Rick Zamperin: Mike Babcock is still the man — and rightfully so — for the Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock speaks to reporters after the team's locker cleanout at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, on Thursday, April 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Fire Mike Babcock? Blah!

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas confirmed Monday that Babcock, who has four more years on his eight-year, $50-million contract, will remain the head coach of the team next season. And rightfully so.

When “Babs” was hired by the Leafs four years ago by team president Brendan Shanahan and Tim Leiweke, then-president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it was the first step towards icing a club that could compete for a Stanley Cup championship.

WATCH: Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas media conference following the team’s playoff exit

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Toronto Maple Leafs: Kyle Dubas FULL press conference – Apr 25, 2019

Other major steps have followed, including drafting star players Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and winning the John Tavares free-agency sweepstakes last summer.

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But while the Leafs are considered to be among the upper-echelon National Hockey League teams in terms of talent, that has not translated into playoff success. Toronto has made the playoffs in three of the four years of the Babcock era, however they have yet to win a series after getting bounced in Round 1 by Washington in 2017 and Boston in 2018 and 2019.

Babcock has been criticized for not giving enough ice time to his star players and chided for being stubborn and stuck in his ways. Alternatively, his approach has served him well over the years. He has won more NHL games than all but eight coaches, won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada and earned a Stanley Cup ring as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08.

His resume is outstanding. But the question is can Babcock get the Maple Leafs over the hump, not only to Round 2 of the post-season but to a cup final and, eventually, a long-awaited championship?

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First things first. Shanahan, Dubas and Babcock have to come to a consensus on what this team is going to look like in 2019-20 with Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Jake Gardiner all looking for new contracts. I don’t envision Babcock changing the team’s up-tempo style of play as he will continue to play to his team’s strengths. However, Toronto has to provide a consistent balance on the defensive end if they have any hope of making a deep playoff run in the years to come.

READ MORE: Rick Zamperin: Where do the Toronto Maple Leafs go from here?

If Dubas fired Babcock, the most immediate successors would be assistant coaches D.J. Smith, Jim Hiller and Andrew Brewer as well as Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. None of them has been a head coach in the NHL before, and I don’t think the Leafs want to go down that route right now. Nor do I think Dubas will want to bring in an experienced coach like Guy Boucher, Jacques Martin, Darryl Sutter or Dave Tippett, who all have different styles. It’s a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

Keeping Babcock on the bench is the right decision at this point in time. It gives him another season with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and defenceman Morgan Rielly leading the offence as well as a full season with Jake Muzzin on the blue line.

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The 2019-20 season will be an extremely important one for the Maple Leafs and Babcock because a fourth consecutive first-round playoff exit will not be acceptable. Babcock’s mantra next season will be “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Next season will definitely be go time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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