It was the wrong fit. Simple as that.
The coach wasn’t right for the roster and the roster wasn’t right for the coach.
From the outside looking in, that reality and some level of dysfunction led to the demise of Mike Babcock with the Maple Leafs. Kyle Dubas lives on in Toronto, finally and rightfully getting to hire his own coach in Sheldon Keefe, but now the pressure shifts to the young GM, with the weight of that franchise and fan base on the shoulders of Dubas going forward.
As for Babcock, he’s out of work for now but perhaps not for long. He could sit back and collect the rest of his benchmark contract — the remainder of the $50 million owed to him over 3 1/2 more seasons through the 2022-23 campaign — or he could jump at the next opportunity and be back in the game sooner than later.
There will be plenty of opportunities for the man who was considered the best coach in hockey when he left Detroit for Toronto in 2015 armed with a Stanley Cup ring and two Olympic gold medals. Many of the old hockey men will still believe Babcock is the right coach for the right roster and the 56-year-old Babcock presumably believes he has plenty left to prove.
Babcock is a fierce competitor with a burning desire to win — and win again. He won’t want to go out like this. He won’t stay down if there is a chance to get up. He’d relish the chance to take over a new team tomorrow and take that team further than Toronto in this season’s playoffs.
That’s how Babcock is wired. This setback will fuel him, not ruin him. He’ll be driven and determined to come out on top. He’ll be mighty motivated, with a chip on his shoulder. So it’s a matter of when — not if — he’ll be back behind an NHL bench.
It’s also a matter of where, with these 11 landing spots making the most sense for Babcock.
This veteran-laden roster is built for Babcock and the architect, Jim Nill, has a history with Babcock from their Detroit days. Babcock also has familiarity with Jamie Benn and Corey Perry from those Olympic champion teams.
Problem is, the Stars are going strong now after struggling out of the gate. If those struggles persisted, this would have been the obvious move and probably would have been made by now.
The Stars have a quality coaching staff in place — comprised of Jim Montgomery, Todd Nelson, Rick Bowness and John Stevens — but if they were to hit the skids again, Nill may not hesitate in making that call to Babcock. On paper, it’s the perfect fit.
Peter Laviolette is the third longest-tenured coach in the NHL — now in his sixth season guiding Nashville — and every coach has a shelf life. Coaches are hired to be fired — and, in the NHL, to be recycled. The expiration date on Laviolette could be coming soon if the Predators don’t start winning and improving overall. Goaltending has been part of the problem there, but the team hasn’t been playing to its potential lately.
Nashville has a nice mix of grit and skill, which would appeal to Babcock. That roster is better suited to his coaching strengths with the likes of Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons, Austin Watson, Mattias Ekholm and Dan Hamhuis. That balance is what Babcock will be looking for, even if the high-end talent is less than he had to work with in Toronto.
San Jose Sharks
San Jose is another veteran team that features several players familiar with Babcock. Patrick Marleau knows him best from their time in Toronto and they seemed to have a great relationship there, with Babcock relying on Marleau maybe too much at times.
The Sharks have been better ever since bringing back Marleau, and therefore Pete DeBoer probably isn’t on the hot seat at the moment. But DeBoer is the fourth longest-tenured coach — this is his fifth season with San Jose — and Doug Wilson had to be disappointed with the early results this season. Ownership is all-in on this roster and committed to winning now. Wilson is loyal, but he also listens to his players and trusts that core group. If the Sharks lose their current momentum, Babcock could be seen as a solution.
Chicago has a lot of similarities to San Jose, including a couple players that had key roles on those Olympic teams in Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks have that championship experience and enough sandpaper to be an attractive option for Babcock. Chicago would also be his third Original Six team.
Like San Jose, the Blackhawks have been trending up since tweaking their systems and line combinations under Jeremy Colliton and Marc Crawford after a subpar start to the season. This team had a long, successful run with Joel Quenneville, who has some similarities to Babcock. That shouldn’t be lost on Stan Bowman, though a coaching change isn’t top of mind right now.
Brad Treliving gave Bill Peters and his coaching staff a vote of confidence and the Flames responded with a shootout win to end their losing skid. Babcock would have mixed emotions about taking over for Peters, who is a close friend and coached under Babcock in Detroit and with WHL Spokane before making the jump to the NHL. But there are only 31 — soon-to-be 32 — head-coaching jobs and Calgary’s roster could be enticing for Babcock.
Treliving was adamant that the coaches aren’t going anywhere and that message may have also had financial overtones. Calgary’s owners are going to be paying for a new arena in the years to come and probably don’t want to pay Peters not to coach. It would have to go from bad to much worse for the Flames to contemplate Babcock and his pricetag. Perhaps for next season or further down the road.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning haven’t won it all with Jon Cooper and are coming off a playoff flop — getting swept in the first round as the Presidents’ Trophy winners — but he still seems like the best coach for that roster. Cooper can coach offence and Tampa attacks in waves under him. Could Babcock tighten and toughen that team up, better preparing them for the postseason? Maybe, but Julien BriseBois is a fan of his current coach by all accounts.
It would take another early exit from the playoffs — or missing them altogether — for the new general manager to start shopping for a new coach. That won’t likely happen midseason for Tampa. If that time comes and BriseBois reaches out to his former boss Steve Yzerman for a reference or a recommendation, Babcock would come highly regarded. And Babcock would know the Lightning well, coming from a division rival. But Cooper seems safe as of today, as the league’s longest-tenured coach — hired back in 2013 and now in his seventh season.
Paul Maurice is next on that list — the second longest-tenured coach, hired partway through that 2013-14 season — and he’s survived a couple rough patches over the years with the full support of Kevin Cheveldayoff. Maurice is doing well with a depleted defence this season, so he’s not presently on the hot seat, but many feel this could be his last season in Winnipeg.
That group has grown under Maurice but may need a new voice to take the next step. Babcock would definitely be a different voice, trying to push different buttons while commanding the same level of respect. Winnipeg’s roster makeup has similarities to Toronto, so Babcock might see familiarity and a sense of comfort in this opportunity or he might want no part of it.
Detroit Red Wings
Who says you can’t go home? With Yzerman back in Detroit, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him pursue a reunion with Babcock. Jeff Blashill took over from Babcock in 2015 without much success, though the Red Wings have been rebuilding in recent years. Yzerman will eventually want to hire his own coach and Babcock will almost certainly be topping that list, having teamed together in leading Canada to those Olympic golds.
That conversation may have already occurred, but Babcock might want to explore other opportunities if he doesn’t feel Detroit is close to winning again. Babcock will likely want to coach a contender, but don’t rule out a return to the Red Wings. Detroit might even be the frontrunner.
New Jersey Devils
John Hynes might have the hottest seat in the league right now — assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald has been supervising him closely — with the Devils underachieving and bringing up the rear in the Metropolitan Division. Goaltending is partially to blame, but expectations were fairly high for Ray Shero’s overhauled roster. And the hope was a successful season would convince Taylor Hall to sign long term in New Jersey.
Hynes hasn’t had a lot of success, with only one playoff berth in his four seasons to date, and the Devils took a step back last season en route to winning the draft lottery for Jack Hughes. Shero could very well make a coaching change at some point this season, but would he target Babcock and would that interest be mutual? Babcock could say thanks but no thanks in turning down this opportunity — opting to wait for a better fit.
Minnesota is another team near the bottom of the overall standings — and last in the Central Division — so naturally there is speculation over Bruce Boudreau’s job security. The owner likes Boudreau and he’s long been one of the winningest coaches in the regular season, but new GM Bill Guerin may have somebody else in mind for the future.
That may not be Babcock, but he’s the highest-profile coach on the market right now and thus warrants consideration — and a mention here. Guerin will want to get that decision right if he’s replacing a very experienced and successful coach in Boudreau, who is in his fourth season with the Wild. Minnesota’s roster isn’t sexy and seems to be trending towards a rebuild, so Babcock might not see a match there either.
Last but not necessarily least, Seattle is two years away from joining the league and still months away from announcing their team name. Ron Francis was hired ahead of schedule as the expansion franchise’s general manager and they could make another early move for the right coach. The plan, according to Francis, was to wait until the spring or summer of 2021 — more than a full year from now — but that was before Babcock became available.
Babcock is a big name in the hockey world, including in the state of Washington from his past successes there with WHL Spokane. Babcock also has experience in getting players from all different teams to jell and excel at the Olympics, so that should make him attractive to Seattle for the expansion process. The timing might not be right for Seattle if Babcock doesn’t want to wait around until their inaugural 2021-22 season, but he may welcome that lengthy break to reset and recharge while adjusting his approach or reinventing himself to some degree. Babcock may also see Seattle as the ultimate challenge, but he’d probably want that commitment as soon as possible.
So what do you think — which team will Babcock be coaching next? And when? Feel free to weigh in by leaving a comment below.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.