Toronto Maple Leafs are out of excuses with Mike Babcock gone

The Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans got what they wanted when Mike Babcock got fired. But now the pressure is on them to start winning.

Well Toronto, you wanted Mike Babcock gone. And you got it. But be careful about what you wish for. Three weeks ago, I dissected the problems hindering the Toronto Maple Leafs and came to the conclusion that the problems with the team were far beyond now-former head coach Mike Babcock.

This article didn’t age particularly well, as he was fired yesterday and Marlies Coach Sheldon Keefe has stepped in as the new boss behind the bench. Just when we all thought that drama around the NHL had subsided, this happens.

What is interesting about the events surrounding this change is not that it happened, or that it happened so soon, but that it was President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan that announced the news, putting himself in the line of fire.

As I said three weeks ago, General Manager Kyle Dubas’ relationship with Babcock was crusty to say the best. From Babcock’s jabs at players Dubas acquired to Dubas’ comment that everyone behind the bench was under review after last season’s Game 7 loss to Boston, this was not a match made in Heaven.

With Babcock saying he would rather fall on his sword and lose in his final postseason press conference, it was seen by many that he wouldn’t budge on his ideals and principles and neither would Dubas.

Again, it must be stated that Dubas’ enthusiasm for a finesse hockey team compared to the big, meaty, and mean hockey Babcock seemed to covet was the focal point of their dilemma. It is alleged that Dubas explored in the off-season the option of replacing the coach and was denied by Shanahan, so why is he the one that announced yesterday’s firing? Was it Dubas making the call? Or was it Shanahan that finally agreed it was time to make the change?

But why now? Babcock didn’t get fired because the Leafs have gone 0-5-1 in this stretch with a depleted line up. Rather, it was how they have been losing games. For the entirety of his tenure as the Leafs bench boss, the team struggles out of the gate with the opponents getting the upper hand in the first period, forcing the Leafs to play catch-up hockey for most of the game. This has been a problem that never seemed to rectify itself as they have allowed the first goal 18 out of 23 games and their goal differential in the first period is -12.

While the Leafs have had great possession numbers (hovering around the top five in the league), the majority of the team’s shots come from the point. With the talent at forward that the Leafs have, the team has become predictable with shots from outside the hash marks. The Leafs can drive the play but can’t finish. The coaching staff has refused to adjust.

Speaking of adjustments, while the defense was supposed to be considered the Achilles’ heel of the Leafs, the back six have been playing as the team’s kryptonite. No matter how Babcock deploys the d-core, they have been looking awful.

While Tyson Barrie played for the Colorado Avalanche, he was deployed as a rover. He had free reign to jump in the play at any time, to which he found a lot of success. In Toronto, Babcock has him more stationary at the point and predominantly just shooting at the net. Then there is the penalty kill, which has been a talking point among the Leafs faithful who haven’t voiced their varying opinions on this issue because no one ever hears a peep out of Toronto.

Hopefully, it is known that the sarcasm is implied because now we have gotten to a delicate part in all this – the fanbase. If one wants a nice relaxing time, never check social media as fans go head-to-head on whether or not Babcock being fired is the right move. Whether they are right or wrong, the fans are loud and passionate, and Dubas listens.

So is public pressure the main catalyst for this shift in coaches? Dubas seems to not be the most patient person, so it is very well possible the young general manager felt the need to act sooner rather than later. When you look at his history, Dubas seems to make quick decisions.

In February, Dubas traded Nic Petan for Par Lindholm. Babcock voiced his concerns with the acquisition (a month after he didn’t like the fact that Jake Muzzin wasn’t a right-handed defenseman as soon as Dubas traded for the latter).

Dubas then signed Petan to a two-year extension. There was also the time this offseason where Dubas gave the Carolina Hurricanes a first-round pick for taking on Patrick Marleau‘s contract in order to make room for Mitch Marner, among others. Also, it is worth mentioning that this year’s draft class is expected to be the deepest pool of talent in years.

Rewind the clock back a year. Babcock wasn’t playing Josh Leivo. Dubas signed the forward to an extension only to trade him later. It was more evident as ever that there was a huge disconnect between the general manager and head coach, as the former was trying to make different moves as the latter stuck to his guns, never budging on his regiment and system.

So who is Sheldon Keefe? The Calder Cup Champion Coach has a long history with Dubas, back to their days in the Ontario Hockey League with the Soo Greyhounds and has found great success with the Leafs AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.

Now, the argument can be made that a change in coaches can help bring championships (look at Pittsburgh with Mike Sullivan and St. Louis with Craig Berube). During the 2018 offseason, the Toronto Raptors let go of Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to promote Nick Nurse and ended up winning the NBA Championship.

But let’s be clear Leafs fans, there are no excuses now. The majority got what you wanted and Dubas listened. Keefe and Dubas are no longer the cool kids. This is primetime and with it, especially in this market, comes a ton of responsibility.

Babcock will find work again, there is no question. But while he accomplished a lot with the Maple Leafs, it was his decisions, or lack thereof, in the playoffs that wore thin. He may have been stubborn, but this is a coach who helped the franchise accomplish the most points and most wins in a single season in franchise history. While the game in Dubas’ eyes has changed, Babcock refused to change along with it, causing the two to butt heads in what seemed to be the weirdest power struggle in the league.

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So Toronto, you currently have roughly a 25% chance of making the playoffs. A change had been made. And if it doesn’t work with Keefe, maybe it’s the pressure after all as to why this team can’t seem to win.

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