An Open Letter from Steve Dangle to Mike Babcock

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. (Paul Sancya/AP)

To: Mike Babcock
Head coach, Toronto Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment
Toronto, ON

From: Steve Dangle
Hockey YouTuber. Podcaster. Author.
Leafs Nation
Oshawa, ON

April 29, 2019

Dear Babs,

Since the Maple Leafs were knocked out in the first round (again) because of Boston (again), I have had more time to do some reading. The first book on my list was “Leave No Doubt: A Credo For Chasing Your Dreams.”

You wrote it.

The Leafs’ Game 7 loss to Boston – I’m referring to the most recent one, just to be clear – has left me with nothing but doubt.

Many in the frothing horde of Leafs Nation, my screaming self included, are wondering if you should return to coach the team. That’s about as gently as I can put it. I made a 33-minute video about Game 7 and somehow managed to do it without a single swear word.

Since the Leafs were eliminated, I’ve been able to have a few sleeps. And while it hasn’t healed the pain, it has allowed me to reflect.

The day you arrived in Toronto was probably the most surprising thing that’s happened to the Leafs in decades. When Brendan Shanahan joined the team, he was leaving his job as one of the many people to have suspended Nazem Kadri. He was a cool name then and has done a great job since, but at the time, he was unproven as a team executive. When Kyle Dubas joined the Leafs in 2014, that was neat, too. But again, while he looked promising at the time, he still had to prove himself.

Then you got on that plane.

Many have pointed out how handsomely you’re paid to coach the Leafs. The truth is: that was the acquisition cost at the time. You were a coach with a successful track in great demand. Of course it took a lot of money back then to convince someone with your resume to lead the Leafs. Remember that team? You actually let Frankie Corrado play that season. Any coach with a Stanley Cup ring and multiple Olympic gold medals willing to coach the 2015-16 Leafs should be a millionaire. The team stunk. But miraculously, you made them watchable.

And let’s not forget your little speech after winning the World Cup of Hockey. You said it was a sign of things to come in Toronto. It turns out all you need to beat Zdeno Chara in a best-on-best tournament is Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. I wondered if some of the swagger then was due to the fact the Maple Leafs had just drafted Auston Matthews first overall.

The Leafs made the 2017 playoffs and were faced with the seemingly impossible task of beating the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. Five overtimes and six games later, the Leafs were defeated, but man, did they prove they could hang.

The 2018 Leafs easily qualified for the playoffs and then ran into the Boston Bruins. It was an up-and-down series, and your team fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7, only to send me back to my therapist once again. Still, it was another hard-fought series against a great team. And the Maple Leafs took strides, right? Surely the next year things would be different.

And now here we are. The Leafs have just finished playing and losing to Boston again, John Tavares and all. You could argue the Leafs were the better team this time through seven games, which you certainly couldn’t argue a year ago. Still, the Leafs got their lunch handed to them again.

Yes, Jake Gardiner was playing hurt. Yes, William Nylander had a rough season. Yes, Nazem Kadri was suspended because it’s a year that starts with a “2.” Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly are all stars in this league. The team added Jake Muzzin and John Tavares. And they still lost. At your end-of-season press conference you referenced “pain” just like you did when you joined the team in 2015. But this loss didn’t feel like just another part of “the process” and it definitely didn’t feel like progress.

Which brings us to the awkward part.

The question I can’t help but ask is: “Has this team gone as far as it can with you?”

I know, right? How unfair is that? After all, you came in, took a young team and showed them how to become great players. The fabled Blue and White disease has been eradicated. Your Maple Leafs followed up a last place finish in Year 1 with three straight playoff appearances. So have we become hungry fans who got fed and are now critiquing the cooking?

Well, the life of an NHL coach isn’t fair. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. Twice now they’ve had a coach dedicate themselves to the team only to get fired midway through a season in which they won the Stanley Cup, and people look back on those coaches as the one piece that was holding them back from success. Is that fair? Of course not. But maybe their purpose was to get the team 75 per cent of the way, only to pass the baton on to someone else for the final lap to glory.

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The question I have now is, “Are you that person?”

• The team goes out and gets Jake Muzzin. You immediately talk about how he’s not right-handed.

• The team is banged up and you talk about its lack of depth. I know you later said the comment was meant to be a compliment about the Nashville Predators, but to me, it was pointed.

• You play Auston Matthews less than 19 minutes in a Game 7 in which you never had the lead and were never in the penalty box.

• What’s it gonna take to sit Patrick Marleau? Would putting him in a Modano jersey help? Sorry. I’m mad, OK?

I know Kyle Dubas is young and adorable. He looks like you’d find him at a family reunion with Jimmy Neutron and Kyle Bukauskas. But he’s also the guy in charge. In the past few days I’ve heard a lot of you referring to the Leafs management group as “we.” You’re the head coach and a good one with a great track record and yes, you should definitely be consulted on personnel decisions.

But at the end of the day, Kyle’s your boss. Sometimes I wonder if you forget that. You said it yourself that you know what your relationship is with him behind closed doors, so it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. You’re absolutely right. But sometimes, when you talk like a guy who has all the answers for success, you get the most questions in defeat.

I’m grateful for all that you’ve done with this team that used to stink. But at the end of the day, I want the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. And it’s clear to me now — and I suspect your boss too — that in order for that to happen with you behind the bench, it’s going to require some change, including on your part.

So no matter what your name is, you can choose to be a part of that change or a casualty of it. It’s no longer 2008. You have a chance to win a Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Before they hired you, I couldn’t even picture that. But now I can. But again, some change is needed if you’re going to stay in that picture.

Just picture it: how great it will feel, how it will enhance your legacy, and how it will shut a lot of people — like me — up forever.

So as you’re fond of saying, “How’s that?”

Humbly yours (some blogger you can choose to ignore),

Steve

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