For all intents and purposes, let’s assume Mike Babcock is in fact capable to guide the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup at some point during the next eight years.
Since there’s no way for Babcock to definitively guarantee a Cup, no matter what year it happens, Toronto’s “wait” for Stanley will have a much shorter expectation date – in fact, there would be minimal surprise to the assertion that some fans are already planning the parade for the summer of 2016 (although Leafs fans tend to do that after a half-decent winning streak).
The problem, of course, is not Babcock – it is the situation he’s coming into to. It’s the mess he’s been asked to mop up (although he’s getting paid handsomely to do so), left by Dave Nonis, Brian Burke and John Ferguson Jr. – and let’s keep in mind that Babcock isn’t coming here to rebuild the team. A coach, even with some personnel input, can only do so much from behind the bench when it comes to the names he has on his roster come game-time.
While Babcock is a massive whale for the Leafs to land (somewhat surprisingly so, too), the money dolled out to the highly-revered coach does not automatically guarantee that MLSE will soon be filling out expense reports for diamond encrusted championship rings. It simply means that Toronto has at least fortified the head coaching position for at least the next five years: whether it goes well or not.
Mike Babcock might in fact be the messiah the Leafs have been waiting on for nearly half a century – but as it stands, there’s just too many hurdles for Babcock to be successful right off the bat, and even if it he’s able to turn it around, he might not get the chance to see it through if it doesn’t happen quickly enough.
10. Unproven Goaltending
Here is the first example of the literal mess that Mike Babcock has been left to deal with. Tuukka Rask, a perennial Vezina candidate and Stanley Cup champion, was a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, shipped off for Andrew Raycroft in one of the worst trades in Leafs franchise history. Had John Ferguson Jr. taken a couple of minutes to ask his supporting cast about Rask, he would have had scouts breaking down the walls of his office in an attempt to stop Ferguson from doing what he ultimately did.
Now, Babcock leaves the duo of decent-to-good starter Jimmy Howard and rising star Petr Mrazek to a doubt-riddled crease sometimes filled by the enigmatic Jonathan Bernier and the even more perplexing James Reimer – both who have shown little to nothing worth getting overly excited about during their Toronto tenures.
During Babcock’s best years in Detroit, he could rely on the likes of Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood – not to mention the “good” years of Howard’s career thus far.
9. The Toronto Pressure Cooker
Anyone who thinks Babcock is immune to the scrutiny and spotlight he is about to settle under in Toronto is out of their minds. No one is immune to it. Pat Quinn wasn’t. Randy Carlyle wasn’t. Ron Wilson wasn’t. Heck, even Punch Imlach wasn’t. So to assume that Babcock won’t feel the pressure “at all” is ludicrous.
To point to his Olympic experience offers little to no argument – sure, Babcock was under a ton of pressure to bring home gold in Vancouver and Sochi. However, Babcock was also able to rely on the likes of current and future Hall of Famers like Sidney Crosby, Scott Niedermayer, and Carey Price, to name a few.
The second things go south in Toronto, the finger will be immediately be pointed at Babcock – if not more so than it was during the Carlyle, Wilson and Quinn eras, as none of those guys were making upwards of six million dollars a season.
8. Lack of Firepower
Surprising, isn’t it, considering that the Leafs boast on of the league’s top goalscorers (whether you agree with it or not, facts are facts) in Phil Kessel, that one of the Leafs’ major issues was, and will continue to be, their lack of offensive production. The Leafs were sitting pretty mid-season, and ranked near the top of the league in goals for, but ultimately tumbled to 24th in league scoring. While it’s hard to imagine guys like Kessel and Kadri having seasons as awful as last year’s – especially with Babcock at the helm – there’s still not much else in that lineup that strikes fear into the opposition’s heart the way teams like Tampa Bay and Chicago are able to.
7. Cap Crush
While the Leafs don’t necessarily have the worst cap situation in the league, they aren’t exactly rolling in cap space either. The issue here is more one of production: the guys who are making the big money aren’t producing at levels that justify their salaries, and what generally coincides with that is a lack of team success. It’s hard to fathom that Babcock will be able to turn both Kessel and Phaneuf (among others) back into what they once were with the snap of his fingers, and ultimately justify their inflated salaries, if last season was any indication.
6. “I Miss (Insert Red Wings Superstar Here)”
Throughout his time in Detroit, Babcock was able to lean on elite-level, Hall of Fame quality stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom – arguably the greatest defenceman of all-time not named Bobby Orr.
In Toronto (for now, anyways) Babcock will be looking at nameplates that read Kessel, Bozak, Kadri, van Riemsdyk, and Phaneuf. Quite the contrast from what he had in Detroit. Toronto might have a superstar in the making in William Nylander, and they’ll at least be able to grab one of Dylan Strome or Noah Hanifin this June, but those guys won’t be anywhere near the talent he had in Detroit for at least three to four more years.
5. Barren (Prospect) Cupboards
Following up on the end of that last post, can you name anyone else in the Leafs system worth getting really excited about? Morgan Rielly hardly qualifies as a prospect anymore, although he’s certainly coming along nicely. Joakim Lindstrom, Brandon Kozun and Richard Panik showed some flashes, but were never really consistent. Other than that, the names “in the pipeline” are fairly bland: Casey Bailey, Frederik Gauthier, Josh Leivo and Stuart Percy might all become solid NHLers, but none are projected to become game-breaking impact players.
In essence, the Leafs rebuild is barely off the ground-floor.
4. Depth Deficiencies
There was a time (specifically when Mats Sundin was still around) when the Leafs had one of the deepest rosters in the league. Today, the Leafs bottom six (what’s left of it after last season’s fire-sale) inspires little to no confidence. While it was more a gesture of thanks than anything else, the fact that Colton Orr even took a shift in the NHL this season is almost embarrassing for the Leafs (although that was the least of their “embarrassments for the season”). Frederik Gauthier projects to be a solid third-line center down the road, but the Leafs are going to have to do some work throughout the lineup if they want to at least climb back to respectability this season.
Top teams around the league have depth throughout their lineup, and while Babcock might be able to coax a little more out of some his lower-end guys, it won’t be enough to sustain true success in T.O.
3. Canadian Impatience
Canadians are often labelled as “polite, and too apologetic.”
That goes out the window the second it comes to hockey – and what often goes hand-in-hand with the “opposite of polite” is vicious impatience. A five-game losing streak is often enough to have the masses sharpening the pitchforks, ready for blood. And while the impatience of fans, media and management is one thing, Babcock’s own impatience might be more relevant here.
Babcock has one Cup to his name. Sure, he’s got a couple of gold medals hanging around his neck, but with the lineups he had at his disposal, he was able to get his gold medal ring sized the day after the roster was announced. The legacy he is looking to create is not one of a man that boasts but one NHL championship. If the results take longer than expected, Babcock himself will begin to get irked, and that’s where clashes start. While Brendan Shanahan (and presumably whoever is given the general manager’s job) will be looking to build up a foundation slowly, Babcock will be looking to put the pedal to the metal and start “going for broke” way before the Leafs are ready to do so.
For all we know, it might go off splendidly – but are you willing to count on the Leafs for anything at this point?
2. The Playoff Performer Myth
Sure, Babcock comes to Toronto with a Cup ring and two gold medals, but the “impressive playoff record” is blown out of proportion. There’s no denying he’s had playoff success, but over the past several seasons he is not any better than Claude Julien, Darryl Sutter or Joel Quenneville – in fact, the last two both have two Cup rings in the past five years, while Babcock hasn’t made the Finals since 2009, when Detroit lost to Pittsburgh. There have also been several inexcusable first round exits, most notably at the bookends of his Detroit tenure: the shocking upset at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Edmonton Oilers and the more recent loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a series which Babcock’s troops had a stranglehold on before letting Tampa steal the series away in seven.
There’s little doubt that Babcock has an impressive overall coaching record (his regular season winning percentage is phenomenal), but to simply state that he has a sterling playoff record that will immediately pay dividends in Toronto is an irresponsible argument to lean on.
1. The Leafs Will Never Be Bad Enough
The vicious cycle will inevitably continue. Simple as that.
For years, the Leafs have never been bad enough to secure a top three selection in the NHL Draft, but never good enough to squeak into the playoffs. Not only does finishing between 9th and 11th sting, it serves the organization no purpose in the long run. Of late, the Leafs have been tumbling out of the playoff picture in the most heartbreaking of fashions, with last season being the grandest of them all.
With Babcock at the helm, what we can be assured of is that this team won’t mail it in as often as they did last season. The players on the roster no doubt sat up and took notice of what happened yesterday, because they were essentially put on notice – “get ready, because things are about to be different around here,”
Even if Babcock whips the Leafs into shape (literally and figuratively), will it really make that much of a difference? Some may point to past years, where teams like Philadelphia, Montreal and most recently Calgary have made incredible first-season improvements under their new coach. Philly was blessed with the emergence of Claude Giroux; Montreal has been able to rely on the otherworldly goaltending of Carey Price; the Flames, for their part, weren’t much better in their first year under Hartley, and this year was highlighted by the plethora of high-end young talent in the organization.
The Leafs have none of those things, and it’s going to show – early and often. Hard work and some better luck might push the Leafs out of the cellar, but climbing back into consistent mediocrity isn’t what Babcock signed up for.
Unfortunately, given what he has to work with, he might have to grit his teeth and swallow it for a couple of years – and when that happens, refer back to point number two. Vicious cycle, indeed.
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