The Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday after a 9-10-4 start to the 2019-20 season. It marks the third time since the start of the 2011-12 season that the Leafs have made an in-season coaching change, this one coming amid a five-game losing streak.
Babcock was a splashy hire in 2015 and helped the Maple Leafs to three 40-win and playoff seasons in four full campaigns. But each ended with a first-round exit, despite high expectations. The Maple Leafs now turn to Sheldon Keefe.
What does it mean? NHL insiders Greg Wyshynski and Emily Kaplan answer the biggest lingering questions, including what happens next for both Babcock and the Maple Leafs and how they grade the move.
Did the Maple Leafs really have to do this? It's not even December!
Kaplan: No, they didn't have to. They could have given Babcock a little more time, especially with a healthy roster. Last season, the Leafs' best line was John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, and the three have barely been able to play together so far this season (Marner is out at least another three weeks). They also could have blamed porous backup goaltending (that's an issue management could have fixed) or found a variety of other excuses.
But this is clearly a signal that management -- specifically team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas -- thought Babcock's message had grown stale with the players, and there needed to be a fix before the team spiraled. At least now there's a chance to salvage the season. And I wouldn't look past this as a coincidence: Babcock was fired on Nov. 20. Mike Yeo was fired by the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 19. The team then went from last place to eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Wyshynski: Yeah, I think it was necessary. The season was spiraling, with a six-game winless streak that featured five straight losses. The Leafs looked like a group of individuals that had no interest in hearing whatever message Babcock was selling, and the stats reflected that: Underwhelming offense (3.13 goals per game) that could no longer overcome the porous defense (3.43 goals against per game) that had become a hallmark of Babcock's teams. In three straight seasons, the Leafs failed to advance out of the first round. Their current quality of play combined with that lack of results would have sent any head coach packing, even a brand name such as Mike Babcock.
Wait, didn't Babcock just sign a massive, eight-year, $50 million contract a few years ago? This is a pretty shocking firing, no?
Wyshynski: The only reason this feels like a surprise is because Babcock has four years left on an elephantine contract and because he's Mike Babcock, a coach whose reputation was inflated by an all-time goalie performance by Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003, a Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings team carried by the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, and gold medals with the unbeatable superstars of Team Canada. A critical look at this Leafs team shows systemic problems. That's either construction or coaching. Team president Brendan Shanahan, who was instrumental in bringing in Babcock four years ago, apparently has decided it was coaching.
Honestly, the only surprise is the timing: Babcock had all three of his stars -- Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner -- in the lineup for but a few games this season. One assumed he'd get that shot. But apparently time had run out.
OK, but how much of the Leafs' struggles can we put on the coach?
Kaplan: There is certainly an element of this team not looking prepared and not looking energized. Consider that the Maple Leafs have played in 23 games this season. In 18 of them, the Leafs have allowed the first goal. (In games in which Toronto scores first, the team is 3-1-1). We knew the defense was supposed to be mediocre, but the Leafs were built to have a dynamic offense. The fact that they always fell behind and couldn't overcome those deficits is an issue, especially considering the sizable chunk of their salary cap that they're spending on the forward group. The Leafs are the only team in the league with three forwards making more than $10 million.
What is your lasting memory of Babcock's time in Toronto?
Wyshynski: His hiring. For decades, the Maple Leafs chased big-name, Ontario-born free agents to come "home" and help the franchise win its first Stanley Cup since 1967. Babcock, it could be argued, was the first one who took up the challenge. I'll always remember his introductory media conference, which was as grandiose as what you'd expect for a star player being signed. (And contentious, too, as reporters from Buffalo peppered him with questions about spurning the Sabres and their money for the Leafs.) It was a moment when you thought Babcock was going to either have a statue built in his honor or become just another disappointing chapter in the Leafs' book of failure. Now we know.
Will he be hired quickly somewhere else? Which team might be in need of his services?
Kaplan: The NHL is a retread league. General managers rarely think outside the box for coaching hires. Consider that Rikard Gronborg, the Swedish national coach, made his rounds for NHL interviews for nearly two years before he signed a deal in Switzerland. Nobody wanted to take the risk, even though Gronborg was the guy who coached nearly every elite Swede in the NHL. So yes, Mike Babcock will find a new NHL home. I'm just not sure when. There currently aren't any other openings, and there aren't any coaches on an extremely hot seat.
One situation to monitor is in New Jersey. The Devils need to make the playoffs to convince Taylor Hall to stay. They're not looking close to a playoff team now, so maybe management will part with John Hynes and make a desperate attempt to save the season with Babcock. Otherwise, I see Babcock doing what Joel Quenneville did last season. Take the rest of the campaign off and relax. Then in the offseason, Babcock can be choosy about which situation is best for him. He's being paid $6.25 million not to coach, so there's no urgency other than pride -- or restlessness.
What about the new head coach? Who is Sheldon Keefe?
Wyshynski: Keefe played 125 games in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning but mostly bounced around the American Hockey League. In 2012-13, he was hired by current Leafs GM Kyle Dubas to coach the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. Dubas hired him again in 2015 to coach the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. The 39-year-old led them to at least the second round of the playoffs in each of his seasons there and won the Calder Cup championship in 2018. This is Kyle Dubas' guy. After years of reported friction between the 33-year-old GM and Babcock, perhaps this puts things in better alignment behind the scenes.
What will this move do for the star players?
Kaplan: This is serious adversity for Auston Matthews, who hasn't had to deal with a coaching change in his career until now. Ditto for Mitch Marner. It's a situation such as this in which I think management feels good about its decision to make John Tavares the captain. He has been there, done that. When Tavares was captain of the Islanders, the team fired Jack Capuano midway through the 2016-17 season and replaced him with Doug Weight, so Tavares can fall back on experience. Although Keefe helped develop a lot of Leafs players during his time with the Marlies, he never had Marner or Matthews, so there's no familiarity (William Nylander did spend parts of two seasons with the Marlies). Keefe is detailed-oriented and will demand structure, which the star players are all capable of delivering; they just need to buy in.
Will it improve the Leafs' chances for this season?
Wyshynski: Yes. As the prophet Alex Ovechkin said this season when asked to analyze the Leafs: "For them, they're still a young group of guys. I hope they're going to learn, but it's up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Stanley Cup, they have to play differently." They were not going to play differently under Babcock. They hadn't for three seasons. The only chance this team had to contend this season was with a different voice behind the bench. Hopefully Keefe is that voice. If he isn't, the Leafs have some serious configuring of their roster to do -- and very little cap space with which to do it.
Kaplan: I think this could give the players a jolt, just like what we saw from the Blues last season. They know they are on the clock and mediocrity will not be accepted. I don't know much about Sheldon Keefe's style, but I do know this anecdote from the Blues last season. When Craig Berube was brought in as the interim coach, in some of his first meetings with the teams he laid into everybody. He called out players for being selfish. He criticized them for not being a team. The result speaks for itself. Guys responded to the new message.
How do you grade the decision to move on from Babcock?
Kaplan: B. If Babcock truly was on such a short leash, I wish the team would have made the move over the summer. A change was necessary, though.
Wyshynski: A-. I'm surprised it happened now but not surprised it had to happen after the Leafs' postseason flops, regular-season struggles and the canary in the coal mine that was Babcock's assistant coaches being replaced. But don't weep for Mike Babcock. He has four years left on a blockbuster contract. And hey, maybe Team Canada needs a coach.