day after Babcock was fired, I said that I thought Babcock would win another cup sometime in the future, maybe even with the expansion Seattle franchise. In the days since, there have been some intriguing sound-bites and tweets that have made me think otherwise.
For instance, the pre-game interview with Travis Dermott on Thursday in Arizona seemed to be a direct dig at Babcock. The Leafs twitter account also had some interesting moments. For instance, the video that was released of the post-game locker room in Arizona (The Leaf: Blueprint) — featuring the game basketball being given to Pierre Engvall, Keefe making his remarks and captain John Tavares stating that ‘this is the start of something special’. Game 24? Start of something special? I guess on the one hand, the captain’s job is to make sure things are positive and looking towards the future, but that room looked like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. The caption of that tweet: Energy.
Tyson Barrie going from a horrible start to his career in Toronto — to all of a sudden scoring two games in a row? I’m not even sure it’s miraculous, it’s just more evidence pointing towards how negative the culture may have been before the coaching change. Not to mention, another timely tweet from the Leafs account of Keefe with a giant grin on his face when Barrie scored.
The one other tweet that I found particularly interesting was from Nov. 21. The Leafs’ twitter account posted four photos from their morning skate, all of which were focused on Keefe. Not that it’s that unusual, I mean, everyone wants to see the new boss. But it seems like there’s a lot of focus on the energy of that new coach.
Shanahan, when he spoke to the media on Nov. 21, noted that players who are tough and gritty nowadays may not be the same tough and gritty for people who played or coached in the 1970s or 80s. The Leafs have been criticized for not being tough enough as a team, for being too reliant on skill and speed from players who are under-performing this season. Dubas said that the Maple Leafs need to play the way they were designed to play and alluded to the idea that Keefe would make changes stylistically and systematically to get the Leafs to do so. That suggests Babcock didn’t have systems or a style that suited the roster he had this season, one that looks very different from the roster of 2017-18, Lamoriello’s last year in charge. Shanahan and Dubas emphasized how much they believe in the roster that has been built — that they believe the team is better than many others in the league, but that they just haven’t played like it.
So far, the first two games of the Sheldon Keefe era have shown that it may just take someone different at the helm to spark the roster to play the way they were designed to play. While all Leaf fans will want the wins to last forever, there’s a lot of season left and there will be more ups and downs.
It’s clear the Shana-plan has shifted to focusing on what Dubas believes will make the Leafs cup contenders. So, for Dubas, having Sheldon Keefe behind the bench to put forward the style of systems to compliment the speed and skill roster, it better work — or the whole Shana-plan will have to go — and the Leafs will have to start all over again.