What is the key difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs & the Carolina Hurricanes in the success of their mutual rebuilds? The teams were both in similar positions four years ago. At the end of the 2014-15 season, the Hurricanes were ranked last in the Metropolitan Division, with a record of 30-41-11 and 71 points. The Maple Leafs were next to last in the Atlantic Division, with a record of 30-44-8 and 68 points. The Hurricanes were 26th overall in the NHL and the Maple Leafs, 27th.
Yet in three years, the Maple Leafs were back in the playoffs. The Hurricanes were not. Even though the Leafs got bounced in the first round of the 2016-17 playoffs, for all intents, they were back. The playoff drought was over. The Hurricanes are still trying, still scratching and clawing. They have been painfully close to grabbing a wild card spot, but have still not played in the postseason since 2009.
What is the difference between the Leafs and the ‘Canes – that one team can make it into the playoffs in three years and the other is still “so close, but yet, so far?
The Key: Veteran vs Rookie Coach
The Hurricanes brought in Bill Peters to be the team’s head coach starting with the 2014-15 season. He had been coaching under none other than the coach who would take the Maple Leafs’ helm the following season, Mike Babcock. Both were in the Detroit Red Wings organization, with the student Peters learning under the leadership of the teacher and head coach, Babcock.
Peters has an impressive coaching resume, winning in leagues he coached in before his opportunity came to be a head coach with the Hurricanes. In the 2007-08 season, Peters coached the Spokane Chiefs to a Western Hockey League (WHL) championship. Peters then moved up to the American Hockey League (AHL) and coached for three years with the Rockford IceHogs, the minor league affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.
He coached the IceHogs to the AHL playoffs two of the three years he was at the helm, before stepping up to the Red Wings. In 2016, Peters coached Team Canada to winning the gold medal in the World Cup of Hockey.
He’s no slouch. Defensive-minded, Peters coached the defense for Babcock during his time with the Red Wings. The Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, had this on its website about Peters when he was hired as the Hurricanes’ head coach: “Reports following Peters’ hire suggested that he would enter his first NHL head coaching job with a philosophy that skewed more towards the defensive side. While stressing the importance of taking care of that zone first, he also expressed a willingness to have defensemen join the rush in an effort to create more offense than in seasons past.”
Peters is what I like to call an “old-school” coach, one who believes in hard work, grit and determination. He is not afraid to let the world know when he is dissatisfied with a player’s effort or lack thereof. He benched Alexander Semin when he wasn’t putting forth effort, and blasted Eddie Lack publicly for his poor play in-goal. But, despite his hard old-school edge, Peters has not been able to get his Hurricanes into the promised land of the playoffs. He has been criticized for changing up his lines too often, and for naming two captains. This season Peters has definitely found himself the target of angry, impatient fans.
Babcock has a lengthy and impressive NHL resume that only has two seasons wherein the team he was coaching did not make the playoffs. In his second season, as head coach of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Babcock led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Mighty Ducks lost to the New Jersey Devils, but it was just the beginning for Babcock. He took the head-coaching job with the Red Wings the following season, and had them in the playoffs for the next 10 years. In fact, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008.
Babcock started in Toronto at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, and the team missed the playoffs. The following season, Babcock had the Maple Leafs back in the playoffs. In an amazing testament to his ability to guide his teams into the postseason, Babcock is definitely one key – if not the key – reason the Maple Leafs are a bit further down the road to a successful rebuild than are the Hurricanes. He seems to know just what it takes to get playing in the playoffs.
Bottom Line is Babcock
Both teams got rid of star players, the Maple Leafs traded Phil Kessel and the Hurricanes traded Eric Staal. Both teams drafted impact players, Noah Hanifin to the ‘Canes and Auston Matthews to the Leafs. Both have had management changes. Ron Francis replaced Jim Rutherford as the general manager of the Hurricanes. Brendan Shanahan is running the Maple Leafs.
"I like the work ethic. I like the speed of the team. I like the way we got after it instead of standing around watching it.” – Mike Babcock
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 30, 2018
But, for all the similarities in moves made, the Maple Leafs are farther along. We could break down individual players and who has a better top line or blue line, etc. But, Babcock has a nose for the playoffs. And while I maintain the utmost respect for Peters, it is Babcock who is making the difference for the Maple Leafs. The above Tweet could have been said by Peters, also. Hard work and getting after the puck are Babcock/Peters mantras. But, mantras and words aside, Hurricanes fans are hoping that some of Babcock’s magical touch in getting teams to the playoffs, will finally start to rub off on Peters.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.