Down Goes Brown: Breaking down Babcock vs. Quinn vs. Burns

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to feature prominently at tomorrow’s NHL awards, with Auston Matthews heading in as the favourite to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. It would be the team’s first Calder in 51 years, and first major award of any kind since Jason Blake took home the Masterton in 2008.

But Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leaf with a shot at some hardware. Coach Mike Babcock is a finalist for the Jack Adams based on his work in his second season in Toronto. Leafs fans are a little more familiar with that trophy than they are with the Calder since Babcock is the third Toronto coach in the last 25 years to earn finalist honours early in his tenure. Pat Quinn was the runner-up for the award in 1999, while Pat Burns won it in 1993.

The similarities between the three coaches don’t end on awards night. So today, let’s compare and contrast the three most important Leafs coaches of the modern era, and their impact both on and off the ice.

Hiring drama

Babcock’s announcement that he’d chosen to join the Maple Leafs still ranks as one of the more dramatic moments in recent NHL history. And while his ending up in Toronto has come to feel somewhat inevitable in hindsight, that certainly wasn’t the case at the time. By the eve of the announcement, the Sabres had emerged as the favourites based on what was reported to be a monster offer from Terry Pegula.

The Leafs were still in play, but they weren’t alone, with San Jose lurking and the Blues rumoured as a possibility. At one point, it even seemed like a return to Detroit could be possible. Speculation reached a fever pitch — remember when we were all analyzing private-jet flight plans? — and as the clock ticked down, the Sabres seemed to have their man. According to some reports, the Leafs had already moved on to Guy Boucher as their plan B.

Then, the bomb dropped. The Leafs had won the auction, Babcock was headed to Toronto, Sabres fans were furious, and all hell broke loose. Like I said before: highly dramatic.

And that’s why it may surprise younger fans to know that the Burns hiring was even crazier.

Take all the madness of the Babcock situation, and then imagine that nobody knew he was even available to take a new job in the first place. That’s how it went down with Burns, who was hired as the Leafs new coach on May 29, 1992, despite still being the coach of the Montreal Canadiens that morning.

While he’d taken heat for the Habs’ disappointing playoff run, Burns’s job wasn’t thought to be in any danger. But he dropped the stunning news that he was quitting as Montreal coach at a noon news conference, only to then slide the microphone over to his agent, who announced that his client had already been hired by Toronto. Hours later, Burns was wearing a Leafs jacket at a press conference in Toronto. The entire story unfolded in fewer than five hours.

By contrast, Quinn’s 1998 hiring was fairly straightforward. The team had fired Mike Murphy three days earlier, and didn’t take long to settle on Quinn, who’d been dismissed earlier in the year by Vancouver. No flight plans, no surprise news conference, and no jaws dropping around the hockey world.

Edge: Babcock, but only because of the timing. If we’d had social media back in 1992, the Burns hiring might have broken hockey Twitter forever.

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The turnaround

Here’s where we find the most obvious comparison between the coaches, as all three managed to guide to Leafs to a rapid jump up the standings early on in their tenure.

For Burns and Quinn, that meant year one. Burns’s first season behind the bench saw the Maple Leafs jump form 67 points all the way to 99, a 32-point improvement that ranks as the best in franchise history. Quinn nearly matched that, turning a 69-point team into a 97-point unit.

By contrast, Babcock’s first season behind the Leafs bench saw the team improve by just a single point. Some might say he was getting his bearings, while others might suggest that it was all part of the plan. Either way, Babcock’s big turnaround didn’t come until year two, when his Leafs made the jump from 69 points to 95.

In addition, all three coaches benefitted from the appearance of new faces. Babcock had the rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Quinn had big-money UFA goalie Curtis Josepgh, and Burns had the first full season in Toronto form Doug Gilmour, along with rookie Felix Potvin and late-season addition Dave Andreychuk.

It’s true that both Burns and Quinn were able to flip the switch a year earlier, and both did so without the benefit of the loser point. On the other hand, you could make the case that Babcock’s turnaround was even more impressive, given that he was working with a team that had just finished dead last, and it came in an era of parity where big jumps should be harder to make.

Edge: This one’s close. But we’ll go with Burns, who didn’t just improve a team but may have resurrected a fan base after the long-term misery of the Harold Ballard days.

Playoff success

Sure, a regular-season turnaround is great. But what can you do once the playoffs arrive?

For both Burns and Quinn, the answer was “guide the team to the conference finals, but never further.” Burns made back-to-back trips, starting with a 1993 post-season that still ranks as just about the most entertaining Leafs run in recent memory and following that up with a sequel in 1994. Quinn went to the final four in his debut season, too, losing to the Sabres in 1999, and made it back in 2002.

The difference between the two Pats is that Quinn won a few other rounds along the way, getting out of the first round an additional three times and only failing to win at least one series once between 1999 and 2004. Burns got only one additional chance, in 1995, and his Leafs were knocked out by the Blackhawks in seven in the opening round.

By contrast, Babcock’s big turnaround season ended in the first round, and he’s yet to win so much as a series in Toronto. But with six years left on his record-breaking deal, he should have lots of time to make up ground.

Edge: Right now, it’s Quinn.

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Fun factor

Let’s be honest: You could come up with plenty of adjectives for Pat Burns as a head coach, but “fun” wasn’t often among them. His teams were known for being disciplined and defensive, and he quickly had the Leafs playing in his image, with the team finishing second in goals allowed in his first season after being near the bottom of the league for most of the previous decade. Granted, winning is more fun than anything, and Burns certainly brought that to Toronto. But if his teams were entertaining in the process, it often felt like it was happening in spite of him, not because of him.

By contrast, Quinn’s basic philosophy when he arrived in Toronto seemed to boil down to “Everyone spend all your time trying to score and let CuJo bail us out when the other team has the puck.” And it worked. The Leafs went from 23rd in NHL scoring to top spot in Quinn’s first year, despite having a roster that was giving top-six ice time to guys like Igor Korolev, Derek King and Sergei Berezin. Factor in the crusty Irishman’s legendary deadpan trolling of opposing teams – there are still Senators fans who’ve never forgiven him for pretending not to know their players’ names – and the Quinn era was all sorts of fun.

So far, Babcock falls somewhere in the middle. His Leafs are always entertaining, scoring plenty of goals and then often finding a way to blow the lead by the end of regulation. Mix in a few more players’ bench karaoke session and he could pass Quinn in this category. But not yet.

Edge: Quinn. (Assuming you were a Leafs fan, of course. Other fans had a different view of Quinn’s teams.)

How it all ended

It’s Toronto. Things always end badly. It’s why Leafs fans can’t have nice things.

With Burns, it always felt like a clock was ticking on all of his coaching tenures as soon as they began. He never lasted longer than four seasons in any job, and Toronto was no different. By the final month of the 1995–96 season, the Leafs had lost eight straight, were sitting five games under .500 and in danger of falling out of a playoff spot. So Cliff Fletcher pulled the trigger, relieving Burns of his duties and replacing him with Nick “Nimrod” Beverley.

Quinn’s dismissal came with an additional layer of intrigue, accompanied by an ongoing political struggle with Ken Dryden and the Maple Leafs committee-based ownership. Quinn outlasted Dryden, but lost his GM title along the way, and was fired by John Ferguson Jr. after missing the playoffs in 2005–06.

As for Babcock, time will tell. His contract affords him better job security than just about any coach has ever had. Maybe his Toronto tenure ends when he walks off into the sunset after a Stanley Cup or two. Then again, there was a time when Leafs fans figured the same could be true of Burns or Quinn.

Edge: Babcock, easily, since his ending hasn’t been written yet.

 
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Legacy

This probably depends on who you talk to, and maybe how long you’ve been a fan. But it’s always felt like Burns has a special place in the hearts of Leaf fans. The 1992–93 team is almost certainly the franchise’s most beloved edition since the Stanley Cup days, and even though he didn’t even last four full seasons, Burns seems like he’d be most fans’ pick for their favourite coach of the era.

That’s all well-earned, of course, but I’ve often wondered if Quinn ended up getting less credit than he deserved. He built the Leafs into contenders – and make no mistake, some of those Quinn teams were absolutely good enough to win the Cup – and he kept them there longer than Burns did.

And he did it all while also pulling double-duty as GM for a long stretch, not to mention stepping behind Team Canada’s bench (and maybe sacrificing his relationship with his starting goalie) to win the country’s first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. Also, he once did this.

As always, timing matters here. Burns arrived as the Ballard era was ending and expectations were at their lowest. Thanks largely to what he and Fletcher managed to build, Quinn took over a team that no longer felt like an afterthought. But the end of Quinn’s tenure marked the start of the franchise’s decline, and much of that still sticks with today’s fans.

Put simply, when Burns was fired, it still felt like something had been built; by the time Quinn left, it felt like something was falling apart. In hindsight, it was.

So maybe Babcock is the guy who comes along and fixes it. He’s certainly off to a solid start. And while both Burns and Quinn are loved by Leafs fans, we all know there’s still plenty of room at the top, because the next coach to lift a Stanley Cup in Toronto will probably have a statue or two unveiled that same day. Babcock has a way to go, but would seem to still have plenty of time to make it happen.

Edge: Burns… for now.

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