For the first time in NHL history, the most coveted unrestricted free agent is a coach: Mike Babcock has every Cup-starved franchise and fan base salivating over their chances of nabbing the league’s premier coach. While there’s still a chance that Babcock will re-sign with the Detroit Red Wings, many see his departure as inevitable. Mark Spector of Sportsnet, for example, reports that the divorce between Babcock and GM Ken Holland is well underway: “The couple has been sleeping in separate beds for months, and now Babcock has his own apartment. He’s not going back, and the Wings are ready to move on as well.” Presumably, they have also changed their FB relationship status and untagged each other in photos as well. Thus the question isn’t if he’s leaving but where he’s going next.
“TORONTO, please God, Toronto!” cry desperate Leafs fans, who would almost unanimously welcome this hiring as the best way to rebound from yet another dismal season. (Well, the best way might be to trade Dion Phaneuf for Connor McDavid, but let’s stick to working within the realm of possibility.)
The allure of Babcock is immense—so enthralling that few question if he’s the right fit behind the bench at the Air Canada Centre. Most writers focus more on whether or not Babcock would be interested in developing a cure for “blue and white disease.” Few ask themselves if Babcock will be a panacea or just another Band-Aid solution for the Leafs.
This post offers five reasons to reconsider Babcock’s candidacy.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Before fans light up the torches and pass out the pitchforks, keep in mind that I’m not arguing that the Leafs should avoid Babcock. If it were up to me, I’d probably sign him. But the likelihood of the top coaching candidate choosing a terminally mediocre franchise as his career-defining project is farfetched, so fans might as well accentuate the negatives in order to feel better if/when Babs decides to sign elsewhere.
1 – Can Babcock Overcome Inexperience?
Mike Babcock has coached in the NHL for 12 seasons, so he’s well acquainted with the rigors of professional hockey. However, he has little experience with building as opposed to maintaining a playoff team.
Babcock has only spent one year outside of the postseason: after losing game seven of the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils, Babcock’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim failed to make the playoffs in 2003-04. When his contract expired at the end of the lockout-canceled season, Babs bolted for Detroit, where he inherited a Red Wings team that was in year 14 of their playoff streak of 24 consecutive appearances (and counting).
While consistent success looks great on paper, it also raises questions about whether or not Babcock can handle the challenges and adversity of coaching a mediocre team such as the Leafs, who will only get worse as the club divests itself of its underwhelming core and pursues a rebuild this summer.
Can Babcock handle years of futility? He hasn’t missed the playoffs in a decade, so it’s fair to say he’s out of shape when it comes to dealing with the scrutiny that coaches of defective teams must endure. Moreover, whatever criticism he faced in Anaheim couldn’t possibly match the frenzy that would ensue if his team underperformed in the merciless media circus that is Toronto.
Achieving success in the NHL is difficult, but withstanding prolonged failure is equally if not even more challenging. Babcock lacks experience in that regard, which is a major cause for concern as we ponder whether or not he can translate his success from one market to another.
Hiring an up-and-comer rather than an acclaimed coach might be better for everyone involved. A less-accomplished coach would not be burdened by a pedigree for outstanding success. Babcock’s reputation as a winner may become a burden in a market that’s already notorious for crushing people under unrealistic expectations. In contrast, a coach with a blank slate might be given a fair chance to navigate the Leafs through their struggles and eventually emerge from the rebuild as a true contender.
2 – Will Babcock Be a Saviour or Another Archetype of Failure?
Should Babcock fail to meet whatever expectations are set for him, detractors will lament that the “Shanaplan” is nothing but a retread of the Leafs’ proven formula for failure:
- Pledge to correct mistakes of the past.
- Throw money, term and whatever else is available to snag the top free agent.
- Stumble after the new free agent doesn’t magically fix everything.
- Wallow in controversy as critics decry the free agent as a false messiah.
- Continue struggling as a mediocre team.
Will Babcock become the latest hero turned heel after he fails to fix a flawed franchise through his mere presence? We cannot say for sure at this point, but what is certain is that he would have little influence over how he is received in Toronto. Benchmarks set for him by fans and the media would ultimately define the Babcock era as a success or disaster.
Failure would be disastrous for the coach as well as the entire Shanahan regime. Remember that David Clarkson’s failure to fulfill expectations made his contract the signature blunder of the Nonis era. While that mistake was not the sole reason for the regime change, it is telling that nearly everyone involved in Clarkson’s acquisition—the GM, AGMs, coaches who preached the importance of intangibles, and pro scouts who okayed the signing—have been fired.
The new group would lose credibility if they preached change only to resume making the same mistakes as the outgoing administration by over-committing to the latest glitzy free agent. Having preached a new way of doing business, Shanahan has guaranteed that critics will compare his every move to the mistakes of previous regimes: it won’t take much for commentators to begin branding the new era as nothing more than a continuation of the Leafs’ longstanding tradition of futility.
3 – Can Babcock Practice and Preach Patience?
As the new head coach of the Leafs, Babcock’s best-case scenario would be to tune out the criticism and work on slowly building the Leafs into a contender for the Stanley Cup.
The worst-case scenario is that he loses patience with the “Shanaplan” and begins making the same short-sighted decisions that have been characteristic of the Leafs for decades. Most NHL coaches don’t have much of a say in player personnel, but Babcock could end up with a chance to tinker with the blueprint for the rebuild. There’s some speculation that the Leafs may only be able to lure Babcock to Toronto by promising a position as a coach/executive (like Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche). Some odds makers even have Babcock pegged to become the Leafs’ first Head Coach/General Manager since Pat Quinn.
Would that setup work? Probably not if we accept Elliotte Friedman’s opinion. In his recent “30 Thoughts” post, Friedman argued that Babcock wouldn’t likely be able to tolerate two or three seasons of losing: “Babcock is wired to win. He cannot stand to lose more than anyone I’ve ever met.” Those comments were made in reference to the possibility of Babs signing with Buffalo, a team that is further ahead in its rebuild than Toronto. If Babcock can’t stand losing for two or three seasons with the Sabres, how would he cope with three, four, five, or however many it may take for Toronto to turn things around?
If losing is not in Babcock’s DNA, as Friedman argues, then there’s reason to worry about him making rash personnel decisions—decisions that might even make Brian “I was born impatient; I’m going to die impatient” Burke say, “Slow down, Mike: you can’t build a winner by making it rain top picks on the draft floor.” Appeasing Babcock’s desire to win now would not only destroy the rebuild but revive the team’s year-in, year-out folly of pursuing shortcuts instead of drafting and developing carefully.
4 – Can Babcock Find a Shepherd for the Lost Sheep?
While commentators disagree on the importance of intangibles in today’s game, few would deny that leadership is one immeasurable stat that excellent teams have, and the Leafs sorely lack.
Whoever coaches the Leafs next must identify and groom the team’s future leaders. Unfortunately, Babcock has little experience in that aspect of coaching. In Detroit, Babcock inherited a team led by Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Brendan Shanahan. Since then, the team’s captains have been players who predated Babcock and learned to lead from their illustrious predecessors. Lidstrom took over for Yzerman and eventually passed the captaincy on to Zetterberg, who had been one of Lidstrom’s alternates since 2006. And those are just the lettered players: the Red Wings have been packed with unofficial leaders for years.
While Babcock likely helped those players hone their leadership skills, he did not raise them from raw prospects to stalwarts of the franchise. That daunting task awaits the next head coach of the Leafs, who arguably have the greatest dearth of leadership in the entire league. The team’s infamous mid-season collapses are testaments to the prevalence of faulty leadership in Toronto, and it’s questionable if Babcock is up for the task of fixing that monolithic problem.
5 – Are the Leafs Playing the Imitation Game?
It’d be great if Babcock could translate his results in Detroit to Toronto, but it’s unlikely that such success could be duplicated so easily. Indeed, trying to replicate it could prove detrimental. According to one hockey insider, “if you try to copy one particular team, you’re going to end up as an inferior version of that team. You’re not going to be able to do it as good as they did.” Those words of wisdom came from none other than Kyle Dubas.
The Leafs’ AGM was referring to teams that fall into the trap of imitating championships teams, but his insight could also apply to chasing after a hot coach in hopes that he and his proven results could be successfully transplanted from one franchise to another. With Babcock, the Leafs risk developing a group that’s similar yet woefully inferior to the Red Wings. A Detroit-lite team simply won’t cut it for fans that have waited patiently for the franchise to end its multigenerational Cup drought.
The Leafs might be wise to go after the next Mike Babcock—not someone who coaches exactly like him but somebody who is at the cutting edge of the profession and has the potential to set new standards around the league. That way, they’ll be resetting the bar for success rather than trying to leap over Babcock’s benchmarks. The Leafs will have to go through agonizing growing pains over the next few season anyway, so why not do so while grooming a coach who will become the highly coveted UFA ten years from now?