Toronto Maple Leafs Fire Mike Babcock: Shanaplan Takes Dangerous Detour

Mike Babcock

“There’s pain coming.” On the day he was hired as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock sat in front of the Toronto media and promised suffering. It was a refreshing bit of honesty, seldom seen from representatives of a team that in preceding years had made a habit of over promising and under delivering. Finally, thought many, the team had found a man with the necessary patience, pedigree and practicality to lead them out of their historically long Stanley Cup drought. Few suspected that the “pain” Babcock predicted would eventually become his to own.

Toronto Maple Leafs Fire Mike Babcock

On Nov. 20, 2019, Mike Babcock was fired. The move came just 23 games into his fifth season with the team, despite the Leafs steady improvement under his leadership prior to this season. By prematurely removing one of the last leaders with championship pedigree from the organization, Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have taken a tremendous risk. The team that has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 just fired the only leader in the organization besides Brendan Shanahan, who has.

Calming Influence of Mike Babcock’s Track Record

Great National Hockey League coaches do not grow on trees. In the early days after Mike Babcock’s hire, Tim Leiweke, then the CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, applauded Brendan Shanahan for dreaming big and getting “the big whale.” He called Babcock a “phenomenal coach” and said his hiring “should give everyone hope about the future of the organization.”

Those were not just empty words. Babcock arrived in Toronto with a tremendous track record. He had won two Olympic Gold Medals, and the World Cup of Hockey as the head coach of Team Canada. He also had three Stanley Cup finals appearances, winning the ultimate prize with the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08. Babcock instantly brought credibility and championship pedigree to a city that had been sorely lacking in both since 1967.

At his introductory press conference, Babcock himself preached the virtues he would bring. Stability. Consistency. Strong work ethic. Perhaps most importantly, safety. Above all, he wanted to make Toronto a safe place for players to play again. Because of his record, people listened. Overnight, the media and the city seemingly calmed down. Babcock preached patience, and the team began its rebuild.

Initial Success

After one year out of the playoffs, he led the Leafs to three 100-point seasons. Under his guidance, the Leafs improved noticeably each season. Players from other teams, who had previously wanted nothing to do with the toxic Toronto pressure cooker and its history, suddenly were eager to be a part of what the Leafs were building. During this time, the Leafs signed respected players like Patrick Marleau and John Tavares to free agent deals. Everything appeared to be trending upwards. Mike Babcock’s credibility and stellar track record had in fact made Toronto a “safe” and desirable destination for players.

2019 Struggles

This season, the team got off to an uninspiring start. The media began to panic. Players noticeably lost confidence. Tyson Barrie had a mere three points in 20 games prior to Babcock’s firing, well below his career average, and was poor defensively. Barrie was not alone. The team’s inconsistent play persisted, culminating in a six-game losing streak over the past couple weeks. Suddenly, it looked as though the Leafs’ players were no longer feeling secure.

In their press conference on Nov. 21, 2019, Brendan Shanahan noted that the players were “frustrated and lacked belief.” Kyle Dubas highlighted the importance of each individual player reaching their maximum potential. Both noted the ability of Sheldon Keefe to “maximize the capabilities of each player,” noting that Babcock had done that “at times.”

Reading between the lines, it seemed that Babcock lacked that adaptability with certain players. The recent story concerning Babcock dividing Mitch Marner from the rest of his teammates during his rookie year in a bid to make them all work harder, also confirms that the coach sometimes used questionable tactics that would alienate certain players.

Analysis

The question now is what to make of Babcock’s firing. The Leafs made the decision to fire Mike Babcock astonishingly quickly. They gave very little rope to an established NHL coach with a Hall of Fame track record. Between opening night in 2018 and 2019, there were 13 new players on the Leafs’ roster. Some would argue his firing came before he had a chance to fully adapt to the overhauled lineup he had been given this year.

Babcock’s firing is also seemingly part of a broader culling of old style coaches from the game of hockey. There is increasing debate in hockey circles about whether certain types of coaches (including those who have a track record of success within the game), can properly motivate and develop this new generation of hockey players, many of whom do not respond to the old tactics.

Any time a coach gets fired, one also has to question whether there are fatal roster flaws that contributed to that coaches’ demise. Firing the coach mid-season can shock the players into better performance. But it is also arguable that it lets players off the hook, particularly where they allow their dislike of the coach in question to affect their effort.

Babcock was a legendary worker, often reporting for work at 5 am. Too frequently, this current mix of Leafs’ players failed to mirror his strong work ethic, particularly in the defensive zone. The question is whether Sheldon Keefe can fix that collective character flaw over the long term.

Final Thought

Mike Babcock brought instant credibility and stability to the Leafs’ organization. When the team occasionally struggled, his track record frequently acted as a shield to protect the team from criticism.

In Toronto’s supercharged hockey market, that shield is now gone.

The “Shanaplan” is now in the hands of a rookie head coach and a young general manager. They both have well documented novel approaches to the game of hockey, and a track record of junior hockey success. It remains to be seen whether this approach translates to the highest level of hockey. Sheldon Keefe’s early success indicates he could be up to the task.

Despite this, in firing Babcock, the Leafs have effectively taken their currently unreliable Fiat, hired a rookie coach, told him that it’s a supercharged Mercedes. And then tasked him with driving it on the Autobahn. If Sheldon Keefe isn’t a very skilled driver, the Shanaplan is in danger of becoming a smouldering wreckage.

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15 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Matt… with respect, you are late to the game. This decision was not made quickly. There are reports that Dubas wanted to make this move after the playoffs, but was held back by Shanny. They have given Babs plenty of rope.

    Babs is a good coach – or at the very least has a HoF record. But he really seemed for quite sometime to be a square peg in a round hole. He never seemed to get the most out of this roster. This is particularly evident in the special team failures, playoff failures, player deployment, inflexibility, to say nothing of his chaffing personality.

    Albeit in a small sample size, Keefe has this team playing a style that seems to be maximizing its skill. This is clearly evident over the last three games. There are still defensive deficiencies to be sure, but they are playing to their strengths. And it is not simply a matter of a coaching-bump. Where was the bump when Peter Horachek replaces Randy Carlyle? I think this is more about Keefe’s approach, a style that emphasizes puck support over stretch passes and dump-ins.

    Time will tell, of course. Babs is probably still an excellent coach for a team with a roster that suits his style. In this case, the leafs weren’t that team. I don’t believe the Shanaplan is in danger at all. The future, however, is unwritten. We’ll find out.

    SLM

  2. Babcock won a cup and olympic and World Cup gold becuase he had stacked teams, not because he was a good coach. They won depite him not because of him. In fact, I think his time in Detroit was a failure, considering he only won one cup with a team that talented…

  3. “The Leafs made the decision to fire Mike Babcock astonishingly quickly. They gave very little rope to an established NHL coach with a Hall of Fame track record. Between opening night in 2018 and 2019, there were 13 new players on the Leafs’ roster.”

    You’re kidding right? Since last year at this time – one full year, the Leafs have been at best a .500 hockey team. In 4 years as bench boss in Toronto, not once did they play sound defense.

    Explain something…how did they not give him enough of a chance?

  4. Worse article ever! I’m guessing you watch zero hockey games….Get a new job because this is the worst sports article that I’ve read in maybe 10 years……

  5. 2 gold medals and a World cup of hockey championship: All-star line-ups where, players play and put up with coaching tactics for a shorter period of time.

    These are to tried and tested leaders not a group of younger talent looking to become leaders.

    Detroit and Anaheim: stacked teams with hall of famers the former of which was coached by Scotty Bowman?

    I think Babcock’s reputation has outshined his abilities. I thank him for all he’s done but this team needs a players coach, for whom, skilled players are willing to play defense with strong work ethic.

  6. If you are within any type of attainable distance to the hockey world you’d know that it was not astonishly quick …. it was a ticking time bomb and well known that he was not well liked… so it was a matter of being hated and winning vs. being hated and losing. And by being hated I mean enormous amounts of people.

  7. Hey Matt, I enjoy your stuff, but I think you’re offside comparing the team to an unreliable Fiat. We’ve got some pedigree horses in the barn. I think you’ll find that with a very little fine tuning they will be as track worthy as any other serious contender in the league.

  8. “By prematurely removing one of the last leaders with championship pedigree from the organization, Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have taken a tremendous risk.”

    Serious?! This is possibly the most laughable thought of your article Matt. Premature? The team was floundering and was clearly not moving forward. Mike Babcock may have been a good coach but he’s always had good teams to ice. He failed to make the most of the team. The only risk averted here appears to be risking making the playoffs. This team already looks better, happier and edgier.

    I totally disagree with your opinion.

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