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Why I Believed In Mike Babcock Too Long

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On being wrong about famous coaches.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

By far the best thing about writing hockey articles is crowing when you’re right. It is the best, and if you haven’t done it I encourage you to take the opportunity. I was right in a piece about Zach Hyman three and a half years ago and I am going to go on about it literally until he is retired, and probably after.

The significantly less fun mirror of this is admitting when you are wrong and trying to figure out why. I would kind of prefer to delete all of my many bad takes, and pretend I hit the bullseye every time while any evidence to the contrary burns to ash behind me. But then I’m no better than Mark Spector, and really, I have to at least aim higher than that.

This is going to be a look at Mike Babcock and how I (and I think a decent number of other people) felt about him over time, and why. It will be on the long side even for me, because I’m going to try to do it thoroughly, and then I’m going to close the book on Mike Babcock’s tenure for good. Obviously I’ll keep mentioning things that happened with this team between 2015 and 2019 for reference, but I do not intend to focus another article on him again. This is it.

So here we go.

Our Garbage Franchise

If you’re new to the team since its resurgence, you may not remember the 2005-2015 era in detail. If you were watching during that time, you probably were forced to drink so much that you also may not remember it.

The Leafs were awful for a decade. They were wealthy, cocky, chest-thumping trash that put its pants on backwards and walked out of the house bragging how well-dressed it was. We had a full-on franchise messiah in Brian Burke come in and promise to build a big, tough, belligerent, testosterone-filled, big-dicked (one assumes) team, and then Burkie missed the playoffs every year of his tenure while dealing out two first round picks that turned into a franchise centre and a star defenceman. I think most people recognize and remember how bad those teams often were, whether undermined by atrocious goaltending (remember Vesa Toskala) or bad defence (remember basically all of the players we had for the entire ten years) or inadequate scoring (remember when Phil Kessel wasn’t on the ice). What people may forget is how brutally arrogant they were, and the contempt they had—and if you tune in to their punditry, still have—for anyone who pointed out what a bad job they did.

If I let myself I will go on for hours about those awful fucking teams as a form of therapy, so let’s play the greatest hits: Rask for Raycroft. Vesa Toskala. The Kessel trade. It Was 4-1. Signing Clarkson. Salutegate. Waffles on the ice. Jerseys on the ice. Failure on the ice.

And no one embodied it all as perfectly as head coach Randy Carlyle, who ran the bench from 2012-2015. I loathed Randy Carlyle. He put together teams that turtled for dear life and got outshot a thousand-to-one, and whenever they won some Toronto Sun reporter would have a big shit-eating grin about how the Leafs didn’t play in the Corsi Hockey League, even though the time always came to pay the piper and those same reporters would wonder how this team Lost The Will To Win or some nonsense. Carlyle played enforcers like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren who literally could not play NHL hockey and whom even he seemed to recognize were bad. The lasting image of Carlyle will be him haplessly trying to operate a toaster in the Road To The Winter Classic series, where he looks about as out of depth running a kitchen appliance as he did running an NHL hockey team.

That was our starting point.

Mike The Savior

Mike Babcock coached the greatest Corsi team of all time, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. Yes, they had Pavel Datsyuk and Nik Lidstrom, two legendary players. Yes, things hadn’t been so hot in Detroit the last few years. But he led a consistently competent, playoff-bound team. He had a Cup ring, and he had gold medals from the Olympics and the World Championships, and maybe a lot of coaches could have done that coaching the gold standard Wings and Team Canada—but he remains the only coach in history to have all three of those pieces of hardware.

Babcock’s teams did not play useless enforcers. They consistently finished at the bottom of the league in penalty minutes. Even their grinders were competent; his teams were always solid, professional two-way squads. He survived iffy goaltending, something that the Leafs had had a lot of in recent years, because his teams played high-quality possession hockey. This might stun people at this point in time, but Mike Babcock was considered a progressive hockey coach in 2015, and he was the consensus best coach in the world.

The Leafs’ renaissance arguably began in 2014, with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as President of Hockey Operations, but Shanahan started slowly before making moves. Randy Carlyle stayed on as coach until January 2015 and General Manager Dave Nonis, Burke’s quieter but arguably even less competent successor, made it to April 2015. It was in May that the Leafs made their big add: Mike Babcock signed with Toronto for the the largest coaching contract in NHL history, eight years at $6.25M per.

I do not know a single Leafs fan at that time who was not over the moon about it. Mike Babcock was legendary. He was beyond criticism whether you were an old-timer or a stats nerd. He wasn’t someone you questioned—although Detroit fans had some mixed reviews of him, but what did they know? They were jilted exes and he was our shiny new HC. After a decade of frankly humiliating hockey failure, I cannot tell you how incredible it was to get the prized free agent coach—who spurned Buffalo, who had to settle for Dan Bylsma, lol—and to actually feel like our organization might be the one competent people wanted to work for.

After Randy Carlyle I’d have killed for that feeling.

Tanking And Rising

And he delivered. That first year, he really did.

Even Babcock’s critics will tell you that performance-wise, his first year was everything that might have been hoped. That might seem strange for a team that finished last, but it finished last playing a lineup that was by the end mostly AHL journeymen and in front of an inept Garret Sparks (I say this as if there is some other variety of Garret Sparks.) He took that grab bag roster and got surprisingly good shot results; he broke in a few exciting rookies, led by our golden boy William Nylander but also accompanied by Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov. They finished last and won the draft lottery and the right to take franchise player Auston Matthews, and our coach openly admitted his joy at it.

He was jumping up and down when the Leafs won the lottery, he later said. That’s just one example of the trend, and you’re not going to believe this, but after years of Burke pontificating about toughness or Carlyle spinning around in confusion, it was encouraging just to know our coach actually thought talent was the most important thing.

And then he outdid himself!

The 2016-17 season was the best season the Leafs had had in fifteen years. It was one of the most fun ever. Every success was unexpected and Mike Babcock, who we’d been told supposedly hated rookies and wouldn’t play them, played a ton of rookies in key roles from start to finish. Matthews, Nylander, and Marner became the first three rookies to all clear 60 points on the same team since the 1981 Quebec Nordiques. They were absolute dynamite offensively—second only to the Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins in xG for at 5v5, scoring three goals a game. It seemed hilarious to think people had ever accused Babcock of stifling offence. The Leafs made the playoffs, a year removed from dead last, and if you didn’t scream your lungs out when they clinched against the Penguins in Game 81 you either weren’t a Leafs fan or you were in a coma. In the first round, they put up a very respectable six-game fight against the veteran Washington Capitals, a team to whom they were favourably compared.

There may have been people publicly criticizing Mike Babcock in Toronto at this time, but they were goddamn rare, I will tell you that. He finished second in Jack Adams voting that year and a lot of us thought he deserved to win. Two years in, there was not a coach in the league I would have traded Mike Babcock for.

Good Cop

Or so I thought.

This didn’t come out until late November 2019, after Babcock was fired in Toronto, but he engaged in a rather creative coaching tactic during this season. He asked Mitch Marner, a 19-year-old rookie, to make a list of the players on the team from most to least hard-working. Marner, understandably, did as asked. Then Babcock showed the list to the players named at the bottom.

I do not think there is any perspective by which this move is defensible. It is petty and manipulative. It is flexing power on a teenaged rookie player and lowering him in the eyes of his peers. Marner was apparently deeply upset by this; so was Nazem Kadri, who correctly directed his frustrations at Babcock and confronted him over them. I doubt this did any earthly good in terms of making the team win, but even if it did, I straight up do not want my team’s coach to behave that way. I was genuinely disappointed to hear that he had.

Mike Babcock talked a terrific game. He has long been an outspoken advocate for mental health. I remember still him speaking after the Humboldt bus tragedy and how emotional he was describing the deaths of junior hockey players in his home province. I remember even in early 2019, when William Nylander was struggling and the pucks weren’t going in, Babcock describing how he just showed Nylander clips of the player winning puck battles. He didn’t talk to him about production, he said—and this was a player Babcock supposedly hated. He just wanted Nylander to get his confidence back.

I bought it. I didn’t buy that Babcock was flawless, and I don’t think now that any of those things were necessarily insincere, either. But I bought that that thread of fairness and fundamental decency was how he coached his teams. Even if he pissed off some players—Mike Commodore comes to mind—that could be the outcome of a coach being legitimately competitive, and I sure wanted my coach competitive. I just believed he was basically a decent man and that he would treat people well: tough, but fair; determined, but sympathetic to the human side of his players. A good cop, Babcock, to use a joke I made. These things are especially easy to believe when the team is winning.

Franchise Record

The team continued to progress the next season, at least in the standings. No Toronto team had ever gotten as many points at the 2017-18 Leafs, and at time of writing none has done so since. An injury to Auston Matthews ruined some of the fun and a suspension to Nazem Kadri may well have cost them their first-round series against the Boston Bruins. But our team was still young. Matthews and Marner were still on ELCs. It was still kind of a development year, we said.

People were questioning Babcock by now. He overplayed certain defencemen, people said, bad ones; and he was hesitating to give Auston Matthews the reins to truly lead this team, to judge by ice-time. Even I had things I disagreed with him about—hell, I had earlier, too! In 2016, I wrote this piece, called “Am I Smarter Than Mike Babcock?

The piece laid out some things I disagreed with Babcock about, like overplaying Matt Hunwick and Ben Smith. My basic conclusion was this: Mike Babcock was a professional. He had a long enough track record to be considered a good coach and his overall results spoke for themselves; unlike Randy Carlyle, who led his team to ruin you could chart on a graph, Babcock’s teams were at least competent and even fun to watch. There were decisions that were beyond the pale for me, but if I wasn’t sure, there was a benefit of the doubt that Babcock had earned, a space where I would have some faith in his decisions. If Babcock was doing something that seemed misguided, I was not willing to accept that it was because he was an idiot.

I think this is, in some ways, a good way to approach things. I don’t think you should come at a question with the answer presupposed, and if your default is “the dumb coach is doing a dumb thing because he’s dumb”, you aren’t going to think very hard about any reasons he might have, or ever change your mind. I still think of things that way.

But because he wasn’t Randy Carlyle, because he was a good and decent man, because he had the team winning more than they had since I was in high school, I gave him the benefit of the doubt on everything. I always assumed he had a good reason for what he did. Maybe not the best reason, and maybe it wasn’t the right answer. Always at least a good reason, though. I would research and think of the best reason I could for what he did, and I would attribute it to him. After enough well-constructed cases, any coach who is winning—and Babcock was still winning a fair bit at the time—is going to look pretty good. I was not totally aware I was doing this while I did it.

At the risk of going too far into my own head here, that’s probably an outcome of legal training, where you try to make the best case for your side and anticipate the best case for your opponent. I think more broadly, though, a lot of people had “Mike Babcock is a good coach” as a thesis in their arguments, spoken or implicit, and that led them down certain roads. But an increasing number of people did not.

Boston I

Did Mike Babcock screw up the first Boston series?

The Leafs got outplayed and outchanced. Freddie Andersen did not have his best stuff. Nazem Kadri got suspended in a dumb hit and we were very optimistic he’d learn his lesson and never do anything that stupid again. Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev played a lot—for want of better options, it was said.

The Leafs did make it to Game 7, and despite what the narrative-makers will tell you, no Game 7 result is foreordained. If you can get to a seventh game you had a very decent chance of winning the series, and to be honest, I always did think the Leafs were in tough against the Bruins. Maybe they were in tough because Mike Babcock hadn’t prepared a team that could be better than that; maybe they were in tough because virtually all the core players were still quite young, and Boston’s were much more experienced.

To be honest, though? I was reluctant to ask for more.

The younger generation of fans might be less shellshocked, I think. I couldn’t, and sometimes still can’t, escape the feeling that I’m lucky just to be cheering for a team I don’t actually hate most of the time, that consistently even made the playoffs at all. We were still only two years out of last place, and we were the fucking Leafs. We were used to being a joke. I honestly felt a little as if this was as good as I could ever have dreamed of, just showing up and having a chance.

April 2018 is the first time I can really remember significant criticism of Babcock in Toronto. There was certainly criticism of his decisions almost from the jump, but this was the first time I heard a real swell in the vein of “maybe he’s not the guy to lead this team.” Luckily July gave us something else to talk about.

The Man In The Iron Doghouse

Kyle Dubas was promoted to Leafs’ GM after the 2017-18 season, replacing Lou Lamoriello, and he immediately added insult to injury by swiping away superstar UFA centre John Tavares from the Islanders, who Lamoriello had just taken over. We were rightly very excited again. Toronto was a real FA destination. For once the punchline to all those “star linked to Leafs” jokes wasn’t us for being delusional, but the other teams seething as we got better. Now we were the real thing. Now we were ready to contend.

And...we didn’t.

Not really. For the first half of the year, the Leafs rode a scorching PDO to a great record and goal differential. They weren’t really bad under the hood—still a positive CF team, still decent by expected goals—but they weren’t...great. They were fine to good. Again. Despite adding John Tavares.

The core issues in this team still hadn’t been fixed, it had to be noted. There was a reliance on the stretch pass that was much remarked on, a high-risk, high-reward offensive strategy that seemed to get countered more and more. The Leafs remained primarily a team that thrived on cashing in rush chances. We talked ourselves into being able to sustain a higher shooting percentage.

Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev were still playing heavy minutes in which the Leafs at best tread water in shots. That never really seemed to change. Of course, bringing in John Tavares wasn’t supposed to fix the right-side defence; it was just that nothing about the defence seemed to be getting any better and the Leafs were more or less a similar team on the whole, despite great offence from Tavares and Marner.

Justin Holl played 11 games that year.

I thought Justin Holl was basically a seventh defenceman. Maybe he still is, despite his shiny new contract and his increasing workload this season. Maybe it’s just a small sample fluke. The reason we still only have such a small sample for Holl despite the fact he’s about to turn 28 is simple. Mike Babcock didn’t want to play him.

Even from the outset, and even during the heyday of Babcock, it was clear that once he took a dislike to a player he was extremely reluctant to change his mind. James Mirtle has reported a player actually once Googled how to get Mike Babcock to like him in the hopes of improving his career prospects (it did not work, apparently.) He had no qualms about ruthlessly cutting players who he didn’t feel were up to snuff.

Nobody minded this impulse too much when it meant he cleared out aging veterans like Brooks Laich and Milan Michalek in 2016. It was a lot less popular when he wrote off potentially useful depth like Josh Leivo. I don’t think there’s any indictment of this habit, though, like Justin Holl.

The Leafs have been weak at right defence for Mike Babcock’s entire tenure. They continued to play dubious or declining options like Matt Hunwick, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Roman Polak, and if you asked too many questions about why, you got a response about “who’s supposed to play the penalty kill?” And I’m sorry, but this was garbage.

Of course somebody has to play the penalty kill. Of course maybe a lot of the alternatives weren’t better. Mike Babcock largely did not try them. I do not buy that there was something essential about uber-anonymous 6D Igor Ozhiganov playing all the time where we simply had to scratch Justin Holl 71 times to make space for him. Now that Holl is playing and thriving on a second pairing as well as the PK it looks, to put it diplomatically, fucking dumb.

In a season where the Leafs seemingly locked up the third seed by Christmas and then drifted on autopilot for three months, it seems inexcusable to me not to experiment more, to try new pairings. Even at the time this bothered me. It did not bother me enough, because I trusted that Babcock couldn’t be that far off about a depth RD. He wouldn’t overlook a guy who could really help his team at its weakest position, right?

The only thing to really feel good about in the second half of the year was that the Leafs were clearly going to make the playoffs and that injuries (to Jake Gardiner, mainly) provided some excuse for the listless performances. Maybe this team had already tuned out Babcock to some extent; nicer men than him have gotten to the end of the coaching cycle by Year IV. Maybe he just didn’t have any new ideas anymore.

This was when the warning lights should have been going off. I think, knowing what we knew at the time, it had made total sense to keep Babcock going into 2018-19. But once that season got rolling, it was too easy to get into a mindset that only the playoffs really mattered, to handwave away bad results because all that really counted was what they did against Boston. They’d be in with a chance there.

Boston II

Nazem Kadri got suspended again and God, it drove me nuts—me and Kyle Dubas both. It was a seven-gamer, again, and this one they really were close. Babcock put together a surprisingly effective pairing out of Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev. He also kept playing his top power play less than most other top units, and he played Patrick Marleau more and Auston Matthews less than just about anyone would have considered prudent in a Game 7. Matthews still played like a first-line forward, and it has to be admitted he was having a pretty bad game that night, but the fact remains that when you’re losing an elimination game and you have a franchise-calibre goal-scorer, you have to use him as much as you can.

This was when the Babcock Wars really exploded. They’d been going for a while, now, but the heartbreak of losing again to Boston in Game 7 set off bombs in the fanbase. Game 7’s shift chart was analyzed down to the inches, and sometimes misrepresented (Frederik Gauthier played very little in the third period, despite what some people remember.) Babcock, the accusation went, failed to adjust. His penalty kill, the vaunted reason for playing all those defencemen people couldn’t stand, got absolutely torched by a Boston powerplay that seemed to love going point—> below the goal line —> slot again and again and again. It was all the more painful because the Leafs did play well in that series. Game 5 was one of their most complete efforts in a playoff game in the Babcock era, and they had the series within grasp. And then they fumbled it.

I wrote a two-sided article about firing Mike Babcock, laying out the case both to fire him and keep him; even I agreed by now there were problems, enough of them to do a thousand-word case for giving him a pink slip. I didn’t explicitly pick one side or another in the article, but to be clear, I still would have kept him (I included a poll at the bottom of the piece, and voting ran 60-40 in favour of retaining the coach.) Obviously, knowing what came after, I would have rather canned him then and there. I didn’t feel convinced by the Fire Babcock Camp at the time, even as I started to think they had a point.

Saskatchewan Science

Mike Babcock has an idiosyncratic accent that isn’t quite like anyone else’s (including anyone else from Saskatchewan that I’ve heard); he’s full of country-Canada aphorisms and he’s endlessly quotable. He likes to talk about the virtues of the hunting channel and the need for Good Pros Who Do It Right Every Day.

As the shine wore off his glowing reputation, people started to hate how Babcock talked. They read comments like his commitment to make do with Jake Muzzin as veiled slights on his boss, and they saw his words about William Nylander as backhanded compliments for a player he never really trusted. His “it’s fun, eh? But it’s dumb” response to high-scoring wins has been endlessly dunked on, at the time it was made and ever after. As much as anything, Babcock was the face of the franchise; his players talked to the media a lot less and never said much interesting. Babcock was the central character, and I think even whatever defenders he has left would say that suited his considerable ego.

All the carping on Babcock’s quotes made me roll my eyes to the point of injury. It seemed like every word out of his mouth was read in the worst possible light and every problem was treated as his fault. I especially thought the accusation that he’d stifled the team’s offence was dumb—and I still think that, actually. The team had a quite good offence for three years. The only thing that stifled offence less than Mike Babcock was Mike Babcock’s defence group.

I excused most of his comments as just his manner of talking. I thought the people who hated him disliked men of his style and generation as much as anything, or wanted one target to criticize for team-wide problems. The coach is always easier to blame than all the players, after all. I discounted the possibility that the defensive issues might be as much Mike Babcock’s fault as anything, because didn’t he talk all the time about trying to teach them defence? I discounted all the supposed slights towards Nylander, because didn’t he still play him like a first-liner? I discounted the complaints about Dubas, because I assumed that if he really wanted to, Dubas could have fired him. I am no longer certain that was true.

Being online has made me a better-informed hockey fan. I get to hear from a lot of smart people. Being online, as anyone who has spent thirty seconds on Twitter can tell you, also exposes you to a lot of awfully loud takes. When there was a criticism of Mike Babcock I thought was extreme, I figured people mostly just hated him, and I took all criticism of him less seriously as a result. Even I noticed he seemed to rack up a lot of critics, but every coach and GM in Toronto in my lifetime has been criticized a lot. That goes with the market. I didn’t put enough weight on the stagnation of the team, the middling results, and so on, on the good arguments mixed in with the wilder ones.

The Right Time

The Leafs should have fired Mike Babcock in April 2019. It is possible Kyle Dubas wanted to and Brendan Shanahan overruled him. If he did, that was a mistake. It was a mistake I supported.

This is really the crux of it, and we might as well sum up.

  1. I believed Mike Babcock was a good coach. I still don’t think he’s totally incompetent, but he is more limited than I thought he was, and the competence he has, I weighted too heavily.
  2. I had a lower bar for what this team ought to be able to achieve. I was too patient with stagnation and I was reluctant to insist the team should be better than “pretty good.” Maybe that’s a legacy of the team sucking for so much of my life, but that only gets me so far, since plenty of people with the same history turned on Babcock faster than I did.
  3. I thought blaming the coach was an easy way out, rather than to accept the players were flawed. This is true, up to a point, but if a coach can’t fix a team’s flaws enough to contend, it doesn’t matter that part of it is beyond his control. This is a results business, and coaches who can’t have to give way to coaches who might.
  4. That limited attitude made me reluctant to think Sheldon Keefe would ever actually be much better than Mike Babcock, because I still believed Babcock was a good coach and it was hard to do better than good.
  5. I was cautious on every point. I tried to see both sides. After a while this turned into excuse-making, and it made it hard for me to even contemplate what turned out to be true—
  6. That Mike Babcock really is an asshole, in a way that might have held this team back.

Up To Now

The rest of it is pretty straightforward. The 2018-19 results under Mike Babcock were disappointing, but they were never actually bad until this season. They got bad in a hurry about two weeks into October. Ironically, this might have been the result of Babcock finally trying to make systemic changes, a few of which his critics had even been asking for. But the implementation failed miserably. The offence, unlike ever before under Babcock, collapsed. The blowout loss to Pittsburgh on November 16 was as close to an outright declaration that the players had given up on the coach as you’ll ever see. It was over.

Even on the day he was fired, while I accepted that it was time, I still felt some affection for Mike Babcock personally. He had, after all, led my team out of the abyss, and I still thought he was a decent guy.

The wave of stories that came out after that destroyed that image. There was the Marner story. Johan Franzen called Babcock the worst person he’d ever met. Carlo Colaiacovo and Chris Chelios gave damning descriptions of him. He was, by all accounts, a well-prepared tyrant. It became a lot easier to see how a coach like that would pall on players, how his “betting on Mike Babcock” might lead to an inflexible arrogance. The static “failure to adjust” rang uncomfortably true. If he was as bad as this, and he couldn’t do more than make a team into about the tenth-best in the NHL despite a huge payroll—then what the hell use was he? I asked, finally.

And the Leafs, well, they bounced back like a spring. Some of that was inevitable—it was absurd for them to be as bad as they were in November, and Sheldon Keefe probably could have gotten better results even without systemic changes just by virtue of not being Mike Babcock. But Keefe really has started to implement them, and they have mostly been working. Even if the Leafs aren’t totally fixed—how could they be in six weeks—there is hope around this team in a way there hasn’t been in a year or more. I think it’s justified.

The correction to my mistakes about Babcock isn’t to swing around into revering Sheldon Keefe as the new franchise savior. We’ve had enough saviors come to this team, I think. It’s to recognize good doesn’t mean good enough, that the team can keep progressing, and that a string of trophies doesn’t make you a real leader of players. If I have to give credit for anything to Mike Babcock, it’s that his tenure taught me I ought to expect more than he achieved.