With the Babwatch frenzy behind us (Thank God!), the focus has shifted to 360 degrees of scrutiny. From, “The Leafs are going to win the cup,” to, “Babcock’s an overrated bum,” everybody has a take on the Toronto Maple Leafs record-breaking signing of the world’s most highly coveted coach.
Here’s my take.
If you’re going to drop kick NHL coaching salary standards into the stratosphere (Mike Babcock signed an unprecedented 8-year, $50 million deal with the Leafs), you better have a pretty good idea of what the expected value is going to be. The Toronto Maple Leafs do. This isn’t Pat Quinn’s Leafs (Win now, the future be damned!), or John Ferguson’s Leafs (Head shake, face-palm), or Brian Burke’s Leafs (Draft and develop? Who needs that?). This is Brendan Shanahan’s Leafs. And Shanny, who has been true to his word so far, has made it abundantly clear that the Leafs are in the midst of a full-fledge rebuild. He’s made it clear that the vision in the organization has to change if we’re ever going to see sustainable success. This is why the Babcock signing is so important. Mike Babcock gives this rebuild credibility.
In order to execute a proper rebuild, you need to start with culture. What better way to develop a sustainable, winning culture than to bring in the guy who has been at the center of the best culture in hockey for the last 10 years. The Detroit Red Wings, under Babcock’s watch, haven’t necessarily had the most talented teams over the last 10 years, but they have been the most consistent. The Wings haven’t missed the playoffs in the last 26 years and haven’t strayed from their successful model of building through the draft and prioritizing development.
230 miles east of the Ambassador Bridge in Leaf-land, poor draft selections and player development have been the Achilles heel of a franchise that has been to the playoffs only once in the last 10 years. The lack of player development is clearly evident in the fact that only 7 of the 24 Leaf players to play 20 or more games during the 2014-15 season were selected/ signed and developed in the Leaf system. In contrast, franchises like the Chicago Blackhawks (14 of 21), Los Angeles Kings (14 of 21) and Detroit Red Wings (20 of 23) continue to embrace the value of building sustainable success through strong development.
Why did the Leafs need Babcock to be the face of the rebuild? Why couldn’t it be a guy like Dan Bylsma, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, and coached a team that was built on successful development? Or why not Todd McLellan, who led the San Jose Sharks to six postseasons in seven years and apprenticed under Babcock for three years, winning a Cup in the process? The answer is “Star Power.” Mike Babcock is a rock star and to coach in Toronto, where the media is going to attack you from every angle, you need to carry a big stick.
From the CIS to the World Junior Championships, World Championships, Olympics, and the NHL, Babcock has won everything. When you have a hardware shelf like Babcock’s there’s not much people can say to pick you apart. When you win everywhere you go, it means you’ve figured something out. It also means you are driven to succeed and open to challenges and let’s be honest, the next three to five years are going to be a big challenge for Babcock and the Leafs.
The Babcock signing also represents a major shift in the balance of power in hockey. We’re now seeing a situation that we haven’t seen since the days of Toe Blake and Eddie Shore. Mike Babcock is the biggest star the Leafs have. If Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf were to approach Brendan Shanahan and say, “Either Babcock goes or I go,” it’s not going to be Babcock. I can’t think of another situation in the NHL today where the same can be said. With presence comes respect and when you are respected throughout the industry the way that Babcock is, it’s much easier to solicit engagement and buy-in.
The Detroit Red Wing connection goes way beyond Mike Babcock. As the leader of the Maple Leaf rebuild, Shanahan has preached the importance of building a winning culture and drafting, developing and exercising patience—everything the Detroit Red Wings have been about for the last 26 years. Shanahan experienced this model first-hand as a member of the Wings during a 9-year stretch where he won three Stanley Cups and, based on what we’ve seen in his eventful tenure as team President, he’s serious about using the same approach to build success in Toronto.
When you think of the Red Wings, from a historical standpoint, you think about Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay winning four Stanley Cups and Scotty Bowman and his influence on Steve Yzerman, propelling him from offensive star to well-rounded champion. What most people forget is that in between the glory there was a very dark time in Hockeytown. In a 17-year span from 1966 to 1983, the Detroit “Dead Wings” made the playoffs twice, winning only one round, while misfiring on high draft picks and opting for aging has-beens (Sound familiar?). In the 31 years since, they’ve missed the playoffs only twice.
While it’s been a long time since Frank Mahovlich and George Armstrong lifted the Cup while donning the blue and white, it’s only been a decade since the Leafs enjoyed a stretch of 10 postseason births in 12 years. If Shanahan can successfully carry out his plan to rebuild the Leafs, it’s possible that we may just see history repeat itself.
From Dead Wings to Hot Wings and Crumbling Leafs to …….? We’ll just have to wait and see.