Well then. That was a waste of energy and speculation. Mike Babcock is the new head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And already, the honeymoon is over.
Make no mistake, this is the most pressure-filled coaching job in hockey. The pressure to pick up the pieces in Detroit after Dave Lewis couldn’t replicate Scotty Bowman’s success? The pressure to win Olympic gold as Team Canada’s head coach? Those are nothing compared to the pressure to end the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought.
In Leafland, it’s Stanley Cup or bust. Toronto fans (and this is one of their most admirable qualities–even Habs fans have grown accustomed to settling) aren’t happy with a bunch of second-round exits, and even if they were, the Toronto media will always be there to remind Babcock of every little failure on or off the ice.
Babcock’s won everything there is to win–Worlds, Olympic gold twice, a Stanley Cup. He has nothing left in this game to prove, as a head coach. He’s widely considered one of the best current coaches, and he’s right in line with a bunch of other guys behind Scotty Bowman on the list of all-time greats. That said, in Detroit and at the Olympics, he had lineups dotted with Hall of Famers. In Toronto, for the first time, Babcock’s playing from behind. And again, anything other than a Cup will be failure. He’s got a lot more to lose in Toronto than the Leafs have to lose in hiring him.
As for the Leafs, it’s a perfectly Leafs move–they’ve skipped to the end. They spent the last year rebuilding their front office, coaching, and scouting staffs. They brought in smart, progressive hockey operations guys. The new guys spent the last year questioning and changing the way they want to build their hockey team. And then the Leafs decided to give this rebuild a boost, and went out and got the biggest, splashiest free agent they could find*. By giving Babcock some amount of control in personnel decisions, the Leafs may have just undone all the work they spent the last year doing.
[*They completely warped the value of head coaches in the league in doing so as well. While rich teams like Toronto have always had the advantage of being able to afford having three former head coaches on the books, how many teams can really afford to sign a coach for more than $3 or $4 million? What’s the market value for a guy like Dan Bylsma (fastest coach ever to 200 wins, one Stanley Cup, one Olympic silver) now?]
Could it work? It could. The Leafs have a handful of very talented players. Arguably as many as any other team in the league. The biggest difference: the Leafs often rush their guys through development, which Babcock will likely steer them away from.
The trouble comes when a personnel decision has to get approval from as many as four levels of management (Babcock, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, Brendan Shanahan, and maybe another GM still to be named). And while the Leafs have some talent, they also have a lot of changes that need to be made.
I hope this goes well for the Leafs. I like Babcock. Lord knows he said all the right things at today’s introduction (especially the part about it being his job to help his leaders, when asked about Dion Phaneuf). I like some of their young players. I want the progressive guys in the front office to succeed. I genuinely believe the league is better off when the Leafs are a strong presence instead of a doormat. But once again, by trying to skip the journey, the Leafs may have put themselves in a position to fall short of their destination.