By: Chris Dagonas
He rode into town, just when things seemed at their most hopeless. Townsfolk whispered of his abilities, his past triumphs.
Criminals, bandits and wobbly defensemen currently ran roughshod over the locals. They were scared to watch the injustices this current gang was performing on the sport of hockey.
He surveyed the landscape, and began to point fingers and shout orders. And when he spoke, people listened. After all, everyone knew his accomplishments, had been hearing about them for weeks.
He had cut his teeth in the Wild West. He oversaw Rock City, and was solely responsible for keeping hope alive in that dismal town. His jurisdictions were disciplined, crimes were at all-time lows whenever he was around.
Now, the locals had demanded that he pack his bags and move east, across the lakes, and put his talents to work in their town. They were desperate. Things looked bleak. Only he could save them.
Only, could he?
Mike Babcock has an impressive head coaching record, particularly in the playoffs. With Anaheim and Detroit, he has amassed a regular season record of 527-285-19-119 (W-L-T-OTL), and an 82-62 playoff record. He has won one Stanley Cup, with Detroit in 2008. He was one win away from winning the cup in his first season with Anaheim, and again in 2009 with the Red Wings. Since joining the Red Wings, his team has made the playoffs eleven years in a row, and in 13 coaching seasons in total, he has only missed the playoffs once. For a team whose only recent playoff memories are heartbreak, just hearing Babcock’s record brings hope.
Babcock’s coaching philosophy is keep the puck, and not get penalties. This past season under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek, Toronto ranked in the middle of the league in penalty minutes, and near the bottom of the league in puck possession. You can argue that the team had already quit by the time February rolled around, but those stats don’t change all that much even going back to the 2012-13 playoff year.
So can Babcock turn that around with the players currently under contract? Toronto’s best-ranked skaters according to CF% (Goals scored by team/total goals scored while player on ice) were Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, with 49.8 each. That ranked 172nd in the entire NHL. By comparison, some players at the top of that list include Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron (all in the 58-60 range). Does Toronto have the kind of puck possession, two-way players, like those listed above, needed for the Mike Babcock system? Can the system work without those kind of players? Will Babcock’s system create those types of players, out of guys like Bozak and Kadri?
Can a coach’s past predict their future, anyway? The Maple Leafs have two recent examples that may cast doubt on that assumption. Ron Wilson came to Toronto after having guided the San Jose Sharks to four straight playoff appearances, but his time in Toronto was a huge disappointment. To be fair, he started with a middling Leafs squad that included top scorers Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky. The franchise then added Kessel and defenceman Dion Phaneuf a year later, but still underperformed and were never able to reach the playoffs under Wilson. Randy Carlyle was hired to replace Wilson, coming with some pedigree; he had won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2006. With a more talented squad to work with, including Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, Carlyle’s Leafs made the playoffs in his first full season (the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season), but were tragically bounced by the Boston Bruins in round one. Last season, the Olympic Break turned a red-hot Maple Leafs team in a stagnant bunch of stiffs, who crashed out of playoff position in March and April. Carlyle was unable to repeat his success, and was relieved of his duties this past January, to be replaced by interim coach Peter Horachek, who has since been let go in the hopes of Babcock landing in Toronto.
In a radio interview in January, former coach Wilson took aim at Kessel, calling him uncoachable. Multiple other reports began to surface that Kessel is a ‘floater’, doesn’t take well to coaches, or as famous pundit Mike Milbury said, a “pain in the ass.” If all of that is true, and Kessel is still on the roster next season, maybe there is a problem bigger than coaching in Toronto. In fact, just by observing the team throughout the year, most fans noticed that they did not look like guys who were committed to the task
If Mike Babcock does choose to take the Toronto Maple Leafs head coaching job, he will be entering into a unique and difficult market. Fans are anxious and will have sky-high expectations, the media will be looking for reasons to insert narratives which may or may not exist, and Babcock will have the memories of Carlyle and Wilson, not to mention Pat Quinn and Pat Burns, to compare himself to. He may or may not have a star player who former coaches and other observers have called difficult to coach, and who enjoys throwin’ some “shakers.”
I don’t know what to expect from Babcock if he does join the Leafs. But it is important to keep perspective, and remember that even though there might be a new sheriff in town, the rest of the team may not be ready to follow their new leader just yet.