One-quarter of the way through the season, Canada’s seven NHL teams are full of surprises, some good and some bad. The Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks are performing above expectations. The Winnipeg Jets were due to decline from their sky-high expectations of the past two seasons, but their slide has been surprisingly fast. Then there’s the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have so far struggled more than anticipated. On some nights, a lot more.
The Flames, after finishing atop the Westen Conference standings last season, got bounced in a mere five games by Colorado, and are now at the outside of the playoff picture looking in. They are fortunate to not be further behind than they are, playing in a weak Pacific Division.
The Leafs are also outside of the playoffs, and after two consecutive summers spent locking in big talent to big contracts, they now need to fight in a much tougher division to prove that money was not wasted.
The Flames have been dubbed by some NHL personalities as “Leafs West.” Flames fans will undoubtedly cringe when they hear that, but it’s not an unfair comparison.
Both teams broke 100 points in the 2018-19 standings but were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs. Both teams have (allegedly) coveted talent in their top-six forwards, emphasizing speed and skill as top priorities. And both teams, after going through inexcusable losing streaks mid-November, began to have their head coaches called into question by fans and news personalities alike.
A Tale of Two Coaches
Around American Thanksgiving is when conversations usually start around the NHL about coach firings. Who is in the hot seat? Who will be the first to go? To the surprise of many, Flames head coach Bill Peters and Leafs head coach Mike Babcock have both had their names mentioned in those conversations.
Babcock and Peters go way back. In his first coaching gig, Babcock coached Peters at Red Deer College. Babcock helped Peters land coaching gigs for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns and the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. They worked together behind the bench for the Detroit Red Wings, with Babcock as head coach and Peters as his assistant.
Babcock has been called Peters’ “mentor” and replacement “Older Brother”. (from “ Peters’ principles,” The Spokesman-Review, 28/08/2005) Peters himself had this to say about Coach Babs:
“It’s not just a professional and a coaching relationship. He’s a guy that if I need advice in anything, I can use as a sounding board.”from “Relationship between Peters, Babcock ‘way deeper’ than just a coaching connection” Calgary Sun, 28/10/2018
Now, their long-standing relationship as friends and colleagues is not the only thing that links them together. The predicaments they face with their respective NHL teams have a lot of parallels. I imagine these two would probably have a lot to talk about over lunch.
Coaches Will Take the Heat for Flames’ and Leafs’ Struggles
The truth is, both coaches appear to have one of the biggest problems a coach can have: lots of individual talent but nothing to show for it in the standings. As of Nov. 20, the Flames sit at 18th overall and the Leafs at 21st overall. Both teams, with all their firepower, have a negative goal differential. That’s nowhere near good enough.
The Flames and Leafs have also been notoriously bad this season at scoring first. They often give up early goals and chase their opponents for the rest of the night. Another commonality: both teams are in the bottom 10 league-wide for PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage). The parallels between these teams are pretty obvious.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but in Calgary and Toronto (particularly Toronto), much of it is being shouldered by the coaches. If you Google “NHL coaches in the hot seat” you might just get a picture of Babcock’s face.
The effort is not there. Playing a full 60 minutes seems too much to ask. Both teams seem to lack “buy-in,” i.e. a belief from the players in the systems that their coaches are preaching. Elliotte Friedman recently said the following about Bill Peters and the Flames:
“The relationship between the coach and the players seems tense. It’s very clear that (Peters) is unhappy with what he is seeing. […] He’s been on them for a while, and I wonder if the players start to say “I can’t stand hearing the same message.” […] I think this is as much, if not more on the players than it is on the coach.”
Minutes later in the very same interview, Friedman noted the similarities between this season’s Leafs and Flames, and said the following about Babcock:
“At times I’ve wondered if his message is getting through. […] The players look a little bit lost right now and haven’t really played that hard recently. […] It’s a big year in Toronto. We’ve seen teams in the last decade fire coaches and go to the Stanley Cup Final or win the Cup, and I wonder if the organization feels they have the possibility for that.”
Friedman is implying that he feels both coaches have “lost the room.” So in that sense, Peters and Babcock are in the same boat. And it’s showing serious warning signs of sinking.
Because Peters has been with his team for less time, and because general manager Brad Treliving does not seem to have an appetite for mid-season firings, Peters will probably last until the 2020 offseason even if the Flames play poorly.
Babcock’s future is far less certain. He has been with his team longer, he is paid more than any other NHL coach, and his relationship with Toronto GM Kyle Dubas is a total wild card. There has been speculation about his job security since the summer. If current trends continue, expect him to be gone before the Flames even think about Peters.
It’s probably unfair to lump them into the same category. But that hasn’t stopped several analysts from linking the two bench bosses together in conversations about mid-season firings.
One thing is certain: With both Calgary and Toronto looking to win now, the time for patience has passed. Blockbuster trades will not solve the problem, and neither team is in a good position to move pieces anyways. The coaches will be the first to feel the heat.