Holy [expletive word for excrement that OTF’s fearless leader, Kate, won’t let me say because this is a ‘family friendly’ hockey site], the Maple Leafs did it. They really did it.
On Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., the Leafs PR Twitter account alerted their fans, the hockey community, and the world they’d fired head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock was in his fifth year with the Leafs—barely more than halfway through his eight-year, $50 million contract—when the Leafs decided it was time to part ways.
The difference between expectation and reality is rough.
This news now means the one-time Stanley-Cup–winning and two-time Olympic-gold-medal–winning coach is now on the market, ‘free’ to a good home, seeking a new partnership—you get it. Almost immediately, a portion of Preds Twitter began imagining a future in which Babcock would bring his winning ways to Smashville.
To be clear, current Head Coach Peter Laviolette does not appear to be on the hot seat, and though the Nashville Predators are off to a less than ideal start with the amount of talent on the roster, they are not currently in the market for a new coach.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news who turns your daydream into a nightmare, but Babs is not your guy.
Let’s break that down.
Just the name alone, Mike Babcock, evokes respect and a perceived level of “greatness” in the NHL community. However, the “greatness” hasn’t actually been so great in recent years. He was fired for a reason, after all.
Babcock left the Detroit Red Wings after 10 years to join the Leafs in their ambitious rebuild plans in May 2015. That first season, the Leafs missed the playoffs, earning only 69 points. It sounds like a bleak start, but it led to the first-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and franchise superstar Auston Matthews.
With the addition of Matthews to the previously-drafted Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Babcock seemingly had his new, fresh-faced Big Three to create a dynasty around. With a roster that boasted Matthews, Marner, and Nylander going into the 2016-17 season, good times, parades, and banners should have been the name of the game for the Leafs. It wasn’t.
Babcock’s young, talented Leafs were bounced in the first round of the playoffs each year for the next three years.
That brings us to Wednesday. Currently, the Leafs sit at fifth in the Atlantic at 22 points with a 9-10-4 record. The window for greatness from the young Leafs is by no means closing, but three years of disappointment and a bad start to the 2019-20 season was enough to tell Team President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan that the Babcock era was over.
A disappointing four years is a good reason to deter Preds fans from fawning over a future with Babs, but it isn’t the only reason Smashville should steer clear.
In his 10 years with the Detroit Red Wings, Babcock’s team never missed the playoffs once—keeping the at-the-time longest playoff appearance streak in all sports alive. He made the conference finals in his second year in Detroit, won the Stanley Cup in his third year, and nearly repeated as a Stanley Cup Champion in his fourth year, but lost in game seven in a rematch against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Babcock also nearly won a cup with the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003, but lost in seven games to the New Jersey Devils.
The Babcock method
On paper, Babcock is a winner with a legacy of playoff streaks, dominant teams, and playoff victories. What’s not to love?
Well, not only is the recently fired coach on a cold streak with success, but his coaching style is also currently not one that is successful in today’s NHL. As we all know, the NHL is ever-changing in terms of what style wins cups—high-powered shutdown defenses; skill, finesse, and puck possession teams; ‘grinders’. We’ve seen them all.
Mike Babcock’s style of coaching is one constant and one of the most consistent through nearly two decades in the NHL. He is a skill, finesse, and puck possession coach. He is an “everyone has a role, one role, and one role only” coach, a fall-in-line militant-style coach with no room for change. His coaching style is rigid, and unadaptable in an ever-changing NHL. He also prioritizes shutdown defense over a higher-risk, higher-reward style of play, which suited him poorly for young, high-event skill players.
Simply put, the NHL passed by the days of Babcock’s pass-deke-shoot-repeat teams — for now. We all know how fickle winning style can be. It could always swing back around in his favor.
In Detroit, under Babcock, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg thrived. However, once it was time for a new regime of young talent to take over, the team suffered.
The players at his disposal no longer fit the mold his coaching style demanded, and instead of adapting to the skills of his young core, he tried to force his team into the roles he’d designated them. Essentially it became a “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole” scenario. The team was relatively successful, but the dysfunction grew more and more glaring as the team was not able to continue to fit the mold laid out for them.
It also became obvious that when a player was unable to fill the role Babcock designated them, they were moved into Babs’s doghouse—something former players have mentioned. Once Babcock decided a player couldn’t fulfill their role, they were rarely given a second opportunity, whether they deserved it or not.
That rigid, play-your-role style of coaching began to falter with the Leafs’ young core recently. Nylander, who signed a massive six-year contract worth more than $41 million, showed signs of struggle once he returned to the ice with the Leafs. The same went for Marner, who signed an even bigger six-year contract worth more than $65 million. To be clear, neither player was bad, but both had periods of not performing at the level they’re capable of that was more than just a slump.
Why it doesn’t make sense for the Predators
Under Laviolette, the Predators currently hold a 9-8-3 record with 21 points—one point behind the Leafs. Is one point really that much better? Is one point worth a new—and newly-fired—head coach?
Career outlook: Babcock is a successful, winning coach. He’s “gotten the job done” with multiple franchises— Sarah Hager (@SarahKHager) November 20, 2019
However, he’s also an old school “play your role” coach and has proven his rigid style isn’t adaptable. #Preds fans, he isn’t the right man for Smashville
The Predators are struggling to figure out line chemistry that will lead to consistent scoring with two 1Cs—Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene—two elite wingers—Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson—and a team of mixed high-skilled and grinding forwards.
On Tuesday Laviolette benched Kyle Turris, a player who’s shown that he can score and create offense on top lines and bottom lines and a player who has shown chemistry at center on the second line with Duchene on his wing. This somewhat mirrors Babcock’s tendency to put players into the doghouse and give up on them quickly.
A team looking to win the cup now is not looking for a coach on a three-year first-round losing streak.
Johansen, Duchene, Forsberg, and Avridsson won’t fit into role-player puck possession roles. There is enough passing happening currently to last a lifetime. As you’ve heard a lot around here recently: the slot is not lava. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis will not fit into the pairing roles of “the finesse defender” and the “stay-at-home, shutdown defender.”
These are the building blocks of the Babcock school of hockey. They are not right for Smashville.
If you’re looking for a take on Babcock’s style of coaching from one of his former players, you can always head to the Twitter account of one Mike Commodore. Discretion is advised.
Do you think Predators should move on from Laviolette? Do you disagree and think Babcock is the right fit? Let’s discuss it in the comments.