GLENDALE, Ariz. — The word Kyle Dubas used was “simpatico.”
In doing so, he all-but confirmed that the reason Mike Babcock no longer works for the Toronto Maple Leafs is because he could never find a mutual understanding with his former head coach.
That won’t be the case with Sheldon Keefe, his hand-picked successor. There will be no loosely concealed friction or player usage that directly contradicts personnel decisions. These will be the Maple Leafs exactly as the general manager envisions, which is why Dubas officially unveiled Keefe as Babcock’s replacement on Thursday morning by saying “it’s a very exciting moment for me and for our organization.”
In a near-empty room in the basement of Gila River Arena, he also spoke of his relationship with the future Hall of Famer he just fired. Dubas inherited Babcock when he ascended to the GM’s chair 17 months ago and didn’t quell the notion that they didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to build a winner.
“I tried to do as best as I could [to make it work] and I’m disappointed in myself, and only myself, that it didn’t,” said Dubas. “That we couldn’t become simpatico on every single topic.”
When you look back on their time together it’s hard to ignore how many self-inflicted PR storms blew through.
Things like scratching Jason Spezza on opening night after celebrating his decision to come home on a league-minimum contract to try and win a Stanley Cup. Things like acquiring an elite offensive defenceman in Tyson Barrie and not giving him the power-play minutes to let him do what he does best. Things like bringing in Jake Muzzin with a big trade over the all-star break last January and having Babcock say “it’s not perfect, it’s what we got” following his first practice with the team.
It’s not so much that Dubas and Keefe won’t have divergent opinions on the roster moving forward, it’s that they’ve built up enough trust during past stints together with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Toronto Marlies that they’ll be able to present a unified front afterwards.
“Sheldon and I have … had some of the biggest disagreements and arguments I’ve ever had with anybody I’m working with,” said Dubas. “But in the end, I think philosophically and in terms of style of play, we’ve always been aligned and on the same page.”
Babcock’s firing should not be viewed as an admission of guilt after a sloppy, disjointed 9-10-4 start to the season.
In fact, the Leafs are doubling down on their belief that the best way to end a half-century Stanley Cup drought is by out-skilling opponents. The organization presented a unified front while making a coaching change in the middle of a West Coast road trip – introducing Keefe on a makeshift podium without even having a sweater to hand him for the usual photo opportunity, in front of three TV cameras and about 10 reporters.
It was a strange scene.
Despite how hastily it was all thrown together, Dubas said there was no one moment that became a tipping point for change. He cited an accumulation of concerns with Babcock that reached ahead after a sixth-straight loss earlier this week. He had the complete backing of president Brendan Shanahan, who pushed another Hall of Famer in Lou Lamoriello out the door to promote Dubas originally.
“Traditionalists might say ‘well you’ve spent your bullet,’” Shanahan said of the coaching change. “That’s not how I view it and I can tell you that’s not how our ownership views it. We’re in this together. We’re making moves and we’re evolving as we see we have to do. You don’t set out with an idea or a plan and not evolve or make shifts throughout that plan.
“So I think that we’re doing right now is just basically an evolution to try and get the most out of the team. I can tell you that as far as the kinds of players we’re attracted to and the way we want to play, we’re not doing it right now, but our goals are one and the same.”
The mood was notably light at the Leafs morning skate before Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. The clouds had parted even if the losing streak remained.
When asked how he expected life to change from Babcock to Dubas, one player responded: “The leash just got looser. He’s going to let us play with our skill.”
That is consistent with what the GM hopes to see.
“I think the stamp that we’ll want on the team is that, yes, we want it to be very fast, we want the team to have a lot of talent, we want the team to be very creative when we’re on offence and the players to feel free when they’re on offence,” said Dubas. “The minute that we don’t have the puck we’re right away tenacious and fast not allowing them to really even get into our zone.”
That’s a long way from where the Leafs have been under Babcock this season. They’ve only held the lead in 21.1 per cent of the minutes they’ve played so far, worse than everyone but the cellar-dwelling Detroit Red Wings.
Keefe’s initial changes included some new forward lines and special teams assignments. He also gave instruction on stick positioning and defensive zone coverage during the morning skate.
He won’t stop there.
“We have a lot of work to do, a lot of things to really just renew the spirit of the team,” said Keefe. “That’s really the main focus. If we can tweak a couple things that can inspire some confidence then we hopefully can build on that.”
And, unlike his predecessor, he’ll be trying to build in lock step with Dubas. They’re in this together.