Babcock Could Find Redemption in Seattle

After four-plus seasons as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock was fired on Nov. 20. The team is coming off three consecutive first-round postseason exits and have looked flat, and at times, lifeless out of the gate in 2019. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the relationship between Babcock and the rest of the franchise — both on the ice and in the front office — had run its course.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Mike Babcock’s tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs came to an abrupt end last week (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Early last season, longtime Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville lost his job after several seasons of steady regression. Of course, his name immediately popped up in rumors across the league regarding head coaching vacancies, both in-season and beyond. This season, Quenneville finds himself back behind an NHL bench, this time for the Florida Panthers.

Mike Babcock will be no different.

His name has already begun making the rounds throughout the league among teams that haven’t been performing up to their expectations. The 56-year-old has nearly 20 years of head coaching experience at the NHL level, so it’s hard to see him not getting another shot. Because he’ll likely have a handful of suitors, Babcock has no reason to rush into a decision and maybe he should take a full season off to wait for the perfect opportunity.

That perfect opportunity is just around the corner. In just over a year and a half, the latest NHL expansion team will be drafting its brand-new roster. The Seattle Totems Emeralds Somethings will enter the league after the 2019-20 campaign, and could burst on to the scene as an immediate contender with the right moves. Why not start with a splash by signing Babcock?

A Fresh Start with a Fresh Team

There’s truly no better way for Babcock to start with a clean slate than to coach for a team that literally does not have a history. In fact, Gerard Gallant and the Vegas Golden Knights saw pretty great results doing just that in 2017, and if anyone needed a fresh start, it was Gallant.

Gallant led the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 56-76-4-6 record over parts of three seasons from 2003 to 2007. After he was let go, he worked as an assistant with the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. Sandwiched between those two assistant coaching jobs was a three-year stint as head coach of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Saint John Sea Dogs where he won back-to-back championships.

Gerard Gallant of the Vegas Golden Knights
Earning another chance at an NHL head coaching job from the Vegas Golden Knights may have saved Gerard Gallant’s career (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The former NHL winger then coached the Panthers for two-plus uneventful seasons before being fired. However, he wasn’t fired in normal fashion. Gallant was canned after a road loss to the Carolina Hurricanes before being left off the team bus and forced to call his own taxi from the arena.

Things weren’t nearly that embarrassing for Babcock in Toronto, but maybe he can rebound like Gallant, who immediately brought the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup Final and won the Jack Adams Award. Plus, the alleged reasons for their firings weren’t all that different from one another.

Ken Holland, Henrik Zetterberg and coach Mike Babcock.
Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings were one of the best teams in modern NHL history (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Babcock already has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger as head coach of the 2007-08 championship-winning Detroit Red Wings. He led that same team to a Stanley Cup loss the following year and also brought the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to Cup Final in his first season as an NHL head coach back in 2003. Regardless of the disappointing results he’s produced over the last few seasons, it’s impossible to deny the success that Babcock has had.

While Babcock isn’t blameless in the Maple Leafs’ recent shortcomings, his time there certainly wasn’t a disaster. He was blessed with a roster littered with talent — and mostly young talent, at that — and led that group to two straight 100-point campaigns, something the historic franchise had never accomplished.

Unfortunately, losing to the division-rival Boston Bruins in the first round to end both of those seasons left a poor taste in the mouths of the front office and fan base, feeding into the reasons for his demise.

Babcock Could Influence the Expansion Draft

With a long coaching history in the NHL, Babcock naturally has ties to dozens of players scattered across the league now that he could be reunited with. Obviously, the superstars he had at his disposal in Toronto, such as Auston Matthews and John Tavares, won’t be available in the expansion draft, but there’s plenty of talent floating around that he already has a relationship with.

Not only will Babcock’s league-wide relationships help build the roster, but it will give him a chance to construct a roster to match his coaching style. Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has taken a more modern, analytical approach to building his team and it didn’t match Babcock’s coaching style. While the league continues to trend more towards Dubas’ side, Babcock has shown that physicality still has a role in today’s game.

A few players that could potentially be exposed during Seattle’s 2021 expansion draft include Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and James van Riemsdyk, all of which played under Babcock in Toronto over the last few seasons. Of course, all three enjoyed career-seasons during their time playing for the recently-fired Ontario native.

Nazem Kadri
A physical center with goal-scoring touch like Nazem Kadri is the perfect player for Babcock’s system (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer)

Dating back to Babcock’s days in Detroit, Danny DeKeyser is another name that could be left exposed during the draft. As for free agents, Tomas Tatar, another player from Babcock’s tenure in Detroit, could be one of the first big-name signings in team history.

Looking at goaltenders, Seattle could make a run at a handful of unrestricted free agents that once played under Babcock. Frederick Andersen, Peter Mrazek, James Reimer, and Jonathan Bernier all suited up for him and will all be free agents — as it currently stands — during the 2021 offseason. That just feels like fate, doesn’t it?

Ron Francis Could Link Babcock to Analytics

While Seattle has yet to find a head coach, release the official team logo or colors, or even give the fans the team name, it did hire its first GM in franchise history: Ron Francis. The Hall of Fame center was hired in July 2019, roughly 15 months after he was fired from the Hurricanes’ front office.

Does an expansion team hiring a recently-fired NHL GM to be the team’s front office leader ahead of its inaugural season sound familiar? It should. Vegas did the same thing with George McPhee.

Ron Francis Seattle NHL
Could Ron Francis and Mike Babcock be the next power duo in the NHL? (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

McPhee briefly held a front-office role with the Islanders but, just two years after being fired as the Washington Capitals GM, he was brought to Vegas for another shot. Once again, it looks like that turned out fine.

Seattle is already building its front office with some brilliant analytics experts. As a relatively forward-thinking region of the United States, it makes sense that Seattle would emphasize technology within the game. It also means that Mike Babcock might not be the best fit there.

That’s where Francis comes in.

Like the dynamic between McPhee and Gallant in Vegas, Francis could be the liaison between analytics and Babcock. Francis joined Carolina’s front office in 2011 and learned under the leadership of Jim Rutherford before taking the reins as GM in 2014. Rutherford exemplifies the idea that “old-school” hockey and analytics can live together on one roster and still be successful. After all, he’s won three Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

Another example is how the Arizona Coyotes’ analytics-driven GM John Chayka and “old-school” head coach Rick Tocchet have meshed together so well and continually improved the team over the last few seasons:

“When I first took the job, I knew John was big into analytics,” said Tocchet, “so I wondered how that would work – because I don’t believe in coaching where you’ve got to look at numbers the whole time. I’m an eye-test guy too. Since I’ve been here, John has not one time shoved it down my throat. If we’re looking at a trade, or evaluating a guy’s play, he’ll say, ‘this guy’s got good numbers, and here are some of the reasons why.’ And you go, ‘OK, wow, that’s interesting.’ So, it really gave me an open mind and it’s been a real unbelievable marriage, of me integrating with analytics, from being an eye-test guy. There are so many avenues that John uses that make sense – and it’s helped me become a better coach. He doesn’t force it on you. He gives you information subtly, when we need it, and I really appreciate how he’s done that.”

(From ‘The NHL’s odd couple: How new-wave Chayka and old-school Tocchet make it work with Coyotes,’ The Athletic – 11/21/19)

If Babcock and Francis can work together constructively and with open minds — and after the way things ended in Toronto, Babcock has no choice but to be open-minded — there’s no doubt that two great hockey figures will put together a successful team. Regardless of what teams are lining up to hire him, Babcock’s best shot at redemption is with the brand-new Seattle expansion franchise.