Can Mike Babcock turn the Leafs into a winner?
By James Armstrong
Mike Babcock is taking on a herculean task by accepting the head coaching job in Toronto, the 30th coach in the team’s history.
Babcock won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings where he put up an impressive 458-223-105 record. He’s also won two Olympic gold medals.
But can he turn the page on the depressing narrative of the Leafs’ last 48 years and bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto?
“I don’t think they’ll win the Stanley cup under his watch necessarily but I think the hope is they’ll get to the semi-final and maybe get that chance to push deeper. That would be the ultimate goal,” Bob Stellick, a former Leafs’ executive said.
Babcock signed with the Leafs for a staggering, record-breaking $50 million over eight years and significant say in the team’s future. Stellick suggested Babcock will be the “head coach and de facto associate general manager” moving forward reporting only to team president Brendan Shanahan — which, he admits, could make the relationship with the new GM “quite awkward.”
Babcock may have the best chance of any coach in the NHL of steering the Leafs towards a Stanley Cup – but with the team he currently has, it’s not likely.
“He needs more; he needs a better roster in order to do that. He can jockey them so far as a great coach but you have to have the right horses.” Stellick said.
Stellick, who worked for the Leafs during Cliff Fletcher’s first foray as General Manager, compared Babcock’s hiring to Fletcher hiring Pat Burns.
“Pat Burns gave you coaching credibility, a Hall of Fame coach, who was also the Montreal Canadiens coach, which the Leafs fans loved, and Doug Gilmour gave you the leader in the dressing room.”
Now the Leafs have to find their Doug Gilmour.
Finding better players will be the next step in the team’s rebuild. The team has struggled in recent years as superstars like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf failed to produce or lead the team.
“That’s going to be the harder part, getting fair value for players who have not come off great seasons,” Stellick said. “So it’s easy to get rid of Phil Kessel but you can’t replace his scoring potential that easily. You can certainly replace his character far more easily, but the scoring component is really important.”
But the job of a coach is to get so-called “uncoachable” players like Kessel to play well. Babcock can do that by changing the culture inside the dressing room, Stellick said, explaining Babcock’s eight-year contract might help him accomplish that.
“The first thing is the clear understanding that everyone in the room knows, that he has a longer contract than any of them,” Stellick said.
The contract may also help Babcock do something else – cement his legacy on the Leafs’ organization. Pierre Lebrun, an NHL columnist for ESPN.com wrote shortly after the announcement of Babcock’s hiring that fans shouldn’t “underestimate [Babcock’s] sense of history.”
“Imagine if he’s the coach who brings home a Stanley Cup to Toronto for the first time since 1967; his legacy would be stamped forever,” he wrote.
“He doesn’t shrink under pressure, he gets fueled by it. He’s going to love this.”
Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur suggested the same; the Leafs, more so than Babcock’s other potential landing spots, played to his ego — and won.
“But they played to his belief, too. The message was that if there are two mountains in front of you, and you’re going to climb one, why not climb the one that people say can’t be climbed? Brendan Shanahan likes challenges, which is why he took this job. He figured Babcock did, too.”