No matter what sport you follow, the idea remains the same: Teams try to find the perfect coach to mentor players to become the best they can be, leading to playoff appearances, series victories, and championship trophies. In the NHL, a league known for its unpredictability with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this is even more apparent.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, this notion remained true. They were looking for a coach who could lead a young team to consistently deep playoff appearances in the hopes of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
For Mike Babcock, he was looking to lead another team to a Stanley Cup victory, similarly to what he did with the Detroit Red Wings in the 2007-2008 season. Babcock coached the Red Wings for 10 seasons, compiling a 458-223-105 record and took them to the playoffs each year. Prior to coaching the Red Wings, Babcock coached the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for two seasons, taking them to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first year.
Quite a resume, for sure.
The Maple Leafs thought they were getting a consistent coach who preached puck possession and emphasized on not playing shorthanded due to penalties. Offense and discipline was the name of the game for Babcock, and that showed with Toronto, for the most part.
From his first year as Toronto coach in the 2015-2016 season to when he was fired Wednesday, Babcock’s Maple Leafs scored 1,070 goals, good enough for fourth in the NHL in that span. Their clip of 3.05 goals for per game played was good enough for sixth. On the power play, the Maple Leafs were fifth in the entire NHL, sitting at a clip of 21%. Despite allowing 1,032 goals, Toronto transformed from a backwater team in the Eastern Conference to a team that had made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, a feat they had not been done by the franchise since the 2001-2002 to 2003-2004 season (the 2004-2005 season prevented Toronto from making it the fourth year in a row due to the lockout).
However, the consistency Babcock brought from Detroit to Toronto would be his downfall. Despite having solid regular-season records (in the three years where Babcock led Toronto to the playoffs, they averaged 45 wins a season), once the playoffs came around the Leafs fell from the tree of prosperity to lose just enough to not pass the first round each year. In the 2016-2017 season, the Leafs lost their first-round series 4-2 to the Washington Capitals. In the two corresponding years, the Leafs were not able to cash in against their rival in the Boston Bruins, losing both first-round series 4-3.
Getting to the playoffs? Babcock could get you there. Once his teams got there, though, they would fall quickly. Going back to the 2013-2014 season, Babcock’s teams were not able to make it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It all came to a climax when during this season, even the consistency Toronto fans could count on from Babcock disappeared. Through 23 games, Toronto stumbled to a 9-10-4 record. Despite the offense being top-10 in goals scored, the power play percentage fell to mediocrity and the goaltending bent just enough to finally break, with Maple Leaf goaltenders allowing 79 goals on the season, only six goals better than the only team behind them in this category in the Detroit Red Wings (85).
With the defense playing lax, puck possession being sloppy, the offense not being able to counteract the problems on goaltending, and already losing two out of three matches played against their division and playoff rival Boston Bruins, Toronto brass had enough.
Even though Babcock brought the Maple Leafs back into relevancy, consistency can only go so far. In the end, results in the form of hoisting the Stanley Cup and showing off championship rings is what matters in a packed Eastern Conference featuring the Bruins, Capitals, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Montreal Canadiens, among others.
And for Babcock, those results were not happening. The resume, while good, would not give him any more wiggle-room. For Toronto, it was time for a change.