The Toronto Maple Leafs finally won something. On Thursday, the team announced the signing of veteran coach Mike Babcock to an eight-year, $50 million dollar contact— making him the highest paid coach in NHL history. The news broke Wednesday afternoon, and while early reaction has been positive from fans, does this really make the Leafs a better hockey team? Do they really have a chance of making the playoffs this upcoming season? Leaf fans would like to think they’re one step closer to ending their team’s 48-year Stanley Cup drought, but they might want to hold off on the parade for now.
The 52-year-old is an accomplished NHL coach—from his 2008 Stanley Cup championship with the Ducks, to his 527 career regular season wins—the man is a winner. Since joining the Red Wings in 2005, Babcock has made the playoffs ten straight years, including four straight seasons of 50+ wins (’05-’06 to ’08-09) and two Presidents’ Trophy (’06 &’08) and topping it off with a Stanley cup in 2007-08. The McGill graduate is the only coach in NHL history to be part of the “Triple Gold Club”—Stanley Cup, Ice Hockey World Championship and Olympic Gold Medal—and is the all-time Red Wings wins leader with 458 wins (Jack Adams is second with 414). With all his success as a head coach at both the NHL and International level, will Babcock really make the Leafs a playoff team next season? Not a chance.
He’s one of the best coaches ever, but the Leafs haven’t become a better team on the ice. The Leafs may have the right guy behind the bench, but they have the wrong players on the ice. According to Hockey-Referece.com, the Detroit Red Wings have totaled the least amount of penalty minutes since Babcock took over the team in 2006. Toronto finished last season with 823 PIM (12th in the NHL) and 307 minor penalties (7th in the NHL). Babcock’s first order should be trying to cut down on the number of penalties the Leafs take per game, and that will mean less time trying to keep the puck of their net and more time trying to score goals. Toronto gave up 52-power play-goals-against (PPGA) and 12 short-handed goals (1st in the NHL), while scoring only 45 goals power play goals. Coaches will tell you that discipline is one of the most important factors in winning games every night, and the Leafs weren’t very good at that last season.
Babcock will also need to address Toronto’s lack of scoring. Both the Leafs and Red Wings finished in the bottom half of the league in shots per game last season, but Detroit finished in the top ten in goals per game.
Babcock is going to have his hands full trying to get his team to be better defensively. Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk are no Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and it’s going to show early on in the season. If the Leafs want to be a playoff team, they need to cut down on the number of shots they give up, and it starts with Kessel and Van Riemsdyk buying into the “team defense” concept that made Babcock and the Wings so successful for the last ten years. According to War-On-Ice, of the eighty forwards who played over 900 minutes last season, Detroit had five players finish with a CF% above 50%. Toronto had none (closest was Van Riemsdyk with 44.72 CF%). The Leafs won’t become a better team overnight, and it probably won’t happen with the group of players currently on the team.
In the end, the Leafs got their man, but he doesn’t make the team any better. The players are the ones on the ice scoring goals, executing the game plan to perfection and winning games. To expect a 180-degree change in one season is wishful thinking, and I expect the Leafs to struggle again this year unless management finds a way to move some players out—players like Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf—which doesn’t look to be the case right now. The hiring of Babcock will take years to show it’s relevance, and if Leaf fans can stay patient for a few more years, they may see their team hoist Lord Stanley in June, but until then, it becomes a ‘wait and see” process, something Leaf fans have been doing since 1967.