Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
No matter what happens this season Mike Babcock is not in any danger of losing his job.
He is not on the hot seat, he is probably not going to be on the hot seat, and barring some sort of unforeseen development his team is going to be very, very good and very, very exciting. They will be one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. And all of that is kind of where the pressure comes in for Babcock this season because, well, let’s be honest here … isn’t it time that a team that has him behind the bench as its head coach actually does something of significance?
Because it has been a hell of a long time since that has actually happened.
The pressure here isn’t necessarily about keeping the job, it is about reputation.
Babcock is universally regarded as one the best coaches in hockey. He is the highest paid coach in hockey. He has had success in the NHL with three trips to the Stanley Cup Final (with two different teams) in his first six years.
But that championship level success was 10 years ago. In the decade since his teams have…
- Won just one division title and finished higher than third place only one other time, and that was eight years ago (that means seven consecutive finishes of third place or lower).
- Finished with a top-10 record in the league three times, and only once in the past eight years.
- Made it out of the first-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs just three times.
- Been eliminated in the first-round in five of the past six postseason appearances, including in each of the past two years in Toronto.
I’m not trying to turn this into a “Stanley Cup or bust” sort of argument here, or demand that his teams make the Final every season. That is irrational and nonsensical. Winning a championship — or even getting to a championship series — is an incredibly difficult task in professional sports and requires a ton of variables to all fall in your favor, from health, to luck, to talent. The playoffs can be a fluky beast where small sample sizes and random hot and cold streaks can sink a team or lift another.
But when you are the highest paid coach in the league, when you are held in such a high regard for your ability as a tactician and coach to the point that you are nearly above any criticism, and possess what seems to be concrete job security, is it terribly unfair to expect more than a bunch of third place finishes and first-round exits in the playoffs every year?
At what point is it fair to ask, shouldn’t they be getting more out of this?
Coaching in professional sports is a brutal, bottom line business. There are a lot of successful coaches in the NHL that have had similar levels of success as Babcock over the past decade (or more success) only to have been fired for it. That may not always be fair, but it’s how professional sports teams operate across all the major North American sports. Heck, Bruce Boudreau as just one example has been fired twice in the past eight years for winning his division every year and consistently bowing out in the second-round of the playoffs.
The defense here is the talent level on Babcock’s teams over the past decade has dropped from what it was when he was consistently winning in Detroit, and that’s fine (though, he’s still had some pretty good rosters). There isn’t a coach in the league that is going to lift a bad roster to a championship level. But there have also been some missteps along the way. He has his blind spots for veteran players that may not always be the best option for his team. He ran starting goalie Frederik Andersen into the ground down the stretch last season instead of giving him a few nights off when the team had nothing to play for at the end of the regular season.
Here is the reality for Toronto this season. The roster, at least offensively, is loaded. One of the best young teams and one of the highest highest scoring teams in the league added one of the biggest free agents in recent NHL history in John Tavares, a true impact player still in the prime of his career. They have a pretty good goalie. The defense isn’t great, but it has talent and is definitely good enough to win.
Coaches in professional sports do not typically get this level of job security or maintain their spotless reputation over a decade where their team simply does not win anything or even come close to winning anything.
Babcock has somehow managed that.
But if this Maple Leafs team, with this roster, with this investment in talent doesn’t actually do something more than finish in third place in its division or make some kind of noise in the playoffs, how long can that continue?