After a yearlong circus in which naive Toronto Maple Leafs executives and their delusional fans had convinced themselves that Mike Babcock would ever actually want to go anywhere near that punch line of an organization, we finally found out yesterday where the well-respected former Red Wings coach was really going. And the winner is … Toronto?
Wait, that can’t be right.
But it is, thanks to a mammoth eight-year, $50 million, front-loaded deal that Babcock agreed to after weeks of intrigue and visits with suitors around the league. After 10 years in Detroit that included one Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals, Babcock has been the league’s hottest free agent for the better part of the last year. Speculation about whether he’d leave Detroit has been buzzing since last summer and went into overdrive when the Red Wings were knocked out of the playoffs, with the “Babwatch” getting hyped to almost mythical levels.
And now we’re left with a world where the Toronto Maple Leafs did a good thing. Well, not necessarily good — we’ll get to that in a minute — but they accomplished what they set out to do. They didn’t fail, epically and embarrassingly, as the entire hockey world pointed and laughed. In Toronto, that counts as progress.
So now that we know the details, let’s try to sort out what this means in Toronto and beyond.
The Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s been little doubt that the Maple Leafs wanted Babcock, or at least somebody with the same sort of résumé and name value. That was the case when they were considering their coaching options this time last year. When they couldn’t find someone who fit that profile, they extended Randy Carlyle and then fired him after just half a season, leading to plenty of speculation that they’d be all in once Babcock hit the open market.
But that was a year ago, when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan & Co. were holding out hope that the Leafs just needed a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint to contend. Since then, Shanahan — the “& Co.” have all since been fired — has realized that Toronto is facing a far bigger overhaul. That made it hard to picture Babcock wanting any part of spending a few years hitting rock bottom on a team just starting its rebuild, especially with far easier road maps available elsewhere.
Babcock may still be a good fit in Toronto; after a decade in Detroit, he’s clearly not one of those short-shelf-life coaches who wears out his welcome after three or four seasons. And the eight years on his new contract should certainly be enough time for even the hapless Leafs to get things turned around. At the very least, landing him gives the Leafs a boost of something they haven’t had for years: credibility.
And that’s why maybe the biggest winner here is Shanahan. He called his shot on this one, not so much with his words but with his actions over the past year. Talking a big game is nothing new in Toronto, but actually delivering sure is. Shanahan has already faced criticism of his approach to hiring — the team currently has no GM and just parted ways with its AHL coach. With the Leafs seeming to fall out of the Babcock picture in recent days, the narrative of a disorganized organization being led by a rookie, overmatched executive was getting ready to grind into full gear.
Instead, the Leafs actually got it done. Whatever you think of the fit for Babcock in Toronto, it has to be encouraging for Leafs fans to know that Shanahan was able to sell a smart guy like Babcock on his vision for the future. (Although the wheelbarrow full of cash probably didn’t hurt either.)
The Detroit Red Wings
Losing Babcock will hurt for the Red Wings and their fans. The franchise did just about everything right here, essentially putting that whole “If you love something, set it free” idea into real-world practice. The Wings made it clear that they wanted Babcock back, while allowing (and even encouraging) him to explore other opportunities. They never pressured him. And they kept everything cordial, with Babcock and Detroit GM Ken Holland even sitting down together for a fascinating interview with TSN last week.
And over the weekend, it looked like it was going to work. After months of speculation about which new team Babcock would jump to, a consensus emerged that he was going to stay in Detroit after all. He’d looked around, he’d heard from all the suitors, and he’d decided the grass really wasn’t greener after all. It was actually shaping up to be a nice little reunion story.
And then he jumped ship. You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame the Wings for not wanting to get into a bidding war with billionaires. But you have to feel for Detroit fans who spent all year preparing for Babcock to leave, only to be (incorrectly) told he was probably staying at the last minute.
The good news for the Red Wings is that they’ve got Babcock’s replacement lined up …