By: Max Mainville | Check me out on Twitter @tkdmaxbjj
When the news that Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock had been fired and that the Head Coach of the Toronto Marlies, Sheldon Keefe, had been hired as the new Head Coach of the NHL club, the opinions throughout the entire NHL universe – especially on Twitter, filled everyone’s feed.
The release of Babcock from the organization is a surprise, considering the expectations placed on him when he was hired by the team in 2015, but at the very same moment, it was expected. As of November 20th, the Maple Leafs are 10th in the Eastern Conference with a sub-par record of 9-10-4 and they have lost six consecutive games dating back to November 9th. Toronto has the team to win games on paper, but when those victories fail to come to fruition, it eventually falls on the Head Coach and that is the case here.
Mike Babcock started his NHL coaching career with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002-03, leading them to a 40-27-9-6 record and the Western Conference Championship, losing an eventual Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals to the New Jersey Devils. In 2003-2004, the Mighty Ducks missed the playoffs altogether and Babcock was subsequently fired in June of 2004.
A full season later, in July 2005, Mike Babcock was hired by the Detroit Red Wings who were coming off of a dominate 48-21-11-2 record but were eliminated in the second round. From 2005-06 to 2008-09, Babcock led the Red Wings to four-straight 50-plus-win seasons – culminating it all off with a Stanley Cup Championship in 2008 and a Western Conference Championship in 2009.
For the entire ten-year tenure that Mike Babcock spent in Detroit, the Red Wings made the playoffs – adding to their incredible streak of 25 playoff berths that began in the 1990-91 campaign, tied for the third-longest playoff appearance streak in NHL history, behind only the Boston Bruins (29 seasons from 1967-68 to 1995-96) and Chicago Blackhawks (28 seasons from 1969-70 to 1996-97) and equal to the St. Louis Blues (25 seasons from 1979-80 to 2003-04).
From July 15, 2005, to May 8th, 2015, Mike Babcock coached the Detroit Red Wings in 786 regular-season games with a combined record of 458-223-105 along with a 67-56 record in 123 postseason games with the franchise, solidifying himself as one of the best coaches in the NHL. Add that with his two Olympic Gold Medals (2010, 2014), IIHF World Championships Gold Medal (2004) and his World Cup of Hockey Championship win (2016), Babcock proved that he is one of the best bench bosses in the game.
However, after repeated first-round exits, the Red Wings organization relieved the Manitouwadge, Ontario native of his head coaching duties and only a few days later, the now 56-year-old agreed to an eight-year, $50 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in an intense bidding war. Babcock’s ’15/’16 campaign with Toronto was a dismal one, as the Maple Leafs finished last in the Atlantic Division with a 29-42-11 record. Immediately, however, Babcock coached Toronto to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season – losing to the Washington Capitals in six games.
In 2017-18, the Maple Leafs took even larger strides en route to a 49-win season but fell short in seven games to the Boston Bruins. Last season, the Leafs managed to win 46 games for another 3rd place finish in the Atlantic Division, setting them up for the rematch against Boston, but once again, they came up short losing in another Game Seven.
With a virtually similar roster, the Maple Leafs entered this season with even higher expectations and they have not met them whatsoever as mentioned at the beginning of the article. Toronto has struggled to score first in any game and they constantly find themselves chasing the game in almost all aspects. Their defensive game is extremely lacking and the goaltending after Frederik Andersen is almost non-existent. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not good right now and it all fell on Mike Babcock, resulting in his departure from the organization.
In response, the Toronto Maple Leafs also announced the hiring of Sheldon Keefe, the Head Coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies since the 2015-16 season, as the 31st Head Coach of the NHL franchise. Sounds oddly familiar to the Boston Bruins back in 2017.
Boston Bruins Déjà Vu?
Replace the names of “Mike Babcock” with “Claude Julien” and “Sheldon Keefe” with “Bruce Cassidy” and you essentially have near-identical stories, sort of. Rewinding to the 2016-17 regular-season, the Boston Bruins were in a similar situation to the Leafs of today. Prior to ’16/’17, the Bruins failed to clinch a berth in the playoffs for two straight seasons, even though they just narrowly missed by only a few points in both scenarios.
Boston started the new season off rough, failing to gain any momentum or put together any winning streak(s), accumulating a 26-23-3 record throughout the first 55 games of the year. The B’s were on a pace to miss the playoffs once again and for the Bruins ownership, that is not acceptable with the roster they have, so they fired the man who has control of the lineup – Claude Julien.
Rewinding the tape even further, Claude Julien had one of the most successful tenures of a Boston Bruins coach in the history of the franchise. In fact, Julien is the all-time most-winningest head coach in Bruins history, winning 419 games in 759 regular-season games played. In addition, Julien was the Head Coach for 98 playoff games – the most out of any other Bruins coach, winning 57 games – another franchise record. Wrap all of that in a pretty bow called the Stanley Cup because it was Claude Julien that ended the 39-year Stanley Cup drought in Boston.
However, the league was changing and Julien’s defensive-minded style was just not cutting it anymore so General Manager Don Sweeney made the decision to release CJ of his duties in February 2017. Instead of naming a new Head Coach immediately, the Bruins named Bruce Cassidy the Interim Head Coach as he was serving as Julien’s assistant coach for the first time after being the Head Coach of the AHL’s Providence Bruins for the previous five seasons.
Cassidy brought in new ideas and upped the intensity during practices to get the guys to rally behind him. Cassidy came into the role as an almost exact opposite to Julien, coaching a more offensive game while staying defensively responsible. At the time, Cassidy also had experience and chemistry with a few of the younger players on the roster from his time with the P-Bruins, giving him additional advantages.
Backed by the veterans in the lineup, the Boston Bruins indeed rallied behind Bruce Cassidy, winning 18 of their final 27 games, earning a playoff spot against the Ottawa Senators. Even though the Bruins were eliminated in six games, it was a breath of fresh air to go 18-8-1 after Claude Julien was fired and to make an appearance in the postseason. On April 26th, 2017, Bruce Cassidy was officially promoted as the 28th Head Coach in franchise history.
Since then, he has brought the Bruins to a 50-win season in his first full year as coach followed by a 49-win campaign last year that ended up bringing the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup Finals berth for the first time since 2013. Cassidy has done an excellent job adjusting and adapting to challenges in the lineups during the season and even mid-games. He has done a terrific job battling against injuries, slumps, and tough teams to earn the respect of being a top coach in the National Hockey League.
Will the Toronto Maple Leafs become a contending team, make the playoffs, and find themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals in a few seasons under the guidance of Sheldon Keefe – possibly, but this could very well end up doing nothing or even doing more harm to this struggling team. Boston had a talented roster behind them and had heart – some may debate if those exist for the Maple Leafs.
Boston and Toronto have a lot in common. The method of relieving old-school coaches for younger, new-school coaches is proving to be yet another similarity. Only time will tell to see if the Toronto Maple Leafs can turn their season around and be a contender for the Boston Bruins.
To close out, here are a few statements from current Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy and former Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien on the firing of Mike Babcock: