In the 13 months since he was hired as the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan has proved himself to be an enthusiastic agent of destruction. Like an Irish O-Ren Ishii, he’s carved a bloody swath through the organization, gutting the front office, the scouting department and the coaching staffs of the big club and the AHL Toronto Marlies. Not all of his victims were deserving, but they were part of the old order. They had to go.
Wednesday Shanahan officially began the rebuild of the Maple Leafs—his Maple Leafs—with the acquisition of the most significant free agent on the market: former Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the deal will shatter the previous standards for coaching compensation. Babcock will earn $50 over eight seasons in a front-loaded agreement that also includes a possible out-clause after five years. Because of that clause, his annual compensation early in the deal could be as high as $8 million. It’s an unbelievable payday that values him equally to the team’s top compensated player, Phil Kessel, but at the same time it makes perfect sense. The Leafs are limited by the salary cap in terms of what they can spend to acquire on-ice talent. But there are no strictures on what the league’s richest club can fork over to its off-ice staff. And finally, the Leafs are making full use of that power to land a man who is regarded by many as the best in the business at what he does.
According to Friedman, Shanahan also ceded some control in personnel decisions, giving Babcock additional sway over his players.
Shanahan also offered something that no other team could: a chance at hockey immortality. Say what you will about the sorry state of a franchise that’s going on 50 years since its most recent Stanley Cup, but if the day comes when Babcock lifts the chalice at the Air Canada Centre he will be embraced like nowhere else. He’ll become a part of cultural lore.
Mike Babcock will be carried to and from work daily on the hands of Torontonians, like he was crowd-surfing. Read the fine print, people.— Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) May 20, 2015
Don’t underestimate the appeal of that. People who know Babcock well have said throughout this process that he loved the idea of the great challenge. And there’s no greater challenge then the Leafs. This is like being at the base of Kangchenjunga with few supplies and fewer Sherpas. There’ll be no rapid ascent. Success, if it comes, is still years away. But if it comes, the glory will largely be Babcock’s. Add in that paycheck and it’s easy to see the lure of the Leafs.
There’s a downside, of course. Even as the team tries to suppress expectations, they’ll still be unreasonably high over the short term now that Babcock is there. Plus, there’s the presence of a carnivorous local media that has no concept of logic and proportion. Forget about second-guessing his lines. If he orders the Toblerone special at Swiss Chalet, it’ll be on SportsCentre.
There will also be criticism about his motivations. Babcock said time and again that breaking the bank wasn’t his top priority. The chance to win and to keep his family happy came first. The fact that he accepted a deal that dwarfed the four-year, $16 million deal he reportedly was offered to stay in Detroit in order to work for a team that has no short term chance of competing will chip away at the goodwill he’s earned over the years.
But none of that will catch him off guard. Few men prepare as well as Babcock. That’s why he’s enjoyed the success he’s had, especially on the international stage. He’ll be ready for this.
And you can bet Toronto is ready for him.