The news nearly broke the internet. Stuck in the depths of a six-game losing streak, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock Wednesday.
“Today, we made the decision to relieve Mike Babcock of his coaching duties and named Sheldon Keefe our new head coach,” said Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
“Over parts of the last five seasons, Mike has played an integral role in changing the direction of our franchise.”
Babcock joined Toronto in 2015 and went 173-133-45 over five seasons. He brought stability and credibility to the organization and is credited, in part, with helping turn around the fortunes of the club — making the playoffs over the last three years but never advancing past the first round.
Forget for a moment that Babcock is still owed $6.25 million a year for the next three years; Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment can afford to write that cheque.
The firing of Babcock is a panic move from a franchise that believes its season is slowly slipping away.
Entering their game in Arizona on Thursday night, the Leafs (9-10-4) are two points out of a wild card playoff spot. But aside from where they are in the standings, the way the Leafs have played this season, it’s safe to say that this talent-laden team has grossly underperformed.
They have given up the first goal in 18 of their 23 games this season, there has been little pushback from the players when they have fallen behind, and there have been continuous rumblings that Babcock’s system and philosophy — and hardline commitment to stick to it — wasn’t going over well with most players in the Leafs’ dressing room.
Am I surprised that Babcock was shown the door? Yes and no. I’m surprised that the decision came this early in the season, but given the expectations this team has this season, the move makes sense.
It’s also clear that Babcock and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas were not on the same page. Dubas has built a roster that is predicated on speed and skill while Babcock was preaching hard work, attention to detail and defensive responsibility.
Sheldon Keefe was hired by Dubas four years ago to be the head coach of the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, and now finds himself behind a National Hockey League bench for the first time — and it just so happens to be in hockey’s biggest market.
Keefe has to find a way to unlock this team’s potential and get them to play a much more competitive brand of hockey. He and Dubas, head coach and GM, and now in lock-step.
If this thing goes sideways, however, they will be the next members of the Maple Leafs to be shown the door.