For five years, the Toronto Maple Leafs tried living peacefully.
They admitted fault, made plans, drafted smart, refused trades, accepted setbacks and charted a course that made sense on paper.
That didn’t work.
So after talking it over for a bit, they’ve decided to try a slightly different way of doing things: total chaos.
It was between that and a measured response, but no one wanted to go through the hassle of waiting until the holiday season to make a decision. It’s a real bummer having to work on your days off. Best for everyone in the organization to start screaming and waving their hands over their head now. Get ahead of the rush.
On Wednesday, the Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock. He was replaced with immediate effect by Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
Keefe seems like a perfectly competent guy, but he has never run an NHL team. Now he is in charge of the most over-observed, micro-managed team in the sport, while it is in the midst of a calamitous losing streak.
This is what it would be like to be given your first naval command, except it’s the Titanic and it has just hit an iceberg. How are you with lifeboats?
Club president Brendan Shanahan flew to Arizona to sack Babcock. He gave a five-minute eulogy in which he praised his ex-coach’s “work ethic,” then explained he’d fired him because “the [team’s] attention to details aren’t there.”
Why replace a Stanley Cup winner and Olympic gold-medal winner in mid-season with a guy who’s never coached at this level?
“His success,” Shanahan said of Keefe. “He’s had success basically everywhere he’s coached since he started coaching.”
Usually, someone from management delivers the kiss of death just before the end. This may have been the first time it’s been delivered just before the start. It felt like a curse written over an Egyptian tomb – “All ye successful coaches who enter, there will be a judgement upon you.”
In that regard, no coach in history has suffered as much as Babcock. He left the Detroit Red Wings and returned to Canada widely accepted as the best in the world at his job. He was given a pile of money and a limitless supply rope.
Now the same people who who thought he would walk to Toronto from Michigan across the Detroit River have made a burnt offering of him. His reputation is in tatters. If his next job is in Nashville or L.A., the dozens of hockey fans there will say, “Is he really the best we could do?”
That’s what the Toronto Maple Leafs do to people. This club doesn’t ruin legacies. It erases them.
The why of this isn’t hard to figure. Babcock and Leafs GM Kyle Dubas had different agendas when it came to personnel. Over the off-season, Dubas jettisoned some of Babcock’s favourite grinders.
As revenge, Babcock benched one of Dubas’s new character guys, Jason Spezza, in the season opener.
That was both very Babcock and not very smart. It is one thing to disagree with the guy in charge. It’s another to embarrass him.
The Leafs’ recent bad run of results – two regulation wins in the past 16 games – provided the excuse.
Babcock himself made it possible by addressing the rumours he’d be clipped.
“I’m going to do it as hard as I can as long as I can and I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock, I’ll continue betting on him,” he said the other day.
It didn’t sound like a hockey icon in the midst of a slump. It sounded like Richard Nixon as the walls closed in.
The scent of hysteria was suddenly in the air. The Leafs management capitalized on it. The pressure is relieved in the short term. The very short term.
Coaching may be a problem for Toronto, but if so, it’s one of several. The Leafs’ real problem seems to be the Leafs. They are less than the sum of their parts. Adding this combination of players does not equal winning.
A day ago, this was Babcock’s team, so that was Babcock’s problem. Firing Babcock makes it Shanahan’s and Dubas’s problem. One hopes they have a few useful ideas about the penalty kill.
There are two ways this can go now.
If Keefe bails out this sinking ship, great. That will mean the coach was the issue all along. Babcock didn’t play on defence, so probably not. But whatever works works.
And if Keefe doesn’t turn it around? If the losing continues? If it gets worse?
That means the problem is the team. That the team is infected with mediocrity. What’s the easiest way to cure infection? By cutting it out.
Who would be doing the surgery? The same people who built the team. You see the problem here.
We’ll know in a few days if firing Babcock was an expedient call. We’ll know in April or May if it was a smart one.
One thing we can say at the moment is that the Leafs’ five-year experiment at cooling the media temperature around the team is over. Toronto’s readiness level has returned to a permanent state of “Panic Stations.”
Missteps that had been overlooked until now will be taken as signs of impending doom. Constant change until things work out – and in this market, “work out” means “win a title” – will be expected. All appeals for patience and calm will be met with hysteria.
Before that starts, before we know how this turns out, let us look back on what was the most tranquil period in Leafs history that many of us have known. The team was decent. The fans were quiet. The path ahead looked full of hope.
If a change is like a vacation, this was a holiday that went on for years.
But it couldn’t last. Firing Babcock has returned the Leafs to normal operating service.
So, please light your hair on fire now and plan to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Possibly forever.