Quick Shifts: The great challenge of Mike Babcock’s next job

All the top plays from a busy week in the NHL, including Alexander Ovechkin absolutely crushing Jonathan Drouin, Jimmy Howard standing tall vs. the Sharks, and the weekly submissions from McDavid and MacKinnon.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Sheldon Keefe gave us the freedom to let our skill take over this week’s column.

1. My gut response regarding the future of Mike Babcock was something along the lines of: “Oh, he’ll be back in the NHL in no time. Coaching is in his blood. Regardless of if he lost the Maple Leafs room after four years, some GMs won’t be able to resist all those rings and medallions.”

Digging a little deeper, Babcock’s whopper of a contract — his record-setting $5.875 million annual salary is guaranteed through June 30, 2023 — stands as quite the roadblock.

The NHL’s priciest bench buyout is getting paid more to not coach than anyone in the NHL is getting paid to coach (Florida’s Joel Quenneville is the runner-up at $5.25 million).

We’re not quite into Roberto “My Contract Sucks” Luongo territory here, but escaping the outstanding debt owed to Babcock will be tricky business for MLSE.

I rang up Neil Glasberg of PBI Sports & Entertainment. He’s a professional negotiator and personal-brand manager who represents 40-plus coaches (but not Babcock) at the NHL and AHL levels.

Ten times he’s facilitated a coach’s contract swap from one GM to another, perhaps most memorably John Tortorella’s from Vancouver to Columbus.

NHL coach-employment agreements include a “right of offset,” a rule that forbids double-dipping of any sort.

So, it’s in the Leafs’ best interest to have Babcock back in the workforce as soon as possible, earning as much as possible to mitigate their losses.

Any income Babcock earns from now on — be it in coaching, consulting, media, working for Hockey Canada, whatever — is subtracted from what the Leafs owe him, but Toronto must make him whole.

Now, Babcock can’t simply ski and hunt his days away and watch the money pile up. The onus is on him to at least try to find employment.

“You can’t just sit back on the couch and collect,” Glasberg explains. But: “He could say, ‘I spoke to three general managers, and there are no openings, and I’m not going to accept a lesser job, so I’m going to accept a lateral or progressive job, and those jobs don’t come available very often.’ ”

When a head job does open up, a delicate negotiation begins. Say, purely for example, a team like Vancouver or Calgary comes knocking. If they low-ball Kyle Dubas and offer to pay Babcock $2.5 million, Dubas could hang up the phone or get the league involved. Glasberg has seen that happen before.

Glasberg says the next club to hire Babcock must pay “a market-representative salary,” and — even though his reputation has just taken a hit — Babcock’s closest comparables would be Claude Julien and Todd McLellan, each of whom earns about $5 million.

Some owners might insist the interested new employer take on all of the coach’s salary or nothing at all.

“It’s not the right approach, but sometimes emotions get in the way. I’ve had this happen where I’ve literally had to negotiate with both sides,” Glasberg says. “The challenge is, he’s very expensive. He’s at least a $4 million guy or a $4.5 million guy.”

That price tag alone eliminates a swath of teams, especially if they still have an outstanding tab on their current coach. (Not a problem for Seattle, but it doesn’t play games until 2021.)

“Most teams aren’t going to get in the way of a guy getting another job, unless they’re in the same conference,” Glasberg says. “Then it starts to get a little bit uglier.”

Why would Dubas subsidize a coach in, say, Tampa (sorry, Jon Cooper, just a hypothetical) when they’re battling for the same title?

We’re not saying Babcock’s NHL coaching career is over by any means.

We’re saying someone is going to have to pay a pretty penny to keep it alive.

2. Especially if you’re the optimistic sort, it’s difficult not to draw a parallel between Keefe’s promotion and that of Mike Sullivan in 2015-16.

Sullivan had led AHL Wilkes-Barre to a scorching 19-5 record out of the gates when Penguins GM Jim Rutherford pulled the plug on a floundering Mike Johnston and promoted Sullivan to the big club.

Pittsburgh, of course, would rally to not only make the playoffs but win the Stanley Cup, but Sullivan’s tenure got off to a rocky start.

Unlike Keefe, Sullivan went 0-4 at the outset of his promotion, finally snapping his skid against the Blue Jackets, coached by his good pal Tortorella.

What Sullivan had at the time — that Keefe doesn’t — is nine seasons of NHL bench experience as either the head man in Boston or an assistant in Tampa, New York and Vancouver.

Another Glasberg client, Sullivan’s greatest challenge was more personal than tactical. We suspect it could be the same for Keefe.

“Along with star power comes ego,” Glasberg reminds. “You gotta manage the egos.”

Contractually, when an AHL coach is promoted to the bigs, his old contract becomes null and void. A new NHL employment agreement must be drawn up after a fresh round of negotiating.

Unlike players, there’s no such thing as a two-way deal for coaches. That would foolishly rob a rising talent of his leverage in contract talks.

Glasberg went through this multiple times, such as when he negotiated Ron Rolston’s promotion in Buffalo upon the firing of Lindy Ruff in 2013.

So, in addition to the $5.875 million Toronto is paying Babcock not to coach, Keefe presumably saw a nice pay bump with his (prorated) three-season deal this week.

Another advantage of a cash-rich franchise that has nothing to do with the salary cap.

3. This four-year-old clip of Dubas talking about his reasoning for the first time he hired Keefe in the middle of a season and the effect it had on his 2012-13 Soo Greyhounds (they rallied to make the playoffs) is an incredible example of foreshadowing.

4. Seeing the Maple Leafs buzz around during their first game in the Keefe Era, I had a flashback to something Michael “Pinball” Clemons said Tuesday during an engaging keynote address at the PrimeTime Sports Conference in Toronto.

The CFL’s Tony Robbins was drilling home the importance of placing people in positions to succeed so they can explore what they can do rather than trying to make them do what they can’t do.

Pinball used an example from his Argos coaching days.

“I had a guy who was straight timid, and he was a receiver. Wouldn’t go across the middle. Couldn’t catch the ball across the middle. We looked at all these things, like, he can’t, he can’t, he can’t, he can’t. But what can he do? He’s the fastest guy on our team. Let him run!” said Clemons, who’d have him sprint straight up the sidelines to hunt long completions.

“Not only that, we put our best receiver by him. Why? So when he runs, he can catch the deep ball, and they will have to put more than one [defender] there because if they just got one guy, he’s gonna run fast right past him.

“What that did is it created a little bubble, and our best receiver had all of this area [in the middle] working now.”

The lesson, Clemons stresses, is to allow people’s strengths to grow through positive reinforcement.

“We’re all capable of much more than we achieve. It really is giving people that ability to explore what they are, because many times we don’t know and understand,” he said. “We’ve seen that with many of our teams here, especially our Raptors team, as many of them have grown well beyond their expectations.”

5. Tumbling down an Interweb rabbit hole, I stumbled upon this fun little NBC Sports–produced compilation of the best chirps fired at Flyers players.

James van Riemsdyk’s takes the cake:

“Phil Kessel, I remember the first game I played against him after he got traded to Pittsburgh when I was in Toronto. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Don’t ever forget who made you a player in this league.'”

6. Lots of great Hayley Wickenheiser anecdotes flying around her Hall of Fame induction this week. When she spoke at the PTSC Tuesday, an audience member asked Wickenheiser to share something no one knew about her.

She told a story about the aftermath of Team Canada’s win at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

“We got into trouble for the girls smoking cigars and drinking champagne. We were on the bus going to our party. Bob Nicholson, the president of Hockey Canada, called me and said, ‘You have to go to the media right now and apologize. They’re going crazy about this.’ [Marie-Philip] Poulin was our youngest player — under 18. I said, ‘Bob, we just won a gold medal in our own country. Like, go way.’ And I hung up on him. He was so mad at me,” the medical student recalled, smiling.

“The next morning at 7 a.m. I was in the media centre apologizing.”

7. At the same conference, speaking on an Empowering Women in Sports panel, Ainka Jess, the founder of She’s 4 Sports, relayed a comment from a friend who works with the San Jose Sharks on the business side.

When the club posts for available jobs, the resumes submitted are overwhelmingly from men, regardless of how qualified they actually are — a contributing factor to female under-representation in big-league sport.

“There’s research that says a woman would probably not apply for something if she didn’t feel she had 100 per cent of skill-sets or experience to do the job, while as a male would have 50 per cent of the skill-sets and apply anyway,” Jess explained.

“Those trying to get into sports management or in the sports world who are women: Apply for these jobs. There are no barriers. Apply. See what happens. Invite people out for coffee who may be in a role like that, get a better understanding of the role, but participate and put your applications forth.”

8. A couple of leftovers that didn’t make my piece on Ron Francis, newly appointed general manager of the Seattle WhoKnows.

Francis was one of the few GMs who avoided getting hoodwinked by Vegas’s George McPhee during the 2017 expansion draft. Then running the show in Carolina, Francis offered McPhee a fifth-round pick (Jonathan Dugan) to steer McPhee away from his core roster and select UFA Connor Brickley.

Neither Dugan nor Brickley, now plying his trade for EC Red Bull Salzburg, has played a game with the Golden Knights.

Francis diplomatically defends his peers who did lose great assets to the eventual 2018 Cup finalists.

“In fairness the other GMs, you didn’t have as much time to prepare. You know, GMs took a lot of [blame] for maybe making a mistake in some people’s eyes. But if you’ve got a guy in your lineup that you know can play the National Hockey League, and you’re going to lose him versus a draft pick that may or may not turn out or a prospect that may or may not turn out, why would you keep the guy that’s in your roster?” Francis says.

“So I think a lot of the decisions were made for the right reasons. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’

“But if you got a good team, you don’t want to break up that team if there’s an integral piece to it.”

Francis is bullish on Cammi Granato. Despite her lack of experience as a scout, the U.S. hockey legend was one of his first hires to Seattle’s front office. He says he trusts her eyes and will work with her on what to look for in evaluating targets and how to rate talent.

“I didn’t hire her ’cause she’s female. She’s got a heck of a resume,” Francis says. “You know, she may have the best resume, with all due respect to my other pro scouts, of any of the guys I hired.

“I played with her husband Ray over the years, and [Seattle assistant GM] Ricky Olczyk knows the family very well from the Chicago area. I think she’s excited about the opportunity, and we’re thrilled to give opportunities the past hasn’t taken. This was the right fit at the right time, and we’re thrilled to have her on board.”

The Program
Cammi Granato on why she joined Seattle's NHL front office
September 27 2019

9. Siri, show me the most Canadian tweet of the week:

10. Tom Anselmi, COO of Oilers Entertainment Group, has watched Edmonton rise to the top of the Pacific Division standings, yet — in spite of an improved on-ice product — attendance tumbles.

Dressing arguably the two most dynamic talents in the game hasn’t prevented a drop-off from 11th-overall in NHL attendance (18,347 per night) to 16th (17,417).

In terms of percentage of seats filled (93.4), the Oilers rank even worse (19th overall), per ESPN.

“I worry about season tickets,” Anselmi said at the PTSC, noting that studies have shown that the average season-ticket holder in most cities now only goes to four or five games a year. “We ask them to write a big cheque at the start of the year and those kind of things I worry about.”

Anselmi takes encouragement in the knowledge that human beings naturally like to socialize and enjoy shared experiences.

“And sports is one of the great ways to do that. It’s one of the chances where we all get to express and share emotion and share joy and sheer frustration and all that kind of thing. And so I think that underlying human need is always going to be at the core of sports,” he said.

“Everything’s changing on the outside, but at the core of it, we’ve got something here that is just so important to people and so unchanging.”

11. On Thursday, David Pastrnak became the first to reach the 20-goal plateau. His goal came on the man-advantage because of course it did. Pastrnak’s 11 power-play goals account for 52 per cent of Boston’s 5-on-4 scoring.

Pasta has as many as or more power-play goals than the Jets, Red Wings, Penguins, Islanders, Devils, Stars, Blackhawks, Kings, Ducks and Senators.

12. Trust me: You will enjoy your weekend infinitely more if you take 74 seconds to watch this, the greatest sports analogy ever.

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