Mike Babcock is the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. What now? In his piece on Babcock, JP Nikota writes
Now, it seems pretty unlikely that a man of his stature would leave the good thing he has going in Detroit for a tire fire like Toronto, especially when you consider how much flak coaches of bad teams take, and how wearing the Toronto media can be.
He brings up a good point. Babcock had a number of teams ready to give him the keys to the castle. Truck full of money aside (something we'll come back to later), why choose the Leafs?
This is a team that's been muddling through various stages of rebuilding for the better part of a decade with very hope of competing for much of anything for the next year or two. This is a city that tears players, coaches, and management apart for anything less than brilliance, Randy Carlyle notwithstanding. James Mirtle tweeted this about Babcock after the news broke:
While I'm sure Babcock loves a challenge (as do most in pro sports), he is no fool and does not seem the type to tie himself to a sinking ship for eight years. The behemoth term on this deal signals his faith in the rebuild going forward.
For the Leafs, this means long term stability in the coaching position that they haven't had since Pat Quinn.
Okay, but what about his coaching ability?
If you haven't read JP Nikota's piece about Team Canada's performance in Sochi (or just need a refresher), you can read it in full here. In short, the team was nothing short of spectacular thanks, in large part, to the coaching.
In short, Canada played Canadian hockey systems with a hermetic seal and in so doing, yes, they played defensive hockey. But at no point did the cede the puck unnecessarily. They never gave up their own blue line without a fight. They were not content to 'just keep someone to the outside'. It was stifling defensive hockey the way it should be played - in the other team's end.
Did they play the most exciting hockey in Sochi? No, but neither did the Leafs under Burns and Quinn. His focus on puck possession will be a welcome change after years of Randy Carlyle.
Despite fielding weaker rosters in the past few years, the Red Wings have had great possession numbers. This year, they were behind only Los Angeles and Chicago, posting a 53.5 CF% at 5v5. He pushed a team with a superior roster in the Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink in the playoffs.
He talks about his focus on breaking out of the defensive zone with Justin Bourne here:
You turn pucks over by keeping it along the wall and you end up in the D-zone, and we’d like to be in the offensive zone by making that good first pass.
His team has also had success preventing zone entries
I once argued Leafs should consider hiring Bylsma b/c he made PIT great at preventing zone entries. DET very close. pic.twitter.com/IbkjaYfnyj— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) May 20, 2015
It's still unclear just how far good coaching can actually move the needle for a team but Babcock has demonstrated what a dominant he can be, given the right tools.
The Roster (and the tank)
Ah, there's the rub. The Leafs are in tear-down mode, looking to offload as many bad contracts as they can this off-season. Will this hiring change the trajectory of the rebuild? Maybe management re-evaluates and holds on to some of its veterans in the hope that their value rises under better coaching.
Some have worried about the effect that he will have on the tank next season. Developing players via the draft is important for any team, but especially one like the Leafs, who have a relatively weak prospect pool behind William Nylander.
But, the changes to the draft lottery, with the top three picks up for grabs, mean diminishing returns on tanking. It doesn't make much sense to higher a worse coach to slightly improve the Leafs chances at a high pick.
As for the roster, one of the big questions is how much control Babcock will have. Some were speculating that he wanted something similar to what Roy has going on in Colorado, and then he smashed those rumours after saying that a front office position was the last thing he wanted. But now others have been reporting that Babcock may have a lot of influence on personnel decisions:
May also have discussed Shanahan taking GM role, or Babcock/Shanahan having final say over personnel decisions.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 20, 2015
I'm not sure how comfortable I am with "Babcock/Shanahan having final say over personnel decisions". He, like all other coaches, has made some questionable roster decisions in the past few years. He was also the one pushing for an equal number of left- and right-handed defencemen on Team Canada in Sochi. His concern about the handedness of his defence was vexing to many, as he dressed players like Jay Bouwmeester over P.K. Subban.
The Leafs currently have a big discrepancy over left- and right-handed defencemen as well: of the five defencemen they have under contract for next season, only one (Roman Polak) is a right shot.
Input from the coach on roster decisions is a good thing, the question is about how much control he will have . We've seen first hand what can happen when the coach gets too much input.
Let's Talk Money
The Leafs threw a boatload of money at Babcock: $50 million over 8 years, an average of $6.25 million a year. Between this hire and the Clarkson trade, it's good to see the team starting to flex their considerable financial might. Buffalo reportedly offered him similar money and are not happy about the way this went down:
League source tells me #Sabres thought they had deal in principle w/ Babcock 2 days ago around same term/dollars as Leafs. Maybe even 9 yrs.— Shawn Stepner (@StepnerWKBW) May 20, 2015
Sabres livid for way Babcock handled past few days. Sabres so confident he was coming that they were prepared for Monday news conference.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) May 20, 2015
This deal will make Babcock the highest paid head coach by a large, large margin (the next highest paid is Joel Quenneville at $2.75 million a year). This could mean a change in the way NHL coaches are paid. Bob McKenzie reports that the contract could pay as much as $8 million in its front loaded first years:
Babcock's salary in first three years of his eight-year deal is believed to be as much as $8M per year.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) May 20, 2015
That is, quite simply, nuts. Phil Kessel, the Leafs' highest paid player, has $8 million cap hit.
Back when Randy Carlyle was head coach of the Leafs, some were defending the job he was doing and deflecting blame onto his players. One of the justifications they used was the fact that Randy Carlyle, or any head coach, has difficulties controlling their highest paid players. By salary alone, it's clear who the expendable part of the equation is. All of this came to a head with Steve Spott's comments about Phil Kessel rejecting his breakout plan.
Many have pointed out how nonsensical it is to choose a coach over a star player (or even simply a servicable player like Clarke MacArthur or Mikhail Grabovski) and those people are certainly right, but the calculations can change when that coach is getting paid as much as the stars.
Leafs will give up a third round pick (year TBD) to Detroit. What makes draft pick compensation interesting is that Dubas has stated that the team will try to hire and "develop" executives in order to reap the benefits of poaching compensation. It's a great idea, and they're getting the ball rolling by talking to former Lightning Coach Guy Boucher.
The Final Verdict
Babcock is undoubtedlly a fantastic coach. The recent changes in the Leafs' front office combined with this hire have me very excited for the summer and years ahead.