Defining the Mike Babcock era in Toronto

TORONTO, ON Mike Babcock, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs walks to the ice before his team plays the San Jose Sharks at the Scotiabank Arena on November 28, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

By James Tubb

BELLEVILLE – When the puck drops on the 2020-21 NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be starting the season without Mike Babcock for the first time since 2015.

Through his four and a half season tenure with the Maple Leafs, Babcock was able to become the fifth most winningest coach in franchise history with 164 regular season wins. (He sits behind Punch Imlach[370 wins], Pat Quinn [300 wins], Hap Day[259 wins] and Dick Irvin[219 wins].

He also led the team to the playoffs three times, only missing in his first season when he essentially promised fans the team would not be good.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming. I didn’t come here to make the playoffs; I came here to be involved in a Cup process,” Babcock said during his introductory press conference in 2015.

Mike Babcock came to Toronto not only as the highest paid head coach in league history, but one full of promises of success for the Maple Leafs and the desire return the franchise to its glory days as one of the leagues top teams. As he said, he wanted to help make the Leafs a team that would be continuously knocking on the door of the playoffs.

He was full of promises as he joined a team that was at an all time low. They had not made the playoffs since 2013 where they blew a 3-1 game seven lead. The Maple Leafs fan base had turned to throwing jerseys and EGGO waffles on the ice to show their lack of faith for the team and in return, the team had revolted against the fans.

It would be these promises and heavy words that Babcock, the 30th coach in franchise history, loved to use throughout his tenure. These one liners and open pledges endured him to the team and fans but ultimately led to his demise in Toronto.

When Babcock was hired, things were at an all time low in Toronto. The team had let go of Randy Carlyle and were being coached in the interim by Peter Horachek.

His arrival brought a fresh breath of air to a team full of disgruntled players and a lack of direction.

Babcock in Toronto was step one of many that were outlined in the ‘Shanaplan’ outlined by president and alternate governor Brendan Shanahan, who took over control of the NHL club after firing Carlyle and general Manager Dave Nonis.

Immediately following his arrival, the Maple Leafs drafted Mitch Marner, a player Babcock will be forever tied to, fourth overall in the 2014 draft. Shanahan then traded away the Leafs best player at the time in Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, before hiring Lou Lamoriello as GM that summer.

This signalled the beginning of the ‘pain’ that Babcock had promised when he arrived with the Maple Leafs.

“We’re going to do good things here. It’s not going to happen as fast as we would like, but that’s life,” Babcock said on Bob McGowan’s show a day after joining the Maple Leafs.
And he was right, as the Maple Leafs were not great in his first season as head coach.

The team finished last in the league and were able to secure the first overall pick and their first line centre, Auston Matthews.

For a team that lost as much as Toronto did that season, there was a sense of understanding from the fan base that this years team would suck and that there would not be much to look forward to on the ice. With the real attraction being the prospects Toronto had stored with the Marlies and the chance at getting a franchise scorer in the draft.

The prospects, Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and addition of goalie Frederik Anderson all came together alongside the teams current core of Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James Van-Reimsdyk and the newly drafted Matthews to return the Leafs to the playoffs.

Babcock had promised years of pain and preached how difficult the first couple years of the “process” were going to be. But when his team made the playoffs in only his second year, he placed himself high on a pedestal for Maple Leaf fans who were simply happy to see the team have success.

Even if the team lost to the Washington Capitals in game six of the first round, fans were happy with the team even making it there under their elite head coach.

His coaching in this season was praised throughout the year, with many crediting his attempts at player development while still maintaining a high level of team success.

Babcock’s biggest promise came after his third season as Leafs head coach. Also on Bob McGowan’s show, he highlighted how he wanted the team to become a welcoming place for Toronto born players to return home and play for their team.

“When we create an environment for these players to be safe, … Ontario players are coming home,” Babcock said.

“Mark my words, they will be coming.”

This promise came to fruition when John Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs in 2018, a year after fellow Toronto native Steven Stamkos teased a ‘return home’ before re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tavares’ signing in Toronto signalled a beginning of a new era for the Maple Leafs where big name free agents would be willing to sign with their home team. Babcock fulfilled the promise that Toronto would become a safe environment for players and become a marque place for them to want to play.

His promises paired with the early success made Babcock seem like an un-touchable asset that the Leafs would ride to an eventual championship. The only thing that could have knocked Babcock down from his pedestal was himself. Something he did almost as much as he made promises he could not keep.

Babcock promised success and the team quickly achieved it, only in the regular season. Three straight playoff appearances for the Maple Leafs were a positive for Babcock as he established his impact on the team. However the lack of success past the first round of the playoffs showed quick Babcock fell out of touch with his own team.

As the years progressed in Babcock’s tenure in Toronto, a sense of stagnation began to seep in as the head coach was very set in his ways.

The power play units split the two minutes equally even if one unit was buzzing a particular night, older players like Patrick Marleau were continuously put into elevated positions where they could not succeed while much younger players waited for a chance in the minors.

Babcock refused to shake up his lines, having split up his best forwards. By constantly putting Matthews with Nylander and Marner with Tavares. Instead of making one superior line like Boston’s first line of David PasternakPatrice BergeronBrad Marchand, that dominate the game, he chose to spread the wealth throughout the lineup.

That continued spreading of the wealth included playing time for his star players. In what would be his final playoff game as head coach, Babcock employed Matthews, arguably his teams best player, for only 18 minutes in an elimination game seven his team would go on to lose.

Most head coaches would ramp up the playing time for their stars to try and get back in the game, instead of sticking to a game plan that had clearly not worked. This led to Babcock having to continuously attempt to fix relationships with his players throughout the off-seasons following their playoff losses.

In a simpler way, Mike Babcock lost the Maple Leaf dressing room and it became clear as day during the first game of his final season.

In his second season as general manager, Kyle Dubas brought in veteran centre and Toronto native, Jason Spezza to fill a big role on a very young team. In the Maple Leafs home opener, in front of friends and family of the Leafs players, Spezza was a healthy scratch. It would have been his first game as a Maple Leaf against the Ottawa Senators, his former team.

The move did not go over well with Toronto media nor with Maple Leaf fans.

“This is about Babcock being small,” Simmons said in a TSN article.

“Think of it from Jason Spezza’s point of view. This is his hometown, this is the team he chose to sign with and the team he grew up watching as a kid, playing the team that he got famous playing for. A perfect night for him, or what should have been a perfect night, and Babcock made a story out of something that didn’t need to be a story.”

The move only reflected how Babcock had treated veteran players throughout his coaching career as he continuously worked to have control over his players.

When he was coaching Detroit in 2010, Babcock was Mike Modano’s head coach when Modano was suddenly a healthy scratch in the final game of a season that would have been his 1,500th game.

This lack of a willingness to change was only one of the reasons Babcock was released as Maple Leafs head coach.

One of Babcock’s promises that endeared him to fans was that he was going to work towards making Toronto a safe location for players to play in. He expected a lot of his players and was not afraid of letting them know if they were under performing.

The hypocrisy of these comments only became clear after Babcock was relieved of his duties as the Maple Leafs head coach. Seemingly months after making these endearing comments, Babcock took it upon himself to motivate an 18-year-old Mitch Marner who was struggling at the time. He asked Marner to rank his teammates from hardest to least hardest working…and then shared Marner’s opinions with the players.

This act of manipulation from an adult role model on a teenager took the hockey world by storm when it released shortly after Babcock was dismissed from his role.

In a text message exchange with TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger shortly after the story broke, Babcock said he apologized to Marner after the incident.

“I was trying to focus on work ethic with Mitch – focusing on role models – it ended up not being a good idea. I apologized at the time,” Babcock said.

“It was just surprising,” the 6-foot winger said, according to TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “I was lucky enough that the guys that were there with me, none of them took it to heart and they knew it wasn’t up to me.

“It was huge for a first-year guy,” Marner said about his teammates’ support following the incident. “When I heard about (what Babcock did), I didn’t really know what to think. But I was lucky enough to have that first-year group with me and our team was very tight and very well-knit together. That was a lucky situation.”

Babcock built the foundation of his arrival in Toronto on trust and the idea of a safe environment for his players. Instead he created a false sense of security for all of his players who could no longer trust the man they were supposed to believe in to help them succeed and grow as players and people.

It was almost inevitable that Babcock would not survive the eight year contract he signed with the Maple Leafs. But it could not have been imagined that this was how it would have ended.

How does one define an era that began with promises but ended with those same promises being broken.

“We need to make it safe here for these players. We need to make it safe so these guys can feel good about who they are. In order to do that we need to build our program so we have a better program,” Babcock said.

Likely to Babcock’s surprise, the better program came through his departure rather then his arrival.


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