Those familiar with junior hockey will remember “Babs’’ as a highly decorated Spokane Chiefs bench boss in the 1990s. He later guided the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final, the Detroit Red Wings to two more and a championship and Team Canada to two Olympic gold medals and a world title.
Some are brushing off those achievements as products of good players around him. But guess what? Good teams have good players. Others argue Babcock, 56, saw his coaching style badly exposed in Toronto, where he never escaped the first playoff round and wasn’t always popular.
It’s true Babcock rubbed some guys wrong. And true about the playoffs. But it’s also worth considering some important context surrounding the Maple Leafs, a franchise prone to making supposedly great coaches look like bumbling fools.
The Leafs haven’t survived the first round under any coach since 2004 and missed the playoffs entirely in nine of 10 seasons before Babcock arrived and got them there the last three years.
Babcock’s championship with Detroit is one more than the Leafs have going on 53 years and his three appearances in the Final are three more.
Toronto has four daily newspapers, the largest of which I spent eight years covering Major League Baseball for. It has two national sports-television networks, two national sports-radio networks and countless bloggers, freelance statistical analysts and armchair fans that can argue hockey with the best of them.
Combined with zero Cup appearances for the Leafs since Lyndon B. Johnson was U.S. President, it’s the recipe for extraordinary, angst-driven attention focused on a franchise that – quite frankly – doesn’t deserve it. An old NHL joke is that the only surefire route to the Hockey Hall of Fame is to have been a fourth-line winger for the 1967 Leafs – whose championship legend grows each year the current team comes nowhere near a title.
Sure, Toronto’s media know hockey, perhaps better than all but one or two peer markets. But intense competition there for stories to feed an incessant demand for all things Leafs creates disproportionate expectations for a franchise with no modern track record of success.
And that unyielding spotlight makes it difficult for any Leafs coach.
Imagine the Mariners firing managers every few seasons simply for not winning the World Series. Remember, Babcock made the playoffs the past three seasons and compiled an overall Toronto record of 173-133-45.
Others fired in Toronto the past two decades alone include Paul Maurice, Pat Quinn, Pat Burns, Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle. Combined with Babcock, that’s two Hall of Famers, five Coach of the Year nods, three Stanley Cup championships, nine Cup appearances, three Olympic gold medals, two world championships and two World Cup titles.
Look, I’ll agree Babcock somewhat deserved his fate. When you’re the highest-paid coach in NHL history with a bloated payroll in an Original Six market, you must deliver quickly and his Leafs didn’t in the playoffs.
But that doesn’t make Babcock a bad coach. Nor erase prior accomplishments, which made him the most sought-after coach in the NHL by 2015.
NHL Seattle would do well to gamble on Babcock rebounding after he’s had ample time to recharge and ponder what went wrong. There’s no reason to hire Babcock this far out, but since he’ll likely take a prolonged vacation on the Leafs’ dime anyway, he’s worth keeping in mind for an eventual earlier approach next summer than Seattle’s spring 2021 target for landing a coach.
Seattle won’t have a stable of high-priced, underachieving young stars to weigh Babcock down as they learn to grow up. But the expansion team will face pressure to win regularly, something Babcock — who has made the playoffs 14 of 15 seasons — is known for. NHL Seattle also has a general manager in Ron Francis more of Babcock’s generation than Kyle Dubas in Toronto.
It’s possible the analytics-heavy, offensively focused Leafs roster construction by Dubas, a first-time GM who never played professionally, is as much to blame for Toronto’s woes. Sure, Francis also leans on analytics, but played at a Hall of Fame level and understands the pro game’s intricacies.
Some of those involve human communication, which is why due diligence still must be done on Babcock. His reputation for arrogance, stubbornness and an iron-fisted approach didn’t always work with veterans and youngsters alike.
But it’s also his first firing. And that can motivate any taskmaster — Scotty Bowman says hello — to embrace change. How much change Babcock requires is debatable, coming off consecutive 100-point seasons. But any new team will want his plans for getting results out of modern players known to tune coaches out quicker than their predecessors.
That said, this Johnny-come-lately analysis of any Cup-winning coach or GM over age 55 being past their prime the first sign of real trouble is getting tiresome.
Most recently, GM Ken Holland was “yesterday’s man” in Detroit before his current Edmonton Oilers vaulted overnight from fourth worst in the NHL to a tie for second best. And Joel Quenneville’s coaching supposedly no longer resonated with young players until his new Florida Panthers squad posted the Eastern Conference’s fourth-best record at the quarter point of the season.
Hey, maybe Babcock really is done. But his Toronto stint isn’t nearly enough evidence.
NHL Seattle isn’t after a first-time, unproven coach. It will need to amalgamate players from different teams and systems and that requires an experienced, proven hand.
And Babcock, needed tweaking aside, is still the most proven coach out there.