Why time ran out on Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock has left the Toronto Maple Leafs in a far better place than where he found them.

There was hardly hope, let alone a collection of stars like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares leading a team with championship aspirations, when he first came aboard nearly five years ago. There were only remnants of a failed roster promising nothing but disappointment in the NHL’s largest and loudest hockey market.

It was a mess. And the pain he promised when he was first introduced? It was felt. But almost in a flash,— and certainly before even mild discontent could set in among the fan base — the Leafs turned the ship around under the guidance of the most celebrated coach in hockey.

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There’s a premium that comes with Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals, and it seemed well worth paying to have Babcock in charge of leading the franchise out of its latest, darkest chapter.

Yet now, less than five years and a slew of reimagined team expectations later, Babcock was handed his walking papers by Brendan Shanahan and Maple Leafs management Wednesday in Arizona after a competitive loss the previous night versus Vegas.

The move triggered the predestined promotion of Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, a long-time associate of general manager Kyle Dubas.

When considering Babcock’s tenure in Toronto, its place in history likely lies somewhere between disappointment and utter failure.

Pinpointing where it all turned, well, that’s not much of a mystery.

From the lottery finish in his first season which wound up bringing Matthews into the fold, to the franchise-record 49-win season in 2017-18, Babcock exceeded expectations from a performance perspective in each of his first three seasons with the Leafs.

Everything changed the summer following that best-ever season when Kyle Dubas was rewarded for his contributions to the team and named general manager. Chosen over incumbent Lou Lamoriello, as well as high-profile scout and fellow assistant general manager Mark Hunter, the ostensibly contrasting voice in the room now had full autonomy to shape the Leafs.

And as his influence expanded, Babcock’s seemed to diminish.

Prioritizing skill, speed, and creativity, while considering toughness and other Babcock-endorsed intangibles as secondary, Dubas whittled down the resources that the coach leaned so heavily on. Instead, he introduced players that better fit his ideal and preferred perspective of the game.

As the Leafs bid farewell to players like Leo Komarov and Roman Polak, the internal tug-of-war seemed to intensify inside the boardroom between Babcock and the management staff.

For the most part, Toronto managed last season, but the philosophical differences and the divide seemed to come to a head from a public perspective when Babcock appeared to absolve himself from criticism following the Maple Leafs’ first real postseason disappointment. The team fell at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

To the surprise of some, and perhaps this includes Babcock, questions about his job security surfaced at the time, which seemed to motivate the coach to stop pulling on the rope.

But as his preferred method became further compromised with more of his favourites sent out the door, including Ron Hainsey, Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev, the challenge of changing his coaching style to accommodate the personnel proved to be beyond his capabilities.

It’s hard to argue that statement considering where the Leafs currently stand.

When drawing this hard line, and when taking into account Babcock’s resume, it’s easy to question whether Dubas’ motives are correct. The GM did, after all, fail to rule with an iron fist in negotiations with Marner and William Nylander. However, there is simply no valid excuse for Babcock’s failure to extract better results from a team as talented as the Maple Leafs.

On the other hand, there are examples of things that Babcock could have done to better adhere to Dubas’ principle. Though ultimately, fourth-line minutes, where and when to use a backup, and how to deploy Tyson Barrie remain trivial matters when considering the deep-rooted issues the Leafs haven’t been able to solve.

While both viewpoints can be true, what seems abundantly clear currently is that the disconnect between coach and architect was too vast to overcome, and that a change needed to be made.

It’s the reason a coach destined for the Hall of Fame now has a significant blemish on his resume.

And it’s the reason a coach with zero experience at the NHL level, but with views of the game akin to the man piecing the puzzle together, could prove to be far better suited to coach the Maple Leafs.

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