By James Mirtle
Nov 21, 2019
Uploladed by: Martin Arnold
Mirtle: The Babcock-Dubas marriage was doomed from the start, as old school resisted the new
GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was no thank you to Brendan Shanahan in the farewell note. Or Kyle Dubas.
Only the owner and, notably, the former GM, Lou Lamoriello, who helped him “set franchise records” in Toronto.
That makes sense, as the Maple Leafs president and GM played the decisive role in Mike Babcock’s firing Wednesday afternoon here in Arizona. Not everyone is going to thank the man who summons him to his hotel room to be let go, 4 1/2 years into an eight-year contract.
But the reality is Babcock did a poor job of making allies the past few years. It was clear how Dubas felt after the Leafs’ first-round exit in April, as he left his coach’s return wide open to speculation for nearly two weeks before giving a short statement to TSN’s Bob McKenzie that they were on the same page.
That was either reckless or intentional. I believe in option No. 2.
Firing Babcock was always going to be a complicated move, given he was hired by Shanahan back in 2015, and the structure of the Leafs front office. There were always more voices at play than just Dubas’.
Seven months ago he didn’t get what he obviously wanted when he left Babcock twisting in the wind.
Now, he has. This team — the roster, its identity, its coach — are all his.
And now, it just needs to work.
Looking back at this, all of it, it’s a mess. Dubas’ unwillingness to endorse Babcock in April didn’t go unnoticed by the Leafs players, most of whom weren’t sad Wednesday to see the coach go.
So when things went sideways early this season — even when some of the underlying causes weren’t coaching-related — there was almost a perverse incentive for them to tank until the coach was gone. Only they know for sure whether they did, but losses like the one in Pittsburgh last weekend certainly fit into that narrative.
At the very least, they didn’t appear to fully buy into the same “grind” message Babcock had been selling them for years.
Immediately after the Leafs were eliminated by Boston in Game 7 in late April, colleague Jonas Siegel wrote that “Mike Babcock needs to show he can change for the Leafs to take the next step.”
Then the offseason unfolded and the roster got more and more Dubas-y, with Babcock guys such as Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown and others swapped for more skilled models such as Nic Petan and Jason Spezza.
Nearly half the roster turned over, and it became even more evident that Babcock would have to adapt to his new cast more than bend them to his will.
No, not really. I struggle to think of any innovative shift or personnel decision he made this year. The forward lines and D pairs were about what everyone expected they would be and the messaging when games were won or lost remained the same. The system being preached was also basically the same, according to some players.
“It’s pretty similar,” Morgan Rielly said earlier this week.
And whenever Babcock was asked about needing to prove himself, given the expectations on his club, there was never any hesitation.
Mike Babcock bets on Mike Babcock because Mike Babcock always wins.
Well, he didn’t win here. He didn’t yield, to the kids on his roster, who clearly wanted a different message, or to the young man in the front office, who had a much different idea about how to win in the NHL than his septuagenarian predecessor.
So when the losses started to pile up, who was going to back that bet on Babcock?
Who was going to defend the coach still relying on triumphs from more than a decade ago?
If you alienate those above and below you, and you don’t produce wins, you’re in trouble in pro sports. No matter your pedigree.
Babcock was only staying if the team took off. That wasn’t likely.
(Dan Hamilton / USA T
oday)Mike Babcock is a good coach. He is a Hall of Famer. He earned most of what he got, even if there were some breaks along the way mixed in. But he also has a short shelf life, with this generation of players, and an eight-year contract was never a great idea.
He coached up the talent-poor Leafs in the early days of his deal, when the grind-it-out talk worked. He brought a swagger and personality to the franchise at a time when it had fallen to laughingstock status, after so many seasons in the NHL basement.
He helped get the Leafs to where they are today, when expectations are such that winning is taken for granted.
My guess is he’ll go elsewhere and provide a short-term lift to a team with a more veteran roster. Maybe he’ll even win again.
But that wasn’t going to happen in Toronto. Not with that message and not with these players and this GM. That has been made very clear over these disastrous last three or four weeks, as the Leafs fell into the league’s basement, in the standings and in most categories in which you’d expect the coach to have an influence.
The awkward marriage, between what the 2015-16 Leafs were and what Dubas envisions the future of the franchise to be, was not going to work.
What comes next is going to be fascinating.
Sheldon Keefe is a much different messenger. He’ll be the players’ coach whom many members of that dressing room wanted. He already has strong relationships with a lot of the roster — 13 of whom have already played for him — which should help.
But he doesn’t have any NHL experience, even as an assistant coach. And he’ll need to turn things around quickly to save the Leafs season.
Does taking the reins off and unleashing this talented roster, on its own, change the results?
What about the special teams, which have been an unmitigated disaster under the watch of the new assistant coaches? What about the issues on defence, where the personnel are likely as much the issue as the system in place?
Then there’s the backup goaltending and the injuries, and on and on.
This isn’t an easy turnaround project. And expectations for the group are incredibly high. No one envisioned this team fighting for its playoff life in mid-November, not after back-to-back 100-point seasons and the “improvements” to the roster. The pressure, if the losing continues, will be immense.
Babcock served as a heat shield for the past two months, absorbing much of the criticism in a market where that could be a full-time job. If this doesn’t turn quickly, the knives will move on to the Leafs stars, the rookie coach and the young GM.
The critiques will zero in on not just the roster, but also the process that put that roster in place, dating back to Shanahan’s heartfelt endorsement of Dubas for the top hockey operations role 18 months ago.
Firing Babcock, given what was happening on the ice (and off it, to some extent), makes sense. You have already bet on Dubas and his vision in every respect but behind the bench. It was time to go all in.
But I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s guaranteed to work. Enough has gone wrong early this season that the dysfunction clearly extends beyond just Babcock.
This was the right first step towards identifying and addressing the problems, but the roster is probably going to have to change, too.
Dubas is trying something different here, in applying new methods under an unforgiving cap model, and it’s plausible he doesn’t get it right the first time through.
Where it goes from here is going to either validate the Shanaplan or mean it reaches its end.
It was always headed this way.