By Pierre LeBrun
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Normally, the head coach doesn’t pick up in a moment like this, but Mike Babcock isn’t your everyday head coach.
Yes, it’s a painful moment in his career, but he’s not going to hide even after getting fired earlier in the day by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In typical Babcock fashion, he was ready to go, not wanting to waste time. He had something to say and he got to it:
“Larry Tanenbaum talked me into going to Toronto,” Babcock said from Arizona. “I would have never gone until I met Larry. He’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Had an absolute riot and met another friend for life in Lou Lamoriello. I thought we did an amazing job taking a franchise from where it was to where we had 100-point seasons, we set franchise records if I’m not mistaken, got into the playoffs. I’m disappointed, we didn’t have the start to the year we wanted and that’s on me. I want to thank the fans, I want to thank the media, I want to thank the city, it was spectacular, I loved every second of it. And I wish the new group (coaches) nothing but success. Morgan Rielly has been here the whole time. I can’t thank him enough. And all the players I got an opportunity to coach. It’s been fantastic and I wish them nothing but success.’’
Where to start?
As expected, Sheldon Keefe replaces Babcock behind the bench, and while we can all agree that Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas aren’t going to send each other Christmas cards anytime soon, Babcock did add this comment before we hung up on Wednesday.
“I really do believe that every general manager should have his own coach,’’ Babcock said.
Babcock wasn’t even hired by a GM in Toronto. It was president Brendan Shanahan (and as Babcock says, Tanenbaum) that hired him back in May 2015. His decision to join the Leafs marked the end of the Babcock sweepstakes. With his services in high demand, the Sabres were also offering large amounts of cash, an offer that Babcock almost accepted.
Speaking of those dollars, Babcock has three more years on his contract after this season, that’s guaranteed money.
What’s next for him? I can’t say for sure but my sense he will take his time, decompress, do a lot of hunting and skiing and figure out if he actually wants to coach again.
Because I don’t know if it’s a guarantee that Babcock will want to coach again. It certainly wouldn’t be a financial necessity, he’s made more than enough money. But his passion to coach may resurface eventually and lure him back into the NHL. Time will tell on that one.
Babcock probably knew before the season began that he was toast at some point. He never was Dubas’ guy and the GM not endorsing him right away at the season-ending news conference last spring was some serious foreshadowing.
Babcock got a text message from Shanahan on Wednesday to come and meet him in his hotel room. He knew right then and there. That was it.
And that’s OK. Babcock has been around and understands that. Don’t shed any tears for him. He knows the business and won’t feel sorry for himself.
I do think he felt he’d get this year and the playoffs first (as did I) to figure it out, with his job future contingent on that first-round result. But the losses piling up over the last month forced the issue.
The Leafs are trying to save their season with this move.
Babcock’s legacy in Toronto will be met with mixed reviews. He coached a rebuilding program from the bottom up and help foster the Leafs into contenders, but he was unable to get the Leafs out of the first round of the playoffs in three tries. The results fell short of not only the organization’s expectations but Babcock’s personal ones as well.
(Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press via AP)
Now the spotlight falls very much on Dubas. This is finally his team, full stop. He has a coach in Keefe that shares his vision.
But it also means if the season doesn’t get back on track, that the level of criticism from Leafs fans which was mostly directed at Babcock will now find a new target: the GM.
That’s how it works.
In-season coaching changes can often do the trick. See Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh, Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles years ago and last season Craig Berube in St. Louis.
But it doesn’t always stem the slide.
If there are players in that Leafs dressing room that couldn’t wait to see Babcock fired — some of them certainly played like it — they got their wish.
But now this Leafs team has run out of excuses.