On Wednesday afternoon, the hockey world was in a frenzy as the news broke that the Toronto Maple Leafs had fired head coach Mike Babcock. The Maple Leafs have struggled this season to the point that the Sabres are actually ahead of them with two games in hand in the standings. After three straight years of coaching the Maple Leafs to the playoffs and two years of being a 100-point plus team, the Leafs have looked out of sync.
Rumors had been out there for months now that Babcock was having an issue connecting with his young roster and that his coaching style was not fit for today’s game. In last year’s playoffs during games 6 and 7 Babcock was criticized for the low ice time of Leafs star Auston Matthews in the crucial points of those games. To Babcock’s defense, Nazem Kadri’s suspension probably cost the Maple Leafs a big chance at finally winning a playoff series. But there was always a question of how well he and GM Kyle Dubas saw eye to eye as Dubas was of a new school analytics mindset whereas Babcock was certainly a more traditionalist in hockey strategy and management.
For Sabres fans, it’s an interesting question of what if had Mike Babcock took Buffalo’s head coaching spot instead of Toronto’s back in 2015.
One of the major differences between the two cities is the pressure and level of expectations. When Babcock was available in 2015 he was regarded for his success in Detroit and Anaheim as well as the Canadian national team. Buffalo would have given Babcock a less pressure-intense situation, where making the playoffs would’ve bought him a far longer leash then Toronto, who saw the expectations immediately rise to Cup or bust once John Tavares signed.
Even if Buffalo had gotten a Tavares-type player with Babcock, there would’ve been a different GM/Coach connection given Tim Murray had pegged Babcock as his guy. Once Lou Lamoriello was ousted for Kyle Dubas by Brendan Shanahan you had an idea this marriage may not make it if success didn’t follow.
The coach taking over for the Maple Leafs is their AHL coach Sheldon Keefe who has recently won the Calder Cup with the Toronto Marlies and helped develop many of the Leafs young players. Dubas and Keefe have a very tight and close relationship which should bode well for Toronto.
Back when the Sabres were looking for a new head coach, Keefe was a guy I liked given his analytical approach and fresh mindset out there. Unfortunately, he was not open for interviews partially because of the potential that Babcock would be gone in the future. With Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs have gone all-in with this coach and GM’s new wave approach. Between connecting with the players better and putting out lineups that better exploit matchups against their competition this should be a good fit. If it struggles, Dubas himself may be counting the days he has left as GM when you factor in their tight cap situation also.
As for Babcock, it will be interesting to see what happens. He absolutely can find another head coaching job but some of the shine has worn off and he may be just a good coach, not the great one Canadian press has made him out to be.
Considering that he has not won a playoff series since 2013, one of his three Cup runs was effective because JS Giguere was a stone wall in goal for Anaheim, and much of his success in Detroit comes from a ready-made core with the best defenseman in hockey (Niklas Lidstrom) in the last three decades.
With that said, Babcock’s resume is strong and does include the resurrection of Toronto from doormats to a highly-competitive roster, which should intrigue a good number of teams out there if he wants to continue coaching.