Mike Babcock Takes the Money, Signs with Toronto

Posted: 05/21/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

If you asked me to rank the top 10 head coaching jobs in hockey right now, the Detroit job would definitely be there. Expand that list to 20 and Buffalo would be there too. But Toronto? Not a great place for a coach to be right now. Consider: it’s probably the most hockey-crazy city in North America by sheer volume if not per capita. The media is vicious, to the point that their two best players, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, are probably the two most criticized players in the NHL. Kessel flipped out at the media multiple times, most notably here. More importantly, the team stinks. They went 30-44-8 this season for the fourth worst point total in the NHL. But Buffalo was even worse, so why is the Toronto job so much worse?

Well, the Sabres, and most other teams at the bottom of the standings, already have some talented youth. Buffalo’s prospects, led by Sam Reinhart, last year’s #2 overall pick, are ranked first in hockey by Hockeysfuture.com, and that doesn’t even include all the young talent they have already at the NHL level. 20 year-old Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen played 78 games this year, while fellow 20 year-old Nikita Zadorov played 60. Of the team’s key contributors, only Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta are older than 25. Oh, and let’s not forget about this year’s second overall pick, which is all but certain to be Boston University center Jack Eichel. The Sabres were bummed to fall out of the #1 spot, but the consolation prize isn’t too bad; Eichel would be the #1 overall pick almost any other year and profiles as a #1 center. It’s a pretty good core to build on, and they’ll also have oodles of cap space in the future.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs’ prospects are ranked 19th. They are a disaster at the goalie position. They have drafted conservatively over the last number of years, and as a result they don’t have many high-potential prospects. Kessel, their best player, is unlikely to be on the team next year. Same goes for #1 defenseman Phaneuf. Aside from perhaps 26 year-old James van Riemsdyk, there are no sure things on this roster. Sure, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri are expected to be future contributors, but have we really seen all that much from them? The truth is that this roster shows the risk of gunning for a playoff spot every year; it’s cap-strained and lacks talented youth. So roster-wise as well as media-wise, Toronto isn’t anywhere near the best landing spot for Mike Babcock.

Of course, Babcock probably walked away from the best job of all the available ones: the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings have made the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons and also have a strong group of young players and prospects. They look primed to continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. So why did Babcock leave Detroit and reject the chance to coach Eichel, instead ending up in Toronto?

Well, I can think of two possible big reasons. The first is simply that Babcock wants and needs a new challenge. He’s thought of as the best coach in the NHL, but he won a Stanley Cup with a stacked team that he inherited. I mean, couldn’t you or I win it all with a base of Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk and plenty of talent around them? He also won two Olympics, but again, he won them with a stacked team in Team Canada. Still impressive achievements, but Babcock still hasn’t built a team from the ground up on his own and won with it. Whereas he’d have it easier in Detroit (way more talent) or Buffalo (way more young potential), he’ll start from closer to scratch with Toronto than he would at pretty much any other destination. Given the circumstances (hockey-obsessed town and a team that hasn’t had success in ages), Babcock will be under tremendous pressure, but the flip side of that is that, if he succeeds, he’ll be a hero. If he wins them a Stanley Cup, he’ll have a statue in front of the Air Canada Centre. And knowing how confident Babcock is, I’m sure he thinks he can take the Leafs to the promised land.

But still, if the money were equal, don’t you think Babcock would have taken one of his other, more luxurious options? We’ll never know, because the Maple Leafs threw way more money at Babcock than the Sabres and certainly the Red Wings. He signed an eight year, $50 million deal and will now basically be making twice as much as any other coach. Even if you believe he’s the best coach in the NHL, that still has to be considered an overpay. You can’t blame Babcock, or anyone, for taking the money, but he can’t have it both ways; he’s clearly prioritizing money over winning, at least in the immediate future.

In the end, the Maple Leafs and Babcock might be a perfect match for each other. Toronto’s front office surely now knows they need a full rebuild, and it will be a lot easier to explain losing to the fans and media now that Babcock is the coach.  Meanwhile, the former Red Wings coach has done a lot of winning in his career but has never had a challenge like the one he’s about to face. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Toronto, the media center of hockey, over the next few years. Will the fans grow impatient, causing Babcock’s tenure to end prematurely? Or will the coach lead the maligned franchise to the promised land? I’m betting on the first but, for the sake of the poor Toronto hockey fans, hoping for the second.

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