The vultures are circling over Phoenix, AZ today. They'll probably follow on to Toronto Sunday, where they'll have their feast. I can feel it coming, and I've been in that situation myself...
I was once fired. For about the previous year, maybe more, it was clear that what I could offer was not compatible with what was needed, and what was needed was not me. Then for about the last 4-5 months, conversations started happening where I was the odd man out, knowing they had knowledge I was not party to. And it felt deliberate. I was no longer included in key discussions, and even caught a couple of verbal slips that suggested it was inevitable. I felt it, and knew it was coming. It still stung when it happened, but it did not really catch me by surprise.
That's the way it feels with the Leafs right now. Babcock is putting on a brave face, but I feel like I can see past it. He knows he's done. It's going to be tough on him, and his self-image. He hasn't been fired as a coach since his early days. He might never recover his mojo, not that money is going to be a concern for him.
I always suspected that elements of the team might on occasion read what's written here, but that may be me reading too much into it. Still, on that off chance, I have a word of encouragement: Babcock needs to be fired, to be vindicated. Let me elaborate:
Lou maintained a balance between offensive talent, and the blue collar type players who did the unappreciated work you need done, if you're going to win. It's like the football player who throws the key block that leads to the spectacular touchdown, but all anyone sees is the run, and the celebration. Leo Komarov, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and even Tyler Bozak, to an extent. Roman Polak, too. They all did grunt work that did not show up favorably in Corsi numbers, but they made it harder to score against the team. They killed penalties competently, like they understood their jobs in the NHL depended on competence in that regard. Babcock was successful in that environment, at least in the regular season. Washington and Boston put an end to their playoff hopes, but both teams were contenders at the time.
There were flaws - overreliance on the stretch pass was one - but in retrospect, Hiller would look at the young, small, soft lineup, and ask, "How are we supposed to produce offense?" It was clear they could not cycle and grind it out with big, imposing teams. Babcock played the tactic most likely to produce positive results, given the lineup he had to work with. But it was incomplete, and something more was needed to get it to the stage of a winner.
Here's where there was obviously disagreement. Lou and Babcock were probably on the same page: We need more guys who play right, and make it hard for opponents. Filpula was one they tried to trade for, but he vetoed it. Meanwhile, Shanahan was looking at things differently. He had chaired the committee named for him, that made recommendations to boost scoring, and he wanted a faster, more skilled game. Then, he fell into the trap of believing in his hopes. Dubas would present numbers to him, making the case that if you raise the skill quotient high enough, nobody will be able to play at your level. "Imagine if we ice an equivalent of Team Canada. Mike can win with guys like that; he's proven it."
It came to a head, and Shanahan replaced Lou with Dubas, on the strength of his promises. An experienced hockey manager would have been more skeptical, asking where it's already worked. Other lineups that were built by analytics failed, and they had to retrench, including Chayka's Coyotes. But Phoenix is so much different - it's doubtful if a guy who lives a few houses down from Chayka even knows what he does for a living. A rookie in Toronto is sooooo exposed, by comparison.
Well, the change happened, and soon, overpayments to skill players tightened the budget. But instead of trading one of the skill players for solid guys like Lou knew they needed, he replaced anyone making more than minimum, but who was not an offensive threat. It was a case of not trusting your eyes, and trusting the spreadsheet instead. Why? Statistics are abused more often than they are used correctly, and assumptions need real-world validation if they're to be accepted. But then they fell into another error - assuming you have something you don't. It was based on wishful thinking, but it goes something like this: Well, Tavares is kind of like Crosby, Matthews is kind of like Malkin, Rielly kind of like Letang, so we have a champion team here. Put it all on their shoulders, and clear out what they must have thought was a lot of deadwood salary. Connor Brown was once described, I think in his second Leaf season, as a guy you trade, and then wonder why you're losing. Well, they did, and they are, and wondering about it. It was all supposed to work well on paper.
So if Babcock were to stay, the team might slowly improve, but they aren't going to be contenders. It's a stretch at this point to even make the playoffs. Opinions out there are going to be divided - some will rightly blame management, others will buy the bullshit about skill quotient, and conclude the blame must therefore lie with the coach. Babcock's legacy, which I know he cares about deeply, will be forever tarnished by that charge.
Unless he's fired. Then, some other team with a sounder lineup will hire him, and he'll do what he does best - get the most out of them. Meanwhile, those in Toronto who want to blame the coach will have to shut up, and face what comes next - which won't be good. The structural flaws will be exposed, the Shanaplan will be history, and the legacy will reflect that it was a Shakespearean tragedy, brought on by Shanahan's hubris.
Don't sweat it, Mike. Life will begin again, in a new environment, where you can succeed.