For the first time since becoming an NHL head coach in 2002, Mike Babcock is unemployed.
The Toronto Maple Leafs decided to part ways with the veteran bench boss on Wednesday after weeks of speculation, replacing Babcock with NHL neophyte Sheldon Keefe. It wasn't an unexpected move — the Leafs are mired in a six-game losing streak and have dropped to 10th place in the Eastern Conference — but it comes at a time when teams generally aren't looking to replace their head coaches.
A man with Babcock's experience and resumé can expect to receive offers in short order, although most teams will stick with their current coaches until at least the new year. Still, there are some intriguing possibilities that may present themselves to the 56-year-old now that he's become available. Babcock's free-agent status may be just the catalyst needed for some front offices to pull the trigger on a new hire earlier than expected.
MORE: Babcock statement | Who is Sheldon Keefe?
With that in mind, here are some of the possible destinations for Mike Babcock:
The Flames are mired in similar doldrums to the Leafs — Calgary sits ninth in the West with a 10-11-3 record and just 23 points after 24 games played so far this season. The southern Alberta team entered the campaign with sky-high expectations after topping the conference in the regular season in 2018-19.
Like Babcock, Flames head coach Bill Peters' job security wasn't even a consideration heading into the season. But a rough first quarter has Calgary on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, and while it's still early there are genuine concerns about the Flames' diminished offense (which has coincided with a poor defensive output that sees the Flames carry a minus-11 goal differential into Thursday's game at St. Louis).
Could Flames general manager Brad Treliving end Peters' tenure in favor of Babcock? It seems unlikely right now, but Toronto waited until after the sixth consecutive loss to let Babcock go and Calgary's losing streak currently stands at five games.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Another underachieving team that could be looking for a fresh perspective behind the bench, the Lightning's situation may be even worse than that of the Flames or Leafs. Tampa Bay has arguably fallen even harder than the aforementioned clubs, from an NHL record-tying 62 wins and the Presidents' Trophy in 2018-19 (and odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season) to their current standing of 11th place in the Eastern Conference.
Scoring has dropped off slightly— the Lightning are averaging 3.56 goals per game through 18 contests in 2019-20 vs. 3.89 GPG all of last season), but the biggest difference is at the other end of the ice where Tampa Bay is giving up 3.44 GPG — a .74 GPG leap.
One thing that head coach Jon Cooper has going for him is that Tampa Bay has played an NHL-low 18 games so far, while most teams have already completed 21 or more. Cooper theoretically has more leeway than Babcock had based purely on the number of games played, but a dramatic move can never be ruled out after such a disappointing start.
The new team in the Pacific Northwest won't begin play until the 2021-22 season, but having already named Ron Francis as the expansion franchise's first-ever GM the unnamed club may be looking to make another early splash to keep itself in the headlines.
There wouldn't be any splash bigger than bringing on the highest-paid head coach in NHL history.
Babcock's is a name that can bring excitement to a burgeoning fan base, and the Seattle ownership group would be able to sell the former Leafs boss as the cornerstone of a franchise that wants to build itself into a serious contender from the outset. Giving Babcock and Francis nearly two full seasons together to build a culture prior to the club's maiden game could be the kind of forward-thinking move that convinces fence-sitting potential season ticket holders to commit sooner than later.
While it's highly unlikely Babcock decides to call it a career after Wednesday, he certainly has the ability to take his time in making his next move. As noted earlier, the two-time Olympic gold medal winner signed the richest head coaching contract in league history when he inked a $50 million, eight-year deal with the Leafs back in 2015. Doing some quick math, we can deduce that Babcock still has nearly four seasons left on that deal, meaning he stands to collect another $23.25 million from his most recent employer.
It's the kind of money that can make him think really hard about any potential offers that come his way.
While Babcock is a competitor, and he's facing his first spell of unemployment in over 17 years, his favorable financial situation could mean that the 2008 Stanley Cup champion stays on the sidelines until the right job comes along.