Dubas support means Mike Babcock must innovate to improve Maple Leafs

Brian Burke explains some of the issues facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In his early days with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock envisioned a decade-long tenure to match the one he had in Detroit.

"Well I’ve got this year and seven more here, and then I’m going to stay for two more because the team’s going to be that good," Babcock said in February 2016.

Since then, much has changed in Toronto.

His boss went from a septuagenarian to a millennial and the roster improved as quickly as the results. But the progress was interrupted this spring and, as much as Babcock’s presence behind the Leafs bench always seemed secure, there was room for speculation when general manager Kyle Dubas refused to guarantee his position in the immediate aftermath of the Game 7 loss in Boston.

The doubt can now been completely removed, with Dubas affirming his commitment to the NHL’s highest-paid coach on Monday, and so they must get on with tackling the interesting part: How best to change, evolve and grow together to push the Leafs further up the mountain?

The relationship between coach and GM will remain under heavy scrutiny, especially since Babcock’s footing is more precarious than it’s been at any point since he arrived in Toronto.

Even with four years still left on his contract and Dubas’ current expression of support, the status quo won’t be good enough. It’s hard to conjure any scenario where Babcock survives a fourth straight first-round playoff loss next spring — at least from this far away.

That’s not entirely fair, of course, because of the NHL’s uneven divisional playoff format and the fact that Toronto lost to a Bruins team which might still go on and win a Stanley Cup.

But that’s where we are.

Dubas didn’t hide his disappointment about what he saw in 2018-19 when he met reporters on locker cleanout day. This was a team that finished fourth overall in regulation and overtime wins (ROWs) and improved its underlying metrics during the regular season, but failed to get past Boston despite holding series leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.

"I mean we had 100 points and we went to Game 7 against the Bruins in the first round, so it’s tough to say that it was tangible progress," said Dubas. "I think anyone watching the series would say we played a lot better in this series than the team did the year before, but we have to continue to improve everything that we do. It starts with me improving the job that I do [with] contracts, signing players, drafting players, our development system — every single thing of our organization.

"And it’s up to me to work with Mike to continue to have him improve, and with his staff improve."

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There is onus here on the 56-year-old coach to pursue new methods as well.

The Leafs have entered a potential championship window that is only guaranteed to last another five seasons — the length of Auston Matthews’ contract, give or take. Patience will wear increasingly thin at all levels of the organization as time ticks away without obvious progress towards that pursuit.

Sand has started passing through the hourglass.

Babcock chose the Leafs back in 2015 with an eye on climbing the highest mountain possible, taking on the biggest challenge he could find to cap a Hall of Fame career.

Whether or not it plays out as he once imagined is only partially under his control. The winds have shifted and Babcock needs to adjust his sails.

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