The Toronto Maple Leafs are coming off another disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins, and the fanbase is very unhappy about it. There are many targets for this unhappiness—Nazem Kadri (for getting suspended), Jake Gardiner (for a disastrous giveaway leading to the winning goal against), William Nylander (for reasons)—but the most prominent is head coach Mike Babcock, now wrapping up his fourth year helming the squad.
Mike Babcock has led the Leafs to some notable successes: three consecutive playoff appearances, including the franchise record for points last year. But the team has not won a playoff series yet. No honeymoon lasts four years, and Babcock’s is over, though his eight-year contract still has a long way to go.
Is it time for the Leafs to replace him?
Let’s argue both sides. Fair warning, both of my sides are kind of snarky towards each other.
The Case To Fire Mike Babcock
Mike Babcock is not a terrible coach. He’s definitely a better coach than, say, Randy Carlyle. Nobody wants to go back to the days of dressing Orr and McLaren, of overplaying a one-way line to death and getting outshot 60-40 every night. He may well make the Hockey Hall of Fame when he hangs up his clipboard.
But just because he’s a good coach, doesn’t mean he’s the right coach. The NHL is a results business and the results have stopped progressing. This is the third straight year the Leafs are out in Round One, the second straight year they finished third in the Atlantic and lost to Boston. This is despite his young players coming into their own as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly hit career highs in points, and despite adding a bona fide superstar centre in John Tavares (who also set a career high). This is despite adding a top four defender at the deadline this season in Jake Muzzin. The team gets better and the results don’t change; isn’t it natural to wonder why?
Under Mike Babcock, the team has improved every year in key metrics...but it’s worth asking the follow-up of “improved to what”? The Leafs are between sixth and thirteenth in the NHL in 5v5 shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances. That’s good, but not great, and that’s about what we’ve been since drafting Auston Matthews. The goal of this franchise is not to become the Minneosta Wild and just be happy to make the playoffs most years. It’s to win the Cup. Do you really feel like we’re coming closer to doing that?
The obvious question, then, is why aren’t we getting closer to doing that? Well, Mike Babcock hasn’t been handed a flawless roster, which gives him something in common with every coach since the guy who got the 2008 Red Wings (oh hey, also Mike Babcock) or coached Team Canada (Michael Babcock). But he’s been given one of the deepest and most dangerous forward groups in the salary cap era, a defence that at the least has four top four defencemen on it and two other guys he apparently likes as if they were top four defencemen, and a quality starting goalie. He is not being asked to make bricks without clay. And what do we see?
We see a coach who sticks to his favourites. Patrick Marleau is still playing top nine minutes, 6-on-5 minutes, second unit power play minutes, and is there anyone other than the coach who thinks he’s up for them at this stage? Zach Hyman is glued to a scoring centre rain or shine. Babcock is likely in Kyle Dubas’ office this very minute demanding Ron Hainsey get an extension so he can play with the best offensive defender the Leafs have had since Tomas Kaberle. Yes, he’s a veteran, experienced coach who knows a thing or two about winning hockey games. That also means his biases can get a lot more room to go unchallenged than they would from a coach that wasn’t in the Triple Gold club.
The Leafs continually pull their top powerplay unit (the one with John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and Morgan Rielly on it) off the ice whenever the power play is half done, so that they can play their second unit (the one with Not Those Guys.) Maybe this is Jim Hiller’s decision, maybe it isn’t, but whoever it is, it’s a mistake and it’s on Babcock to ensure it doesn’t get made. Other teams with elite PP1s, like Pittsburgh and Washington, give them much more ice than Babcock does Toronto’s. And for all Babcock’s insistence on playing particular penalty killers like Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev, those players failed Toronto when it mattered most, as the Leafs’ PK got shredded by Boston in the most important games of the year.
Now, of course, the playoffs are a small sample size. We don’t expect the Leafs’ PK to allow goals against 47% of the time. But this team has been flawed for the whole season. Toronto sleepwalked through the second half of the year, playing little better than .500 hockey in 2019, and the assurance was that it didn’t really matter because this team was focused on the playoffs. Well, one, it did matter, because this team punted on home-ice advantage in a series they lost in seven. And two, that focus apparently wasn’t enough. On a team level, whether it’s the third-place finish in the Atlantic or the second-place finish against the Bruins, this was not good enough. We aren’t happy with 100 points anymore.
When was the last time you felt this team was progressing? Was it when yet another heavy cycle team ran us around our zone like a carousel? Was it the failed stretch passes that kept right on being cut off by opposing teams through the whole year, including on that first, soul-destroying goal against in Game 7? It was probably before a powerplay of superstars basically stopped scoring. Definitely before the team that stifled it wondered why their job was so easy.
Word from the Bruins’ room: they didn’t do anything different on the PK, and they were surprised the Leafs didn’t play their top PP unit more.— Matt Porter (@mattyports) April 24, 2019
It’s not even clear Babcock trusts his own best players. He played Matthews less than most star centres all year, and he continued right on doing it in Game 7. If you know what in God’s name Patrick Marleau was doing playing that much when the Leafs needed goals, then you’re a better man than I. If you know why Auston Matthews—who was scoring in bunches in this series, and who might be a top-five goal-scorer on the planet right now—was playing anything less than constantly in that third period last night, well, you’re either Mike Babcock or God, because those are the only two entities who can comprehend that in the slightest. If Auston Matthews isn’t one of Babcock’s most trusted stars after three seasons coaching him, that’s either a failure of judgment at a key moment or a failure of coaching leading up to it. Take your pick.
This whole season has been waiting for an improvement that never came. It seems clear that that improvement isn’t coming under Mike Babcock’s direction.
You can say that he probably won’t be fired based on his contract. Maybe not. But we aren’t here to protect MLSE’s bottom line, and Kyle Dubas shouldn’t be either. If Mike Babcock were a free agent, after the year he’s had, would you extend his contract? How about if he had a different name? Or if he hadn’t coached Team Canada, a job almost anyone can do?
The fact is, Babcock is not Kyle Dubas’ coach. He may well respect him, but he didn’t hire him, and there have been signs of friction in the relationship. At what point does he say that for all Babcock’s track record and his ability to stabilize the club as it grew, it’s time for someone who can really put Dubas’ vision into practice? At what point does he hire the coach he can win a Cup with?
Yes, the Leafs have to find someone to replace Babcock, and it’s not a given they’ll find someone better. But they can find someone who has a chance of moving up from this plateau. The evidence isn’t there that that’s something Mike Babcock can do.
The Case To Keep Mike Babcock
If the Leafs win last night, is there any way we’re having this conversation?
They didn’t, of course. Why didn’t they? Well, Freddie Andersen put up a .900, with two stinkers, and Tuukka Rask put up a .970. It’s one game. Any team in the NHL can beat any other team in the NHL in one game, and unfortunately, we lost the coin flip. Welcome to sports. Enjoy your stay.
If you want to tag Mike Babcock for the playoff loss, you have to split out what he had control over and what he didn’t. He did not have control over Nazem Kadri going full Murderbrain and getting himself suspended for five games. He didn’t have control over Jake Gardiner’s back spasms that dropped his effectiveness from fringe first-pair to third-pair. He didn’t have control over Andersen’s game to game save percentage fluctuations. And sorry, but as much as your feelings are hurt, those things were a lot more influential in ending this series than Mike Babcock not doing everything exactly the way you would if you were the coach. This is why it’s a really terrible idea to make decisions based on how you feel after one Game 7. If you want example, look at the Leafs’ entire 2013 summer, if you remember that.
On the other hand, what did Mike Babcock do well this series? He jerry-rigged a matchup pair out of Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev. He used a line to play the Bergeron line close to even and got his emergency third line, with those two no-scoring wingers everyone complains about, to outscore its competition. And while everyone’s whining about Matthews’ ice time in Game 7, did you actually watch how he was playing? Or look at the numbers? Matthews had an expected goals percentage of 24% (!) at 5v5. That’s awful! And Mike Babcock still took his fourth centre out of the rotation—the last shift Frederik Gauthier played in Game 7 was a post-powerplay shift when Babcock had no other centres available, and that was it.
The fact is, on a night where Matthews pretty clearly didn’t seem to have it, Mike Babcock played him about as much as he could and played his best centre (John Tavares) more. You can accept that, or you can realize that ice time goes up and down in one game and throwing a hissy fit about an extra ninety seconds here or there is an effort to rationalize what you know, deep down, is a result mostly based on luck and bounces.
The “Mike Babcock, Dinosaur” narrative also crumples when you think about it very long. For all his favouritism, Babcock dropped Marleau’s ice-time throughout the season and dropped Connor Brown to the fourth line when he could; he worked Muzzin into his lineup and eventually used him as a top defensive D. Yes, he played Marleau a bit more on a night where Marleau seemed to be fighting hard for his last chance at a Cup. Sue him. If you’re waiting for a coach who plays every player exactly as much as you want him to, you’ll be waiting either until you die or the head coach is you.
When we talk about the Leafs stagnating this season, what do we mean? Mostly people mean the record and the fact they finished with the same playoff opponent. Except the Leafs went from 23 points in 18 GP from their backup last season (Curtis McElhinney) to 17 points in 20 GP from him this year (Garrett Sparks). That’s six points right there, the Leafs were five worse than last season. And just guessing here, but Sparks as the backup goalie is one decision that I do not think Mike Babcock at all agreed with. I haven’t even mentioned the lack of shootout victories, another thing that cost the Leafs points year over year.
The Leafs had more regulation/OT wins, more goals for, better Corsi, better scoring chance differential at 5v5, better at all sorts of things. Marner and Tavares had career years. Despite Nylander missing two months and being rusty, despite Matthews and Andersen and Kadri and Gardiner and Demott missing time, the team still performed better. Yes, they lost a few games down the stretch and it would be nice if they had won those games instead. Mike Babcock is not going to survive being held to a standard of perfection.
But perfection is what his critics want. In their minds, the coach that Saint Kyle Dubas would hire would do everything they wanted to do the way they wanted it done. It’s an echo of the old “Lou move/Dubas move” narrative where we’re very sure anything we don’t like was the fault of the guy we don’t like. I can remember when Mike Babcock was the untouchable, perfect hockey mind coming in to resurrect the team post-Carlyle and Horachek. If Dubas sticks around without winning a championship too long—something that’s very hard to achieve and takes a lot of luck—well, I’m sure his lustre will fade, and there’ll be some very smart assistant GM somewhere that would make it all right. If only we could hire that person!
Sheldon Keefe is not going to do everything your way. Joel Quenneville wouldn’t have either. The robot supercoach made out of the minds of Scotty Bowman, Barry Trotz and God would have its own idiosyncrasies, its own players it liked more than you liked them. That’s hockey.
The fact is the Leafs lost a close series to the second-best team in the NHL. If you expected Toronto to get as many points as Tampa and to win the Cup in sweeps, yeah, Babs couldn’t do it. No one can. Mike Babcock has led his players to growth and improvement every year, to consecutive 100-point seasons, and to within an inch of beating damn good teams in the playoffs. You can hope for more, sure; you’re just more likely to get it from Babcock than from a coach you picked because he wasn’t Babcock.
Babcock warned there would be pain, and it was accepted at the time. Now that it’s happening, it turns out a lot of fans aren’t up for it. But the fact is so far he’s led the team to consistent competitiveness. Let him finish the job.
Should Mike Babcock be the Leafs’ coach next season?