Mike Babcock has probably never felt the pressure as much as he has now going into the playoffs, as some think the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach is on the hot seat if the team doesn’t perform.
While this is mostly opinion, there are some who believe it could actually happen if the Leafs are ousted quickly by the Boston Bruins in the first round. It’s quite impressive that people are ready to close the book on Babcock’s time with the Leafs before the team has even played a playoff game.
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Give the head coach credit, he finds a good way to remain composed when the team was struggling in March. You can chalk that up to experience even though he has had moments where he could’ve chosen his words more carefully.
Regardless, the team finished in the top 10, are one of the top performers at even strength. If there is any reason to be worried, it’s the performance of Frederik Andersen, the team’s special teams and whether they can shut down the Bruins top line.
Even though the team went 3-5-2 down the stretch, part of that can be pointed to the Leafs not playing their best lineup and the team not having a lot to play for. Babcock perfectly summed that up after their final game of the regular season.
"“Everyone says it’s a long playoff,” Babcock told Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun. “It’s only a long playoff for two teams. If you want to keep playing, you have to play well. Your regular season does not much matter. In the end, it’s what you do in the post-season that is measured. We are all measured that way and we understand that.”"
That will be the biggest challenge for the head coach, can he get the team to commit to playing the style he believes can make them successful in the playoffs? According to some, if he can’t get the players to do that, there needs to be a serious conversation about his job.
Babcock has been with the Leafs for four seasons and in three of them, they have made it to the playoffs. The last Leafs coach to do that was Pat Quinn and he got the team to the post-season in six consecutive seasons.
In the time between Quinn and Babcock, it was a tough stretch with the team only making the playoffs once albeit in a 48-game season. There were no expectations after the Leafs picked first overall in 2016 to make the playoffs and they did and they have improved on that with consecutive 100-point seasons.
Toronto lost to an experienced Washington Capitals team in six games and couldn’t get past the Bruins despite pushing them to Game 7 after a tough start. This time around the team is in a strong position to make it past the first round and it won’t be an easy task.
Boston still has a core of players who know what it takes to win a series and that will be the focus for the Leafs to exploit. They know they have a deeper team up front and they should have the edge in goal but on paper that means nothing unless the team can execute.
This is why there is the enormous amount of pressure being put on Babcock but if this ends up being another close series it would be tough to say his job should be on the line.
Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star wrote a column about Babcock and how the team could consider giving him the boot if he’s unable to move past the first round. Here is a snippet from it.
"“If a wayward franchise needs a frontman to take it from “pain” to the playoffs — not to mention a coach who’d love a scenario in which his input on player-personnel decisions is welcome — he’s a proven commodity. But if playoff success eludes the Maple Leafs for the third straight season, Dubas will have to strongly consider the pink slip.”"
Feschuk points out the apparent friction between Babcock and Dubas and a “reported” myth with Auston Matthews could seal Babcock’s faith but there is a factor people tend to forget. In the end, this will probably be a situation where Brendan Shanahan would step in and try to find the best solution.
It was the former three-time Stanley Cup Champion who pursued his former Detroit Red Wings head coach as soon as it was made known that he was not returning to Detroit. He also believed that Kyle Dubas and Babcock would be able to work together when he told Lou Lamoriello that his time as general manager was coming to an end.
Was it Babcock’s fault that William Nylander missed a good part of the season because of contract negotiation? No. Does he tend to rely on veterans like Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau too much in certain situations? Yes.
Let’s not forget that the core of this team doesn’t have the same experience as the other contenders in the league. It takes time for a team to get to that point even though Vegas was able to do it. Babcock is hoping the team’s veterans that he relies on can teach and mould these young players, he has seen success with it in Detroit.
There are times where decisions by the head coach are going to be challenged and let’s be real here, there aren’t many cases where a player and coach agree on everything. It is normal to expect pushback, as long as there is a mutual respect and understanding, it will work.
He has also been instrumental with turning around Nazem Kadri‘s game, Morgan Rielly has elevated himself into the Norris Trophy conversation and Mitch Marner went from being a player slapped on to the fourth line to one of the top wingers in the league. There is progress being made but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Whether or not people agree with everything Babcock is done, it is unfair to say his job should be on the line. The team made it a point to sign him to an eight-year deal while making a big financial commitment to the plan put in place.
Unless there’s a major disaster that Babcock can’t solve, or the organization really feels that Sheldon Keefe is more than capable of taking over then that could be a discussion to be had at some point.
Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of that coming up and the team better think twice about making a major decision like an unnecessary coaching change or we could end up going back to the last stretch that the fanbase and organization want to keep in the rearview mirror.