I’m going to start off by arguing that when the status of a coach’s future with the team has become the number one story in a team’s news cycle you’ve probably past the point of no return on whether or not you’ll be able to salvage that coach.

Is there any benefit in going through the remaining steps of players only meetings, the false vote of confidence from the GM and/or President of Hockey Ops, or in the Leafs case, you have to wonder how many articles we’re going to have to suffer through on whether or not the players will still play for Mike Babcock. We’ve been to this rodeo before, we’ve seen how it plays out, and frankly it’s better if it plays out sooner rather than later since there is a lot of hockey left for the Leafs to try and make up the difference. That’s the big one.

Both Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie have been making the radio rounds this morning noting that the Leafs are not at all interested in firing Mike Babcock. Dreger suggesting a bad road trip could force Dubas’ hand by the end of the week, while Bob McKenzie is touting more of a two-three month timeline for Babcock.

I’m sure that Dreger timeline is sitting a lot better with people than that McKenzie one.

The importance of quick action

Well, quite simply the Leafs have 60 games left, which seems like a hell of a lot, but in reality, not really. The Leafs are currently sitting 10th in their conference if you are looking solely at points. While points are certainly the most important thing to look at, the fact that the Leafs have played two more games than every team they are chasing, and the Lightning are only two points back of them with 5 games at hand puts it in a bit more perspective. The Leafs are in an even bigger hole than it looks like.

Taking the race against other teams out of the equation, in the past few seasons it has taken around 97 or 98 points to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. In the past that number has been lower, around 92-95, but recently it’s been 98, and considering that was the target the Leafs set for themselves with a pick up 6 points in every 5 games model, let’s look at that as the bare minimum.

Leafs Current Record 22 9 9 4 22
18-19 Blue Jackets 82 47 31 4 98
Difference 60 38 22 0 76

So, the Blue Jackets were the team that just scraped their way into the playoffs last season, and well, when you get to the playoffs without a lot of OTL it looks like a pretty hard thing to do. The fact that the Leafs would have to win over 63% of their games the rest of the way when they’ve only won in 40% so far seems like an impossible ask. An ask made even more impossible when the coach seems to be committed to taking you in the wrong direction.

It seems the Leafs are at a crossroad with two paths to consider…

  1. They can stick with Babcock, with what hasn’t been working, assert that the organization doesn’t believe it’s the coach’s fault and approach is sound. Let the players know that this is entirely on them (granted a lot of it is, but are you disassembling the core of the roster or replacing the coach?) They can see if the Leafs turn it around and give Babcock the season to do it, knowing that there is a very realistic idea it won’t pan out and at the end of the year they will be relieving Babcock of his responsibilities and going with a coach very likely to be Sheldon Keefe.
  2. They can acknowledge that the past twenty games was Babcock’s opportunity to turn things around. The playoffs last year and the late season was when the wheels were already coming off and the fact that Mike Babcock hasn’t provided the Leafs with anything so far to believe that he can help the Leafs take the next step was the evidence needed to move on. The Leafs might already be in too big a hole this season to be a playoff team, but the new coach gets to assess the roster and the next season can hopefully start strong.

Okay, so the second option is purposely too rose-y and ignores that there could be very real issues with the players, as well as how the team has been built. In fact, there are a few things worth mentioning about the rest of the organization while still fundamentally believing that letting Mike Babcock go is the best course of action.

  1. This is on the players too. The Leafs certainly were expecting more out of players like Barrie, Rielly, Johnsson, Kapanen, and especially Marner than what they’ve got this year. There have been a number of players that we’ve seen be better and know they aren’t playing anywhere close to their abilities. You can definitely hope a coaching change adjusts some of that, but you’d hope that players making a small fortune playing hockey wouldn’t require that level of hand holding. They might not like the job that Babcock is asking them to do, but they are being compensated quite nicely for their trouble.
  2. Dubas doesn’t get a free pass in any of this and it’s painfully clear that Dubas has been building the team that Dubas wants on the ice, not the one that Mike Babcock wants. Beyond the fact that Dubas has built a team that is not suited for his coach, there are additional issues like cap mismanagement and talent evaluation that may be just as limiting on the Leafs as Babcock’s coaching. I firmly do believe that the GM deserves the chance to hire his own coach, and until Dubas gets his shot with his roster and his coach, he has a bit of a free pass even as the team turns to shit around him.
  3. Brendan Shanahan might be the real probably here. If reports are true it seems that Dubas is ready to move on from Babcock, and may have been for some time, but Shanahan isn’t willing to go down that path just yet. You combine that with Shanahan supposedly inserting himself into the negotiations with Mitch Marner over the summer, and the Leafs could be faced with a President of Hockey Operations with a different vision than his GM. It doesn’t seem like there is any risk of Shanahan going anywhere, I don’t think he’s ready to part ways with Dubas, but it seems like organizational timelines for action are under his jurisdiction and he’s unwilling to sign off on Babcock might be hurting the Leafs.

Mike Babcock is not a bad coach

As hard as this is to believe right now, I believe it to be true. Just as Pat Burns wasn’t a bad coach when the Leafs moved on from him or when the Leafs moved on from Pat Quinn, good coaches get fired and they get fired for not being the right coach for the team at that time. Mike Babcock is no longer the right coach for the Leafs, and it seems like the playoffs last year proved it, and now we’re just having to live in the frustrating inaction that came of that.

I can’t recall too many times in recent history where a coach got to the point where there are daily updates on whether he’s expected to get fired today or not, and then had that coach turn it around. So rather than continue on with the ridiculous farce of stories about how he’s lost the room, players only meetings, trade rumours, GM votes of confidences, etc., let’s just acknowledge it’s time to move on now. Let Babcock enjoy his healthy severance payment, and give him a few extra months to look for work.

For Toronto, let’s just commit to what we all know is going to happen, and that is the naming of Sheldon Keefe as the Leafs next head coach. Even if you aren’t convinced that he’s the best available coach, there is something to said for the having the coach and GM on the same page, and that’s what the Leafs would get with the Dubas/Keefe combo, and is something the organization seems to have been lacking since Quinn served in the dual GM/Coach role.

For what it’s worth, Kevin McGran doesn’t see Sheldon Keefe as an option for the Leafs this year, and thinks it’s much more likely that Toronto continues with Babcock…

It will be curious to see how the franchise reacts to this six-game road trip. I doubt Babcock gets fired in-season. If he is, he’ll be replaced by an interim coach, not Keefe.

To bring up Keefe, Dubas would have to believe in the roster. Otherwise, he’d just be handing an inexperienced coach a mess, telling him to clean it up. I believe Dubas would rather Babcock handle the mess or hand the problem to an interim coach. Then he’ll fix the roster for Keefe next season.

While this is somewhat disheartening to read, as it promotes the organization’s flawed wait and see mentality, and the belief that the guy you think is the ideal coaching candidate wouldn’t be able to turn around the roster, I don’t think McGran is wrong to believe this is how the Leafs will react. I will just continue to argue this approach hasn’t worked well for them in the past.