Today was a lot of fun. First the Leafs were out of it, then they were back in it, and then somehow they ended up getting the coach that they wanted all along. I know I haven’t had a good long Twitter refresh craze like that in quite some time.
So as the dust begins to settle on the Leafs’ hiring of Mike Babcock as the 30th head coach in franchise history, we can now begin to look more broadly at some of the implications that this move has for the team now and in the future. Babcock is a significant addition, and yet he’s only one significant move in a myriad of changes that the organization is making as they begin an attempt to rebuild the team from scratch. Let’s take a closer look at what Babcock means for the Leafs and what changes it could imply.
THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE
Mike Babcock immediately makes the Leafs a better team. Throughout his coaching career, Babcock has boasted gaudy on-ice numbers while creating an admirable off-ice culture rooted in discipline, hard work, and responsibility.
Granted, the Leafs roster isn’t very good. It certainly won’t be easy for Babcock to get this team to where it wants to go. But his reputation as a hockey mind, as a leader, and as a coach certainly leaves significant room for optimism.
Say what you want about the roster Babcock had to work with in Detroit versus what he’ll have to work with in Toronto. That’s a very fair argument. I believe that a bad team with a good coach is still a bad team. But, there are varying degrees of bad. There’s Randy Carlyle bad, where the team is bad and the coach is bad. If the team is going to lose, I’d certainly prefer they look good while doing it, which could very well be what happens under Babcock for now.
But could the Leafs actually win as early as next season under Babcock? Could they make the playoffs? Who knows. With strong puck possession numbers and some good goaltending it isn’t out of the question.
And those who have previously played under Babcock are big believers. Former Red Wings goalie Manny Legace had this to say when asked if Mike Babcock could handle losing for a couple of years in Toronto: “I don’t think it’ll take him a couple years . . . I really don’t.”
If nothing else, Babcock provides a big upgrade from the likes of Randy Carlyle and even Peter Horachek as far as putting the team in a position to succeed goes. And that’s really all you can ask to get from your coach.
This one is a bit more interesting. Sure, Babcock is an upgrade at coach. We already knew that though. What we don’t know is what Babcock’s hiring means for the long-term future of this team. After all, every expectation has been that the team will be undergoing an extensive rebuild that sees them tear down the current roster. Does that plan change at all under Babcock?
I still think you need to tear it down. Sure, put the likes of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in a system run by Mike Babcock and you might be able to get more out of them. But like I said, a bad team with a good coach is still a bad team. And this team, in spite of now having a great coach, isn’t good enough to contend as currently constructed.
Tyler Bozak is still your “first line center”. Dion Phaneuf, as your #1 minute-eater and team captain, is now 30 years old and clearly on the decline. The team’s cupboard of prospects is nearly barren. The roster just isn’t good enough to sustain winning long-term and Mike Babcock doesn’t change that at all.
But, can you speed the process up a bit? Do you maybe hold on to someone like Phil Kessel?
I still think the answer is no. You have to do this thing the right way, which means tearing it down, accumulating lots of draft picks, and getting way younger. At the same time though, it’s tough to imagine that, in spite of all the money and organizational influence the Leafs are giving to Babcock, he would come here without some belief that he could win with this team. It’s tough to imagine he’d want to come here if his understanding was that the team would be losing most of their hockey games for 5 years or longer.
So I guess the boring answer to the question of how much Mike Babcock changes the long-term future of this team is “I don’t know”. That’s something that hopefully becomes at least in part more clear at tomorrow’s 11AM press conference. The team still needs a significant overhaul to it’s roster, but it’s tough to picture Babcock wanting to be a part of that. At the same time though, he did sign on for 8 years. Someone as calculated as Babcock may very well be willing to sit through short-term pain for long-term gain. Babcock as much as anyone seems to have a commitment to “doing things the right way”, and so he’s probably come to terms with that to some extent. And hey, if you can stomach a few years of losing in exchange for potentially bringing a Stanley Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs, well, that’s absolutely worth it.
Maybe the team thinks Babcock is enough to put the rebuild on hold. Maybe they think that if they can create a puck possession powerhouse they can win sooner rather than later through unconventional means. But if I’m a betting man, I’d still say the team undergoes a significant rebuild with Babcock as the coach to make sure the Leafs’ have a new program in place that demands excellence right from day one.
Mike Babcock (probably) only changes the immediate and long-term future of this team marginally. But it does look like his hiring could influence how the team constructs its front office in a big way.
The Leafs, of course, still need a GM. However, indications are that Mike Babcock could have some say in managerial decisions as part of his new deal with the Leafs. So how does that change the management structure moving forward?
Maybe you just roll with what you’ve got. Even before the Leafs landed Babcock there were plenty of fans calling for the team to just stick with the current front office of Brendan Shanahan, Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas, and Brandon Pridham. After all, how many more people in your front office do you really need?
All that considered, it might not make sense to go out and get an additional person for the front office, especially with Mike Babcock now in the loop.
But who knows. The Leafs seem very content to go against the traditional grain of how a hockey team should be run. The Babcock hiring in itself reflects that. But if the Leafs are a really big fan of someone, say Sean Burke, I don’t think they would hesitate to add them into the mix either.
In any event, this does change things. Whether the team names a GM from within or goes out and gets someone else, Babcock could have some managerial influence. Either way, the coach is going to have some input and that is going to change the dynamic. It’ll be really interesting to see what exactly the Leafs do now at GM. Speculation is abound that, while Brendan Shanahan would keep “final say” on personnel decisions, maybe Mark Hunter could be named the club’s new General Manager. After all, it appears he was a big part of helping to land Mike Babcock in Toronto in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, the Leafs are certainly going to be operating under an unorthodox managerial structure moving forward.
QUESTIONS THAT STILL NEED ANSWERING
As much as we now know about the Leafs’ situation, there are still more questions than answers. Here is some of what remains largely unknown to the outside world that we’ll have to continue to keep our eye’s on moving forward:
- Who will the GM be?
- Who will the assistant coaches be?
- Does hiring Mike Babcock change the team’s plan for a rebuild?
- What, other than a significant amount of money and executive sway, ultimately convinced Babcock to choose Toronto over the likes of Detroit, Buffalo, and San Jose?
- When does the team hope to be, in the truest sense of the word, competitive?
- Does Mike Babcock change the team’s intention of trading away the likes of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf?
- Which other players might the team either look to keep or trade now that Babcock is the head coach? Which players stand to gain from this hiring and which players stand to lose from it?
Again, hopefully tomorrow’s press conference shines additional light on some of these questions. But the reality is we are probably going to be kept guessing for a long time, only to have the moves that the team ends up making in the coming weeks and months to serve as possible answers.
I would say that objectively speaking Mike Babcock was the best coach available and the Leafs got him. That’s great news for Toronto. More subjectively though, is he the right person for the job? Would someone else be more tailored for a rebuilding roster? That’s hard to say. And in reality, we won’t know the answer to that question for a very long time.
But that question also doesn’t matter. Mike Babcock is now the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He immediately, in more ways than one, significantly changes how the team will be run on a day-to-day basis. He’s here now and he’s here to stay for a good long while.
The Leafs promised changes this off-season. They’ve already made some pretty big ones. And today’s move is just one on a long continuum as the team looks to new frontiers in the hopes of finally making not just their hockey team, but their entire organization, one that is world class. We’ll see if hiring Mike Babcock helps them achieve that goal.
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