Toronto Wins the Great Mike Babcock SweepstakesDave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images
After a yearlong circus in which naive Toronto Maple Leafs executives and their delusional fans had convinced themselves that Mike Babcock would ever actually want to go anywhere near that punch line of an organization, we finally found out yesterday where the well-respected former Red Wings coach was really going. And the winner is … Toronto?
Wait, that can’t be right.
But it is, thanks to a mammoth eight-year, $50 million, front-loaded deal that Babcock agreed to after weeks of intrigue and visits with suitors around the league. After 10 years in Detroit that included one Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals,1 Babcock has been the league’s hottest free agent for the better part of the last year. Speculation about whether he’d leave Detroit has been buzzing since last summer and went into overdrive when the Red Wings were knocked out of the playoffs, with the “Babwatch”2 getting hyped to almost mythical levels.
And now we’re left with a world where the Toronto Maple Leafs did a good thing. Well, not necessarily good — we’ll get to that in a minute — but they accomplished what they set out to do. They didn’t fail, epically and embarrassingly, as the entire hockey world pointed and laughed. In Toronto, that counts as progress.
So now that we know the details, let’s try to sort out what this means in Toronto and beyond.
The Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s been little doubt that the Maple Leafs wanted Babcock, or at least somebody with the same sort of résumé and name value. That was the case when they were considering their coaching options this time last year. When they couldn’t find someone who fit that profile, they extended Randy Carlyle and then fired him after just half a season, leading to plenty of speculation that they’d be all in once Babcock hit the open market.
But that was a year ago, when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan & Co. were holding out hope that the Leafs just needed a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint to contend. Since then, Shanahan — the “& Co.” have all since been fired — has realized that Toronto is facing a far bigger overhaul. That made it hard to picture Babcock wanting any part of spending a few years hitting rock bottom on a team just starting its rebuild, especially with far easier road maps available elsewhere.
Babcock may still be a good fit in Toronto; after a decade in Detroit, he’s clearly not one of those short-shelf-life coaches who wears out his welcome after three or four seasons. And the eight years on his new contract should certainly be enough time for even the hapless Leafs to get things turned around. At the very least, landing him gives the Leafs a boost of something they haven’t had for years: credibility.
And that’s why maybe the biggest winner here is Shanahan. He called his shot on this one, not so much with his words but with his actions over the past year. Talking a big game is nothing new in Toronto, but actually delivering sure is. Shanahan has already faced criticism of his approach to hiring — the team currently has no GM and just parted ways with its AHL coach. With the Leafs seeming to fall out of the Babcock picture in recent days, the narrative of a disorganized organization being led by a rookie, overmatched executive was getting ready to grind into full gear.
Instead, the Leafs actually got it done. Whatever you think of the fit for Babcock in Toronto, it has to be encouraging for Leafs fans to know that Shanahan was able to sell a smart guy like Babcock on his vision for the future. (Although the wheelbarrow full of cash probably didn’t hurt either.)
The Detroit Red Wings
Losing Babcock will hurt for the Red Wings and their fans. The franchise did just about everything right here, essentially putting that whole “If you love something, set it free” idea into real-world practice. The Wings made it clear that they wanted Babcock back, while allowing (and even encouraging) him to explore other opportunities.3 They never pressured him. And they kept everything cordial, with Babcock and Detroit GM Ken Holland even sitting down together for a fascinating interview with TSN last week.
And over the weekend, it looked like it was going to work. After months of speculation about which new team Babcock would jump to, a consensus emerged that he was going to stay in Detroit after all. He’d looked around, he’d heard from all the suitors, and he’d decided the grass really wasn’t greener after all. It was actually shaping up to be a nice little reunion story.
And then he jumped ship. You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame the Wings for not wanting to get into a bidding war between billionaires. But you have to feel for Detroit fans who spent all year preparing for Babcock to leave, only to be (incorrectly) told he was probably staying at the last minute.
The good news for the Red Wings is that they’ve got Babcock’s replacement lined up …
It’s the Red Wings. Of course there’s another superstar waiting in the minor leagues to replace the one that’s leaving.
In this case it’s Blashill, the head coach of their AHL club and one of the most respected minor league coaches in hockey. The 41-year-old spent a year as Babcock’s assistant in Detroit before taking the head coaching job in Grand Rapids, where he led the team to a championship in 2013. He’s so well regarded around the hockey world that if Babcock had stayed put, there probably would have been a mini bidding war for Blashill’s services among the teams that missed out.
Blashill isn’t a lock to get the Wings job — they could always decide to go after a bigger name from outside the organization — but he’s close. Don’t be surprised if the Wings get this done fairly quickly.
The League’s Other Coaches
They’re probably dropping their thank-you cards to Babcock in the mail right now. For years, there’s been a feeling in the hockey world that head coaches are underpaid. Until yesterday, the league’s highest-paid coach was thought to be Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, at just under $3 million per year. That’s a lot of money, sure, but it’s less than what half of his roster makes. With no salary cap on coaches’ salaries, the thinking went, shouldn’t the best of them be making more money than Bryan Bickell? Having Babcock not just raise the bar but basically obliterate it should be the rising tide that lifts all boats.
So this is good news for coaches. It’s also bad news for owners, especially those in smaller markets who are working with tighter budgets. The salary cap was supposed to keep the big clubs from using their financial muscle to raid the smaller ones for talent, and it’s largely worked for players. That doesn’t apply to coaches (or GMs), but the salary gap hasn’t been wide enough to really have an impact on competitive balance. Now, it could be.
The Maple Leafs are a money machine with virtually unlimited funds available to pay coaches and front-office staff. As far as they’re concerned, Babcock’s salary really doesn’t matter — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they’ll make from an extended playoff run or two. But most teams can’t say that, and they won’t be thrilled about the ceiling for coach salaries suddenly doubling.
The Buffalo Sabres
As the Babcock watch dragged on, the Sabres seemed to emerge as the ideal destination. After two years of misery that may or may not have been intentional, the franchise has clearly decided to flip the switch and start winning. And despite what last year’s record would tell you, they’re not in bad shape to do just that.
In Buffalo, Babcock would have inherited a team with a future franchise player in Jack Eichel and plenty of good young talent around him.4 The Sabres are also flush with draft picks and prospects, which gives them the currency to go out and add talent if they choose to. Owner Terry Pegula is a billionaire, so spending near the cap wouldn’t seem to be an issue. And GM Tim Murray is one of the brightest young executives in the game. Adding Babcock to the mix would have felt like a perfect fit.
So this has to sting, at least a little. After losing so many games, then losing the Connor McDavid draft lottery, the Sabres and their fans have to be getting a little tired of always being the runner-up.
That said, it’s not like the Sabres don’t have other options available. They could always turn to a top AHL candidate like Luke Richardson, to whom they’ve been linked. Or they could set their sights on a different big name, since the same factors that drew Babcock’s interest should also attract other candidates.
There’s lots of work to do in Buffalo — there’s no goaltending to speak of and the NHL roster has plenty of holes — but the Sabres have an opportunity to get good relatively quickly. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, and it’s doesn’t mean that a winning Sabres team is a sure thing — a look at recent history in places like Edmonton and Florida proves that sometimes when you go to flip that switch, nothing happens. But the Sabres have a plan, and Murray is executing it. Landing Babcock would have been a great step, but eventually they’ll be just fine.
The Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers
We’ll group these two teams together, since both were initially considered to be in on Babcock, but both hired a new coach rather than wait around. They went in very different directions — the Oilers hired veteran former Sharks boss Todd McLellan,5 while the Flyers plucked Dave Hakstol out of the college ranks — but both decided to move early, and we’ll never really know how close they would have come to landing Babcock.
That opens them up to some potential criticism if their new hires don’t work out, since you can imagine fans looking back to wonder why they didn’t swing harder for Babcock. But that sort of hindsight is inevitable, so there’s not much point worrying about it. Both teams got the guy they wanted, they paid a heck of a lot less to do so, and both avoid the stigma of missing out and having to settle for a backup plan.
The New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks
Another two teams that we can group together, the Sharks and Devils are the other remaining franchises with head-coaching vacancies.
Well, the Devils don’t really have a vacancy so much as they have two guys holding down one job, thanks to Lou Lamoriello’s weird midseason decision to bring in both Scott Stevens and Adam Oates to split the duties. But now that Lamoriello has stepped down from the GM’s role, everyone expects Ray Shero to make some sort of change behind the bench soon. That could mean keeping one of Oates or Stevens, but it seems more likely that Shero starts fresh with an outside candidate. For whatever reason, the Devils were never really linked to Babcock in any meaningful way, so today’s news won’t have much impact on them.
The Sharks definitely were focused on Babcock, and there were reports that he’d be visiting San Jose this week. They would have been an interesting fit, since unlike the other Babcock suitors they’re not necessarily in full rebuild mode (at least not yet). There are plenty of other candidates available, and the Sharks didn’t seem as heavily invested in all of this as Toronto or Buffalo, so they’ll simply move on with their hiring process and we’ll all probably forget their Babcock interest by opening night.
The St. Louis Blues
The Blues were the other team that came up fairly often in conversations about the Babcock sweepstakes. Which was kind of awkward since, you know, they already have a coach. That would be Ken Hitchcock, a Cup-winning coach in his own right who’s had just about the same level of playoff success as Babcock recently. He was rumored to be on the hot seat heading into the postseason, and the Blues’ first-round exit led to an expectation that he’d be fired. But he hasn’t been, at least not yet, even though his bosses have apparently been chasing after his replacement.
It’s hard to blame the Blues here. If a coach like Babcock is out there and you’re not completely sold on your current guy, you have to at least kick a few tires, and it sounds like that might be all they did. But if they bring Hitchcock back now, it’s going to be awfully tough to sell him as any sort of long-term solution. And if they don’t, everyone will want to know why they let him twist in the wind.
The League’s Other Coaching Candidates
There had been some concern that Babcock would be the big domino in the coaching world, and that nobody else would get hired until his situation was resolved. That didn’t end up happening, thanks to the Oilers and Flyers, but there was still a sense that Babcock’s decision would free things up elsewhere in the league.
That’s good news for candidates that are still out there. That list includes known names such as Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle, Guy Boucher, and Dallas Eakins, plus Richardson and maybe Hitchcock among others. There aren’t enough head-coaching jobs available for all of those guys, but some should be snapped up over the next week or two. And as an added bonus, the ones who get hired will get to negotiate contracts in a world where coaches can make $50 million.
So that covers just about everyone … although I feel like we’re forgetting one guy.
Oh, right. The man at the center of the storm. What does this all mean for him?
Well, for one thing, he’s stinking rich. That’s always good, or so I’ve heard. And he’s forever redefined the pay scale for his industry, which has to be a nice bonus.
He’s also headed to the toughest job in the league, and whether that’s a pro or a con probably depends on your outlook. Babcock is a notoriously competitive guy, and the Leafs are almost certainly going to lose a lot over the next few years. Given all the hype around his status, his massive new contract, and the number of disappointed fans in various markets around the league, there are going to be a lot of folks who delight in watching him take up residence at the bottom of the standings. Make no mistake, plenty of people who were singing his praises as recently as yesterday are drawing a big target on his back right now. Will he regret his choice in a year or two? There’s a good chance that he will. Of all the options Babcock had in front of him, none had anywhere near the same potential to blow up and ruin his reputation as Toronto does.
But the flip side is that no option presented the opportunity that Toronto does. Leafs fans worship guys like Pat Burns and Pat Quinn for getting them to the conference finals. If Babcock could ever turn the Leafs into legitimate Stanley Cup contenders — let alone actually win one — then he’d own the city for life.
It might not work out. It probably won’t work out. But if it does, look out. Shanahan and the Leafs were looking to swing for the fences, and apparently Babcock is too. Those fences are a lot further away in Toronto than any other market, but if you’re looking to build a legacy, there’s no point taking the easy way.