If the Leafs continue to sputter over the next month or (they’re currently 12th in the conference standings by points-percentage), Mike Babcock is going to be fired. Before Christmas, after, it doesn’t really matter; If this Toronto team just claws along with two wins here, two losses there, Babcock is going to be replaced by Sheldon Keefe relatively soon.
And make no mistake, it definitely will be Keefe who takes over. No need to overthink it, that part of the writing has been on the wall forever.
How do we know all this? Well it’s pretty simple really: The Leafs, or Dubas rather, tried to fire Babcock this past spring when the team was knocked off in the first round again. Dave Feschuk reported it in The Star last month, and solidly-sourced outlets backed it up not long after, specifically the part about how the GM wanted to move on from the head coach but Brendan Shanahan stepped in to cool things down and block it.
Whether you believe all this or not (but you should because it’s true), a pretty common reaction either way might be “Well it should be Dubas’s call anyway, he should have autonomy to fire the coach”. I’d half-agree with that, because the other half lives in the real world where history isn’t erased every morning when we wake up.
Babcock’s firing is going to be Shanahan’s to decide on, and it’s not hard to see why. Shanahan has perfectly put Dubas in a place to transition into and succeed as a general manager since his hiring in 2014, but along the way they’ve made some obviously joint ventures to turn this team around, most notably handing Babcock the biggest coaching contract in history and convincing him to come head up a last place team when he could have had any other situation in the league he wanted. That was an enormous piece of work, and though you might have turned negatively on Babcock in the last 11 months or so, remember how much you flipped out when Elliotte Friedman tweeted “babcock to TOR” a few years ago. Alongside the Matthews lottery win and the Tavares signing, it’s the most ground-shaking thing the Leafs have done in this new era.
And let’s not forget that Babcock himself has supposedly been instrumental in helping some of these moves along, like the Tavares meeting where his focus on the on-ice product instead of the media bells and whistles made a major impact on negotiations. Even if you think that story is overblown, there’s no question that, at the very least, Babcock is involved with Shanahan and Dubas as this sort of a management triangle that isn’t all that typical.
Really, it’s as simple as that. This isn’t a typical setup, and it hasn’t been since the hiring of either Dubas or Babcock. So the firing of the coach, when it does happen, won’t be as cut-and-dry as Dubas making a statement and moving on, even if it’s presented that way. Given Babcock’s history and the way he was hired, it’ll be Shanahan and perhaps even ownership reps like Larry Tanenbaum who make the ultimate call here. The call they didn’t make this past spring.
And to be honest, I’m not sure if that’s such a bad thing. Sure, it seems the team is wasting time by having a coach there who the GM is ready to move on from, but this isn’t a standard hierarchy and never was. And this cuts both ways. I mean, let’s say, hypothetically, that two years ago Lou Lamoriello wanted to fire Dubas. There’s just clearly no way Shanahan ever would’ve let that happen, even though Lou theoretically could’ve had the power to do so. That’s why what’s always been this unorthodox situation, when it does come to some sort of head in the next month or so, will have an unorthodox ending.