The Rise, Fall and Firing of Mike Babcock
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When Mike Babcock was in the final year of his contract with the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014/15 season, there was an extension on the table by then-general manager Ken Holland to stay longer, being in his 10th season with the team and well on their way to making the postseason, something they did all 10 years he was there as head coach. Babcock would not sign it, indicating he wanted to see what happens leading to speculation of what else could be out there at season's end.
Meanwhile in Toronto, the Maple Leafs had just fired then-head coach Randy Carlyle mid-season and replaced him with assistant Peter Horachek on an interim basis and although they were currently in a playoff spot at the time of the firing, 1st-year president Brendan Shanahan had seen enough after 40 games and decided to make the change anyway.
The Leafs would get a lot worse in the 2nd half of that season, as the players on the team barely put any effort into any of the remaining games as they knew what everyone and their next-door neighbour knew at the time - Mike Babcock was leaving Detroit at season's end and moving on to a new challenge to the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs.
After signing a deal that would pay him 50 million dollars over 8 years making him the highest-paid coach in NHL history, the 2015/16 season would be all about implementing his coaching system with mostly make-shift and journeymen veterans that filled out the roster, as the Leafs would finish dead last in the league and win the lottery to get the first overall pick in the 2016 draft.
That would land them Auston Matthews, a generational franchise centre that would be the perfect young star player to build the team around.
When the 2016/17 season started, the roster would then feature a number of rookies to go with the acquisition of goaltender Frederik Anderson, who was someone then-GM Lou Lamiorello acquired to give Babcock his wish of someone in net "who I can win with". The team up front at forward had Matthews along with number 4 overall pick in 2015, young sensation Mitch Marner and the 8th overall pick in 2014, William Nylander to give them a 1-2 punch at right wing and a core trio for years to come.
Very few players were still on the roster from the year before, as only a handful survived of whom wanted to play under Babcock on this new, young Maple Leafs squad. There were still very little expectations; but throughout Babcock's 13-year NHL career, he never missed the playoffs in back-to-back years.
In a turn of events that saw Toronto make the playoffs in the spring of 2017 after a full 82-game season for the first time since the final year of the pre-salary cap era in 2004, these young Mike Babcock coached Leafs would get their first taste of postseason only to fall short to a veteran Washington Capitals team in 6 games.
The new Leafs have now arrived; they had turned it around to become a contender for years to come.
The 2017/18 season saw the Leafs break a franchise record with 105 points, topping the mark set by the Pat Quinn-led 2003/04 team that had 103 as Babcock became just the 2nd coach in franchise history to get 100 or more points in a season.
That would end with a dismal loss in Game 7 of the 1st Round in Boston, reminiscent of a place they lost back in the 2013 shortened season albeit there were only 5 players on each side still left in the rematch 5 years later.
Last season in 2018/19 the same exact scenario happened as the Leafs hit exactly 100 points only to fall to the mighty Bruins in the TD Garden in Game 7 once again, this time even having a 3-2 series lead but blowing a chance to close it out at home in an afternoon game on Easter Sunday only to fall short and have the same exact result as the year before.
There was speculation after the 2019 playoffs saw a 2nd straight exit to the Boston Bruins and 3rd year overall they got bounced in the 1st Round that for the first time in his 4-year tenure, talk started to arise about whether or not Babcock should still be the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs or should he be relieved of his duties.
In my views, the beginning of the end may have started in that exact Game 7 in Boston as the honeymoon with Leafs Nation looked to be officially over, with a couple of glaring mistakes that seemed to be made by a head coach believed a few years ago to be the best in the league.
With 15 minutes left in Game 7 down 2 goals by a score of 3-1, I spotted 4th-line centre Frederik Gauthier on the ice. Now while I am a "Freddy The Goat" fan, it struck me as a very foolish move to still roll all 4 lines in that situation. When you are down in the score in a close game in Game 7, you have to shorten your bench - that is a no-brainer. Star #1 Centre Auston Matthews did not see a lot of ice time in the 3rd period, leaving myself and many Leaf fans to scratch their heads wondering why any coach would do this for no rhyme or reason.
This was followed by an off-season with their young stars like Matthews and Marner getting long term extensions amongst the top paid players in the league following the expiration of their 3-year entry level contracts.
The team has now entered a next stage; the expectations are extremely high as the roster is now Stanley Cup winning calibre including major upgrades to the biggest weakness they have always had on the roster, defence. It's now or never; it's go time - and the Leafs 2019/20 season and going forward will only be measured as success or failure when they get to the playoffs. Regular season? Means nothing at this point as they are expected to be at the top of the standings like they have been the past 2 years.
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Following another 1st round exit, it was a long summer for the Buds as there was a lot of chatter in Leafs Nation about how the coach is stubborn, stuck in his ways, won't change things when need be (his lineup was almost the exact same the entire year for the rosters he had the previous 2 seasons, but nobody questioned it due to success and the bottom line - wins) and started to question his credibility, as a head coach.
In my eyes there was clearly one major problem in all 3 facets of a hockey team - so to make the argument of both for and against Mike Babcock in the 1st 23 games of this 2019/20 season, here goes, starting between the pipes:
GOALTENDING: The Leafs had an elite, top-10 in the league starting goaltender in Freddy Andersen, at least in my mind. Backing him up was Michael Hutchinson, who started so poorly that there was really nothing Babcock could do in those games where he played his backup in back-to-back situations, as those games were un-winnable for any coach.
The complaint was that the starter was in for the 1st game of the 2 back-to-back games regardless of who the 2 opponents were, especially if your talking about divisional and/or conference games vs Western Conference teams that are not in the same playoff race. I believe the teams involved did not have a lot of disparity; plus I don't think you're worrying too much about what divisional or conference team you're playing your #1 goalie against in the month of October.
This one is on General Manager Kyle Dubas; he constructed a contending roster except for this backup goalie position, who won't even see the ice in the playoffs anyway. The 0-5-1 record compiled by this spot might have cost Babcock his job alone.
DEFENCE: Morgan Rielly is an elite, future Norris Trophy defenceman that was the 5th overall pick in 2012 and the only player that survived the entire 4+ year Mike Babcock era. For a change, the team now clearly had 4 guys that are Top-4 defencemen with the acquisitions of Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci in less than the last calendar year.
Babcock refused to switch up the defence pairs after clearly playing horribly defensively in front of their goaltending night after night and instead of putting Barrie in a position to succeed such as paired with Rielly putting Muzzin and Ceci together as somewhat of a shut-down pair, he demoted him to the 3rd pairing giving him less ice-time - and that would be Babcock's final game as coach of the Leafs.
It seemed that whenever fans and media wanted something to change, he would read it and do the complete opposite just to prove a point.
FORWARDS: All forwards when healthy have been producing as advertised with expectations. But why oh why does he make off-season acquisition in hometown boy Jason Spezza a healthy scratch on a regular basis, including opening night when they were playing at home against Spezza's old Ottawa Senators team and doing it in favour of Nick Shore is beyond me.
This is an example of how Babcock would do something just to prove a point that he is the coach and makes all the final lineup decisions and nobody else. Losing Captain John Tavares for 3 weeks and then Marner towards the end didn't help his cause, but they were so deep up front that injuries should not be used as any type of excuse. The scoring went down although not by much, but whatever they had at this point was not enough.
POWER PLAY: The personnel being used had questionable decisions, using 4 forwards and a defenceman despite the fact you now had Barrie on the roster plus injuries to boot. Not changing the power play strategies, making it obvious for the other teams once they watch film on you; all that talent and being middle-of-the-pack in the league.
PENALTY KILLING: One of the worst in the league.
GOALS AGAINST: One of the worst in the league.
And on and on and on - but in the end, a lot of these problems could have been swept under the rug if the team was winning, but they weren't, instead they went on a 6-game losing streak and continued to spiral downwards.
I still say that a veteran, proven coach like Mike Babcock could have worked his way out of the mess given it was only a quarter of the way into the season, but it seems something else was going on in that dressing room that smelt really bad to the point where it could not be repaired.
All indications suggest that not only were Babcock and Dubas not on the same page, they weren't even in the same book. There must have been a lot of arguments between the two behind the scenes, especially once the team started losing, which ultimately led to his dismissal.