I like a lot of things about Mike Babcock and I am not suggesting we fire him. I believe he is still the right coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Before I get into the criticisms, I think it is only fair to talk about the good things Mike Babcock brings to the Leafs. He talks about helping develop our players into good men, good people. I think that goes a long way to keeping a young rich kid from letting his ego get outta control. He’s making them earn respect, not just bowing down to their talents. I think that is good for our long term success and their long term development as players and people.
One of my favourite Babcock quotes is:
“Catch them doing something good!”
I try to use that approach myself in management and coaching and I have had success with it. I am not coaching million dollar athletes or managing a billion dollar corporation but I have seen tangible results when using the catch them doing something good method.
Nobody wants to be criticized all the time. If you are constantly critiquing someone, they will eventually tune you out. It’s human nature. But if you praise somebody for doing something correctly, when you ask them to improve something else, they will make more of an effort. As a coach and a manager, that is all I am ever really looking for, more of an effort. If you are on the team, you are good enough to be there, but your effort can always improve (unless you’re John Tavares).
When he first came to town, Babcock famously predicted there would be pain. That first year, we finished last, but there were signs of hope. We were losing a lot of one goal games and he spent a lot of time correcting some of the fundamental mistakes in the defensive end of our game. Guys like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly both benefited greatly from Babcock’s presence. After years of Ron Wilson and Randy Carlylye, they (along with all our D) had a lot of holes in their defensive game and Babcock deserves credit for turning them into the players they are today. Sure, it’s easy to shit on Gardiner in the summer after watching him struggle through another game 7, but you have to admit we probably don’t make the playoffs if Gardiner and Rielly are playing Randy Carlyle defense. Babcock deserves credit for turning them both into valuable players.
After 4 years on the job, and 3 trips to the playoffs with a young team that over achieved, Babcock deserves some accolades for what they are capable of today.
Thank you Mike, your first 4 years were not wasted, the core of our team learned a lot of important lessons from you and it’s not lost on me that they seem to be good people.
Now for the hard part. I don’t want to criticize Mike Babcock, he has a Stanley Cup and Gold Medals on his resume, I coach peewee house league. But even I know you don’t pull the goalie until you establish puck control deep in the other team’s end.
It would be easy to say I am only bringing up the pulled goalie thing because we are coming fresh off the series loss to Boston when we got beat for 2 early empty net goals 2 games in a row. No, this has been a bone of contention for me for 4 years now. Scratch that, his first year here, we were trying to tank and I liked it when he pulled our goalie too early because it always backfired. In fact, I kinda thought he was doing it to help us tank but then the next season we were competitive and he kept pulling our goalie before we established possession in the offensive end. After watching him pull Andersen too early in games 6 and 7, I decided to look up some stats.
The Leafs scored 5 goals this year playing 6 on 5. This stat also counts goals scored when we have a delayed penalty, and I'm pretty sure we had a couple of those. We allowed 15 empty net goals. Someone in the Leafs analytics department needs to sit down with Babs and show him the stats. What good is a 6th player if you turn it over at the blue line and it ends up in your empty net with 3 minutes left? I believe if he sees the stats he will make the appropriate adjustments. We know he hates listening to fans, but stats don’t lie.
While I don't think he should start listening to our stupid fans, I do believe Babcock is guilty of thinking we are so stupid that if we suggest something it has to be wrong and he wants to prove that to us at all costs, even losing. Part of the blame lies on the fans and media. If we weren't trying to tell him how to do his job, he would come to the obvious conclusion himself, he is not a stupid man or a bad coach. But he is a stubborn bastard who talks about his players being willing to adapt and change their approach to his way of playing so he better be willing to put his money where his mouth is and make some adjustments to his approach this summer. If he is going to demand his players adapt their game to his approach, Dubas has every right to demand Babcock be willing to adapt his approach to the team Dubas has built for him. Sure, maybe it’s not a Mike Babcock type team, but it’s not Babcock’s job to build the team and it’s not his job to turn them all into Mike Babcock type players. It is his job to get the most out of the players Dubas has given him and I think he gave up on a couple important pieces of our puzzle just because he didn’t think they would fit. It is his job to find a way to make them fit. I am talking about Garrett Sparks and Josh Leivo.
I don’t know if there is a rift between Babcock and Dubas, but I also don’t believe that Babcock did his best to utilize the assets Dubas provided to him. Historically, he never does. We lost Josh Leivo for future considerations. Leivo went on to score 14 goals for the Canucks this year. That is more goals than Connor Brown, Frederick Gauthier, Nic Petan and Par Lindholm combined. Those four, fourth line Leafs played a combined 235 man games and scored a combined 13 goals. Leivo scored 14 goals in 76 games, playing most of this season on a line with Adam Gaudette and Ryan Spooner. To put that into further perspective, that is 2 less than Patrick Marleau’s 16 goals. Sure, Marleau had more assists than Leivo but he spent most of the season playing on a line with Nazem Kadri and William Nylander, they are a little more capable of finishing than Gaudette and Spooner. Leivo also finished with a +5 to Marleau’s -6. Makes you wonder what he would have been capable of if the Leaf’s didn’t waste 2 years of his development. Part of the problem was his contract. He wouldn’t have cleared waivers so we couldn’t send him down to the Marlies, but we didn’t have to let him rot in the press box. In 2016/17 leivo scored 10 points in 13 games. You would think that would be enough to get in some more games, but Babcock just didn’t seem interested in what Leivo brought to the team. In 2017/18 Babcock dressed him all of 16 games and he struggled a bit, understandable after rotting in the press box for most of the season. The only way Babcock would consider playing him was if the Leafs ran into injury problems and we got very lucky two years in a row with hardly any injuries.
What does all this tell you?
It tells me Mike Babcock wasted 2 years of Josh Leivo’s development. That is acceptable if the player was never going to develop into an NHL regular. Maybe Babcock thought that was the case with Leivo. But if he was playing on your team (well, practicing with you anyway) you should know what he is capable of, and if you don’t, perhaps you should play him to find out.
Mike Babcock wasted a decent asset for absolutely no reason. Even if Leivo wasn’t the kind of player Babcock wanted on his team, it would have been in his best interest to see the kid succeed so at the very least we could get more than future considerations when we move him.
I was at the Leaf game in Vancouver this year when Leivo scored against us. I think we all knew he would.
The other thing I think he needs to change is his approach to our backup goalie situation. I hope we bring Garrett Sparks back, I know he has more to offer than what we saw from him this season but confidence is a huge part of goaltending and Babcock didnt do him any favours by only playing him the second half of back to backs. We get it Mike, your philosophy is you want to guarantee the two points in game one so you are 500 and any points you get in game 2 are a bonus. That philosophy works when you have a backup like McElhinny but he was given a young AHL superstar who was used to playing a starter's role.
Other coaches might ease a young goalie into the lineup by giving him the easier opponent when the team plays back to back and hope that the starter might steal a couple points with a tired team playing in front of him. Not Babcock. It's time to rethink his my way or the highway approach. Maybe he was trying to make a point to Dubas that he wanted to keep CMac but if that is the case, that is unacceptable. It's his job to do the right thing for the team, even if it costs you a couple points early in the season.
I don't think Babcock deserves to be fired for this. I think Dubas should tell him what he expects him to change and put him on a short leash next season. The only reason to consider firing Babcock right now would be if another team started talking to Sheldon Keefe and if the Marlies win another Calder Cup, that will probably happen. It wouldn't be a horrible idea to have Keefe behind the Leaf's bench as an assitant coach on Babcock's staff next season.
I don’t know if the Leaf’s players have learned all they can from Mike Babcock, I suspect not, but Sheldon Keefe could definitely learn a lot about NHL life from Babcock. I don’t know if Babcock would be open to handling it the right way, but if he wants to be a team player, he should realize that eventually the Leafs will be replacing him with Keefe. Hopefully Babcock is our head coach for a few cups first, but the writing is on the wall, the succession is obvious to everyone including Mike. Not everyone could be open minded about accepting help and helping their eventual replacement, but Babcock talks about doing the right thing, and this feels like the right thing. Hopefully he is a big enough man to handle it and doesn’t let his ego get in the way of our team’s success.
If we are going to be paying a few core guys huge bucks, we are going to have to replace a few of our mid range veteran players with cheap help from the Marlies. Babcock is hesitant to trust any of our young kids. He won’t use them unless he is forced to due to injuries. Keefe has earned the respect of the young kids on the team. They have played for him, they have won with him. He won’t be afraid to sit Marleau and give Dimytro Timashov a chance, Marleau could use the rest and Timashov deserves a chance. Someone has to have an open mind on that bench, if Babcock isn’t capable, Keefe is.
If Babcock isn't open to having Keefe as his assistant, he should at least learn from what Keefe is doing right. He is working with the tools his management gives him. If the Marlies sign a young kid to an AHL contract and management wants to see what he can do, he will play while a veteran sits. I understand you might sacrifice some points in the short term, but in the long term you will at least know what you have to work with and other teams will see what our prospects are capable of. We can't give away another Josh Leivo for future considerations. We have to start getting a return on the investments we can't keep. How much are we going to get for Justin Holl after he sat another year? More future considerations? Thanks Mike. Keefe doesn't make that mistake. He makes sure he knows what he has got and let's management have a good look at the kids. Even if it means losing a couple points early in the season. If I am a manager, Keefe's willingness to play the prospects is a serious pro. Babcock's reliance on veteran players in a serious con. The game is changing, getting younger and faster. We simply can't afford to surround our 11mil players with expensive veterans, the math doesn't add up. We are going to have to start relying on some entry level contracts and if Babcock will give the kids a chance, he might be pleasantly surprised.