TORONTO — There’s an old saying in sports that every coach is hired to be fired. It applies to every coach but Mike Babcock.
Babcock’s spent a quarter century jumping from one job to another, from the CIAU to the WHL to the AHL and on, without ever being told his services were no longer required. The last 16 of those seasons have been spent with NHL teams and so it must be a little unusual for the man in charge of the Toronto Maple Leafs to finish a year and not be completely assured of continued employment.
Babcock’s boss, Kyle Dubas, had a chance to do just that within 48 hours of the Game 7 loss to Boston. But on a newsy breakdown day for the Leafs where plenty was said, the most intriguing development came from what the general manager refused to say about Babcock’s future.
"We could win the Stanley Cup and it would be the same discussion of evaluating where we’re at and are we content and are we moving in the right direction?" Dubas said Thursday. "I think with how fluid the situation is I wouldn’t give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization, starting with me. We’ll do what we think is best and we’ll let you know when we know.
"But that’s my expectation."
The statement was just general enough not to warrant a boldface headline. The guess here is that Babcock’s job remains secure, despite internal frustrations about the team’s failure to take a meaningful step forward this season and the growing impression that he’s not walking in lock step with the front office.
Still, it was an interesting choice of words from Dubas, who has shown himself to be welcomingly transparent during his year at the helm of the organization.
You can count him among those who expected better from a group that added John Tavares and Jake Muzzin this season. With the emotions still raw after a series where Toronto squandered 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 leads, he wasn’t immediately ready to start diagnosing issues and working on remedies.
"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."
There was an olive branch extended towards that group as well. Asked about a broken penalty kill, which arguably cost the Leafs the chance to move past Boston because of a 56.3 per cent success rating, Dubas blamed himself for not bringing in the right personnel.
He took far more public ownership of that issue than Babcock did for anything pertaining to his own role in the early exit.
"I could have done a better job in finding guys that can provide depth to help the coaches in that regard," said Dubas. "I think if there’s blame to go around for that it should go to me."
Babcock has the confidence of a man with the richest coaching contract in NHL history and two Olympic gold medals to go with his Stanley Cup. He’s not big on mea culpas — choosing instead to pour all of his energy into the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
There’s a rigidity to how he goes about his business. To how he deploys players and what kind of attributes he believes each should have.
The degree to which Babcock can embrace change and show a willingness to try new ideas will probably determine how long he ultimately works for a 33-year-old GM who hopes to build the most cutting-edge organization in the sport.
How Babcock feels about that isn’t entirely clear. He didn’t offer any specifics about what he could have done differently to help the Leafs parlay a 3-2 series lead into their first second-round berth in 15 years.
"There’s always things," said Babcock. "You know, it’s interesting: There’s 23 coaches sitting at home today thinking they should have done something different. We knew who we were playing, we really prepared.
"We started the series, they adjusted, we adjusted back, they adjusted, we adjusted back."
Now, they enter a summer with big changes in the air. Dubas called Mitch Marner’s next contract his No. 1 priority and Thursday’s other big talking points hinted at decisions still to be made.
Then there was the door on Babcock’s future left slightly ajar, which is not exactly what you’d expect to hear about a man with his track record and four years still remaining on his contract.
"I think we’ll take some time, rather than be rash, and analyze everything and then honestly say: ‘Here’s where I think our team can improve around the fringes, those extra one or two per cent that we can improve upon, and then go about addressing that’," said Dubas.
In the meantime, everything is on the table.
Even the unthinkable.