On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League fired their head coach Mike Babcock. Team President, Brendan Shanahan, made the announcement after conferring with his General Manager, Kyle Dubas, and in addition he stated that Sheldon Keefe, the 39-year-old bench boss of the Leafs’ top farm team, the Toronto Marlies, would replace 56-year-old Babcock. This was a bold move for a team considered by many to be a Stanley Cup contender this season, yet there had been some discussion in the media and amongst fans as to whether such a move would be necessary and or beneficial. This decision got me to thinking, so much so that I wanted to put it out here on AG for discussion whether there might be some relevant parallels to Andy Reid’s situation with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Leafs were mired in a six-game losing streak and had the second worst goals against in the first quarter of this NHL season. Their record at the time of Babcock’s firing was 9 wins, 10 losses, 0 ties, and 4 overtime losses, and they were sitting one place out of a playoff spot. When Babcock took over as Head Coach of the Leafs in May of 2015 it was seen as a solid move for a team attempting to rise from irrelevancy and from being the despair of Leafs nation, and to move towards capturing a Stanley Cup – something which had eluded them since 1967. In his first year with the team, 2015-2016, the team record was 29-42-0-11 and they did not make the playoffs. The Leafs qualified for the playoffs in each of the ensuing three years with regular season records of 40-27-0-15 (tied for 13th overall), 49-26-0-7 (tied for 6th), and 46-28-0-8 (tied for 7th). In each of these three years the Leafs were ousted from the playoffs in the first round.
Mike Babcock has earned tremendous success in his years as a head coach in the NHL. He was hired to that position with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in May, 2002, and in his first year he guided the Ducks to a Stanley Cup finals loss to the New Jersey Devils. After the lock-out season of 2004-2005 Babcock joined the Detroit Red Wings and remained their head coach for ten years. The Red Wings reached the playoffs in each of those ten years and they earned the right to drink from Lord Stanley’s mug in their championship year of 2007-2008. Overall his regular season record as a head coach in the NHL stands at 700 wins, 418 losses, 19 ties and 164 overtime losses. His teams made the playoffs in fourteen out of sixteen seasons. In addition to his success in the NHL, Mike Babcock was head coach for Canada’s men’s World Junior Championship team in 1997, Canada’s men’s World Championship team in 2004, and Canada’s men’s Olympic Gold Medal team of 2010. He is the only coach ever to have won an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship and a Stanley Cup, making him the sole member of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Triple Gold Club.
So why did the Leafs fire Babcock? After all, he was in the middle of an eight year fifty million dollar contract, and he is considered to be amongst the very best active NHL head coaches. The Leafs roster features talented young players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, along with solid veterans like John Tavares and Jake Muzzin plus a top tier goalkeeper in Frederik Andersen. I said above that the Leafs were considered a Stanley Cup contender, even more: at the start of the season Leafs nation resoundingly believed a Stanley Cup final was the bar below which anything else would be considered a failure. So perhaps Shanahan and Dubas felt now was the time to get the ship righted after a shaky start. That’s the simple answer.
Leafs GM Dubas is a keen employer of analytics in the evaluation of players. He has put together a young roster highlighted by speed, gifted playmakers and scorers but Coach Babcock prefers to play a conservative defensive game featuring the puck being cycled up the boards rather than freewheeling through the neutral zone. The Leafs have been criticized for not being a tough physical team. As a friend and rabid Leaf fan said to me: this roster is capable of scoring 4-5 goals every night so go for it and force the other team to keep up (he applauds Babcock’s replacement.) Dubas and Shanahan obviously agreed that Babcock’s style was not maximizing the strengths of the roster. There are references currently out on twitter to some in the NHL players fraternity being upset about Babcock’s manner of treating his players and the suggestion has been made that he “lost the locker room.” Maybe this went hand-in-hand with Babcock trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Sheldon Keefe, Babcock’s replacement, has had success throughout his young coaching career, most recently with the Marlies, winning the Calder Cup, the American Hockey League championship. He is a younger man than Babcock but whether he pays more attention to analytics with regard to deployment of his roster and on-ice tactics I don’t know, I haven’t looked that far into it, but this is part of a more complex answer.
What does this have to do with Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs? Nothing, necessarily, only I bring up the comparison not because I think Reid should be fired but because Chiefs fans and the team braintrust would be doing the team and ourselves a disservice not to consider all avenues of improvement and Babcock’s firing provides a convenient talking point. I’m not ignoring that the Chiefs have had one of the toughest schedules so far this season in the NFL, that they have suffered numerous injuries, and that despite these conditions they lead the AFC West and hold their playoff hopes in their own hands. Nevertheless I have noticed that there have been repeated observations here at AG as elsewhere regarding the flaws in Reid’s performance. The consensus remains that he is in the top echelon of active NFL head coaches and I agree. But recently there are a growing number of more pointed comments wondering whether Reid is holding back the team and I also agree with some of those comments. Pete Mitko brought up this thought in his AG podcast “Bye Bye Bye” which aired yesterday. Dan Harms also mentioned fans’ dissatisfaction with Reid’s performance in his introduction for tonight’s Open Thread “Bye Week Blues.” While I feel somewhat traitorous, heretical even, to suggest the Chiefs should consider moving on from Reid, I also know that such a discussion is warranted.
Mike Babcock was a very successful coach but that didn’t stop the Leafs from replacing him. Sheldon Keefe, the most senior head coach in the Leafs’ farm system, was promoted in the belief that he would get better results from the players going forward. Is Eric Bieniemy a legitimate candidate to replace Reid? There are parallels between Babcock’s and Reid’s careers, not the greatest of which is that they are both carrot-tops, gingers, red-heads, not the least of which is the success and respect they each have earned. Is Brett Veach the Kyle Dubas to Andy Reid’s Mike Babcock? I repeat: I do not write this to argue for Reid’s replacement but rather to invite discussion. And I do enjoy the discussions and arguments carried on by AGers. As Dan Harms wrote: “We are Chiefs Kingdom and whether or not we agree on everything at least we can talk about it!” Time’s yours.