SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Call this one of the stranger days you’ll have around an NHL team.
It started with Mike Babcock coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs through a remarkably upbeat 25-minute practice, joking with reporters that he only held one because the losers of six straight games encountered a rare rainy day in the desert.
“Now, I would tell you the sun got up, but as you know today it didn’t,” he said. “But it’s out there for sure.”
An hour later, Babcock was summoned to Brendan Shanahan’s hotel room and told he was no longer the coach of the Leafs. The team president flew in from Toronto on Wednesday morning to fire him in person alongside general manager Kyle Dubas.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant,” said Shanahan. “Days like today are not.”
That management decided to send Babcock packing on a cold Arizona afternoon speaks to how desperate they believe this situation is. A cleaner break could have been made at the end of the week, but that would have required waiting another two games before putting Sheldon Keefe behind the bench.
They had seen enough of Babcock.
The Leafs are much closer to the bottom of the NHL standings right now than the top and have been free falling. They haven’t played with a lead in a game since Nov. 5 — a remarkably inept stretch given that they have three superstar forwards earning over $10 million and a roster that is supposed to be deep enough to contend for the Stanley Cup.
“I think that we feel that we haven’t played up to our expectations this year. I think that there are key elements to our game and some attention to detail that has been missing often this year,” said Shanahan.
“We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there and even the explosive offence our team was known for has been missing for a while now.”
That last point strikes to the heart of the issue with Babcock — a man who once took the speed and skill of Team Canada and coached it into a relentless, tight-checking beast on the way to winning gold at the 2014 Olympics.
That’s simply not how Dubas wants the Leafs to play. He’s bet big on skilled offensive players in constructing this roster and has designs on seeing it become a puck possession monster.
This marks the third time he’s hired Keefe and there will be no question about whether the coach and GM share the same philosophy now. That was always an undercurrent with Babcock — who was hand picked by
Shanahan to lay a foundation for the laughably bad Leafs back in 2015, but whom Dubas inherited when he was elevated from the assistant GM post in May 2018.
Babcock had two 100-point seasons in Toronto and three playoff appearances, but couldn’t get the team past the first round. His job security first came under scrutiny when Dubas decided not to give him a vote confidence immediately after a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in April and the seat grew warmer even when he was retained.
Babcock returned with two new assistants — Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol — and a revamped roster, and the belief was he’d get the season to take the Leafs to the next level. But the team never seemed to click, no doubt in some small part because of injuries and a schedule loaded with back-to-backs, and the eighth-winningest coach in NHL history was fired before the eighth week of the season.
You got the feeling in recent days that Babcock sensed this was coming. He made a couple quiet comments that suggested he was under fire and issued a defiant defence of his record to reporters following Monday’s practice in Las Vegas: “I’m going to do it as hard as I can, as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’ll continue to bet on him.”
However, the wheels were already in motion on his dismissal by that point.
Shanahan and Dubas had likely seen enough after Saturday’s 6-1 pounding to Penguins in Pittsburgh, which is why a better effort in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights wasn’t enough to delay the inevitable.
“I think it really just came down to the last couple of weeks and it got to the point where we spoke in the last 48 hours and, again, I just felt that it was something that needed to be done and Kyle felt the same way,” said Shanahan. “Seeing as I had been the one that hired Mike, I thought that it was very important for me to get on a plane this morning and fly here and face Mike.”
There was an unusual feeling in the air at the team’s upscale resort shortly after the news became public. Players filed into a board room where they were addressed by Dubas while Shanahan held a short impromptu press availability.
This was the one card management had to play with the season starting to slip between their fingers. A tight salary cap situation will limit the Leafs to money-in, money-out transactions leading up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline and it’s quite possible they don’t make any notable acquisitions at all.
Shanahan said he believed in his players — 12 of whom have spent time with Keefe at the American Hockey League level. Firing Babcock was the easiest way to send a shock through the group before they dug an even deeper hole.
“When you think that you know what the right decision is you have to act on it,” said Shanahan. “I think that waiting at this point would have just been the wrong thing.”
Which is how a 700-win coach ended up walking the plank on this most unusual of days in the desert.