Ex-Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock: Stubborn, Confusing, and Out of Work

How things change. Mike Babcock, who was hired by Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan to be the solution, was deemed the problem. He was fired on Nov. 20 after leading his team to a 9-10-4 record this season, which was far below everyone’s expectations.

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His firing should not be a surprise. Although the team had stretches of inspired play, it was absolutely lifeless in the Nov. 16 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team made huge gaffes that cost them games. They simply could not win.

As a result, Babcock is no longer the head coach of the Maple Leafs. Instead, he’s been replaced – perhaps a year or two earlier than anyone expected – by heir apparent Sheldon Keefe, who’s been the Toronto Marlies coach in the American Hockey League the past four seasons.

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe
Now Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, second left, celebrates with his coaching and training staff with the Marlies (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

It’s really no surprise that Keefe was promoted. First, he’s general manager Kyle Dubas’ “man.” He was placed in the role of head coach of the Marlies by Dubas, and he hasn’t disappointed. His success is actually quite remarkable, both in his record with the Marlies and in the way he’s developed players.

The 39-year-old Keefe has led the team to an overall record of 199-89-22-9 and four consecutive playoff berths. Under his leadership, the Marlies twice won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s top regular-season team and captured its first-ever Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Babcock’s Biggest Success with the Maple Leafs

Babcock came to public recognition as the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, and he had a successful career there – winning one Stanley Cup in 2008. He also coached the Canadian Olympic team to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014.

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The year prior to Babcock coming to coach the Maple Leafs (2014-15), the team had 68 points. After moving to the Maple Leafs in 2015-16, Babcock quickly made strides to turn the struggling team into a solid contender. In his first season, the team had 69 points; in his second season, 95 points; and in his third, 105 points.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs’ ex-head coach Mike Babcock (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Babcock’s career record is 700-418-19 with Toronto, the Red Wings, and Anaheim Ducks. He was hired to rebuild the Maple Leafs into a winner; and, he did. The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in over four seasons with the team.

Babcock’s Biggest Problem with the Maple Leafs

However, the Babcock-coached Maple Leafs failed to perform even at a .500 pace this season despite putting together a group of stars few teams can match. One would think that a group of players that included forwards Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander; defensemen Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, and Jake Muzzin; and goalie Frederik Andersen would be able to win games. For some reason, they can’t.

As Shanahan said today after the firing, “Our game is not really meeting our expectations. We’re mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offense that our team was known for has been missing for a while now, so there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”

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And, perhaps that’s the biggest blame Babcock carries. He’s known for being a hard-nosed coach with an attention to detail, but the team simply didn’t attend to those details. That flies in the face of Babcock’s recurring message about what it takes to be a good professional. He believed it required being committed to doing it right every single day. He failed at that, as did his team.

Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs’ ex-head coach Mike Babcock looks up at the scoreboard as Boston Bruins fans behind him celebrate. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

His redundant message about the work needed to become a great pro required help. As The Hockey News‘ Ken Campbell noted on Nov. 20, the Maple Leafs represent an organizational failure, and it wasn’t simply Babcock who failed. That said, Campbell admitted Babcock had a part in the failure because of his stubbornness and ego.

Although he inherited a bad team and took that team from being a bottom-feeder to a 100-point squad, even with a huge upgrade in talent Babcock couldn’t lead his team to a single playoff series victory. His coaching decisions and deployment of players made people scratch their heads.

The team’s lack of structure and situational awareness could mean only one of two things, Campbell noted. “Either he wasn’t communicating the message effectively enough or the players were not buying what he was selling. Neither is a particularly good place for a coach. The Leafs were dreadful on both sides of special teams, gave up the first goal in 18 of their 23 games and often looked lost in their own end. That’s on the coach.”

By Babcock’s own measure of being a professional, something needed to be done differently. But, it wasn’t. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That was Babcock’s issue; he did the same things over and over and seemed angry when it didn’t work.

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Perhaps that insanity can be blamed on Babcock’s stubborn success. From everything I hear or read, Babcock is a committed coach, who works really hard. He’s done the same job for a long time, and his procedural manual is assembled. He’s built his own brand, and he carries that brand with him wherever he goes. He’s committed to doing it the same way every single day. 

And that, in Toronto, was the problem. Babcock’s procedural manual was different than the one the Maple Leafs’ organization was developing, and Babcock’s version of doing it “right” wasn’t the same as the organization’s version. Eventually, that difference became problematic because the coach wasn’t on the same page as the general manager.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

That seemed obvious in a few cases this season. First, the way Babcock deployed Nic Petan, who Dubas picked up last season. I can’t know this, but I believe Dubas hoped Petan would have a larger role in the lineup. Then there was the stubborn, mean-spirited way Babcock sat veteran Jason Spezza for the Maple Leafs first home game of the season after Spezza took a hometown discount to sign the cheapest possible NHL contract. Obviously, I don’t know the complexities of that event, but it strikes me as Babcock’s showing Dubas whose team it was.

Whose Team Is It Now?

Now that Babcock has been canned, we know for sure who the team belongs to. For the time being, Shanahan and Dubas run the show. They made the change. We’ll see shortly how well Keefe does. His first test is on Nov. 21 against the Arizona Coyotes.

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Call it ironic perhaps, but hasn’t the Phoenix area come up before this season as a place of trouble for the Maple Leafs?