Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Maple Leafs Land Mike Babcock

The Leafs landed the most impactful free agent of the off-season and it isn't even July 1.

On Wednesday, the Leafs signed Mike Babcock to an 8-year, $50 million deal to become the 30th head coach in franchise history.

The Leafs apparently swooped in at the last moment of negotiations and signed Babcock after it looked almost certain as if the Buffalo Sabres would sign the highly sought after coach. There are tears in Buffalo, for sure.

Babcock now becomes the highest paid coach in the NHL by a wide margin, and for good reason. He's widely regarded as the best coach in the NHL. He's 17th on the all-time coaching wins list and 9th on the all-time playoffs win list. He led the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup in 2009 and made Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2003 and 2010, he also won an Olympic Gold medal with Canada in 2010 and 2014. Under his watch the Red Wings made the playoffs in 10 straight seasons.

The Red Wings' consistency is even more impressive considering over the years they lost the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Marian Hossa, Brian Rafalski, and plenty of other useful players, yet still kept on ticking. It seems like every year for the past few seasons people have been predicting the demise of the Red Wings, yet somehow it hasn't happened under Babcock. The Red Wings are still a model of consistency. In terms of puck possession, the Wings were first in the league three times and second twice. In the only two years they were lower than fifth they finished ninth and sixth. No matter the roster the Red Wings under Babcock stayed excellent.

The Wings have always been able to integrate young players into the lineup and receive meaningful contributions almost immediately, which speaks to the strength of the Detroit draft and development system, but also to Babcock's ability as a coach. Last year the team suffered an almost comical rash of injuries throughout the season, yet the Red Wings soldiered on like they always do.

Face it, he's good. Even if you think no coach is worth that type of money (and, really, Babcock is now making more than all but 10 NFL coaches), it doesn't really matter to MLSE who have so much money this represents a drop in the bucket. With the salary cap on player salaries the Leafs can't outspend the competition on the ice (and considering the crop of post-lockout free agents that's probably a good thing), but they can pour tons of money into their off-ice personnel. The Leafs need to exploit every advantage their money allows, and combined with the David Clarkson trade, it looks like they finally are willing.

However, despite Babcock's stellar coaching resume, not much is likely to change for the Leafs position in the standings, at least in the short term. Provided the Leafs take a sledgehammer to much of the roster this off-season, Babcock will preside over a team short on talent and more likely to finish in the lottery than anywhere near the playoffs. The team lacks a No. 1 centre and No. 1 defenceman, and the roster is filled with one-dimensional players. Sure, he may coax a few extra wins out of the young team, but the next two seasons are more about implementing a winning system, getting the players to buy in, and developing the young players who can hopefully help create a future winner than it is making a playoff push.

So if the short term is still pretty bleak, why did Babcock choose Toronto?

Besides $50 million, the answer is simple: legacy. Getting the chance to come to Toronto and turn a historically terrible team into a champion would be the ultimate accomplishment, and for a guy who has won pretty much everything, that's a pretty good challenge and one that would immortalize him. It's the same reason Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox to become General Manager of the Chicago Cubs. Ended one drought and became a Boston legend. End one even longer in Chicago and your legacy is untouchable.

Buffalo was offering similar money, and maybe even more term, but the allure of Toronto was too strong. In the NHL, the challenge doesn't get much bigger than Toronto. The payoff doesn't get much bigger either.

Unlike in years past the challenge may not be as great as it once was. Under Brendan Shanahan the Leafs seem poised to build the team the right way. Almost the entire organization has been flushed and Shanahan has brought in Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter who have dramatically altered the front office mindset. More importance will be placed on drafting rather than band-aid trades and signings. And it sounds as if the Leafs will take a more patient approach to development that seems taken right out of the Red Wings playbook.

It's still going to take a lot of hard work and plenty of breaks going the right way, but Babcock isn't joining a team that still thinks the team is a couple grit players and some health away from the post-season.

The Leafs have historically been a gong show, and nobody would have blamed Babcock for wanting no part of the circus, but he's choosing to be the ring leader. $50 million and a chance at immortality. No pressure.

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