Do the Toronto Maple Leafs believe in omens? It was probably just a coincidence to see Mike Babcock fired Nov. 20, 2019, one year and one day after the St. Louis Blues axed Mike Yeo. But the Leafs GM Kyle Dubas hopes he’s putting his team on a parallel path with a drastic mid-season move, pink-slipping his $6.5-million coach after four seasons and change, which included a playoff miss during a tank year followed by three first-round exits.
The Babcock firing wasn't a massive surprise considering (a) Dubas tried to pull the trigger over the summer and was reportedly vetoed by team president Brendan Shanahan, (b) Too many of Babcock’s direct decisions, from playing Cody Ceci on the top defense pair to always starting goalie Frederik Andersen on the first game of back-to-backs, were impacting the team’s results tangibly; and (c) we could see the Leafs, who have lost six straight games, quitting on their bench boss visibly. It's something teams have done as long as hockey has existed, really, like a subconscious protest, as playing marginally better would only prolong the inevitable whereas a pure nosedive brings about a coaching change soon enough that a team has a chance to save its season.
We all remember what happened with the Blues last season. Sure, goalie Jordan Binnington played a significant role in carrying the team from last place by early January to a Stanley Cup victory, but we can’t forget that Binnington faced one of the league’s easiest workloads according to shots against and expected goals against. In other words, the team in front of him under-promoted coach Craig Berube played pretty darned well. A comment from center Tyler Bozak at the Stanley Cup final media day last year has lodged itself in my head for the past five months. He said the Blues were always a good team but just needed time to gel because GM Doug Armstrong had made so many radical changes the previous off-season.
Bozak was right. He was one of the new guys, brought in as a free-agent signing. Joining him from the UFA pool were right winger David Perron and left winger Patrick Maroon. The Blues got top center and eventual Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly in a trade.
So if the Leafs or their fan base want to play the optimist, they can point out that Dubas massively overhauled the roster this past summer, largely as a reaction to Toronto bombing out in Round 1 against the Boston Bruins yet again. He traded left winger Patrick Marleau; traded blueliners Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev; let D-man Jake Gardiner walk as a UFA; traded center Nazem Kadri; acquired defenseman Tyson Barrie and center Alexander Kerfoot; and signed center Jason Spezza and left winger Ilya Mikheyev. That’s just a quick pass of the roster changes. There were more. So with almost half a roster overhauled, and many core players missing time with injuries – Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott – it’s conceivable the Leafs believe they’re a sleeping giant with potential to awaken the same way the 2018-19 Blues did. Toronto’s special teams have been nightmarish this season, but they’re the second-best Corsi team in the NHL at 5-on-5, trailing only the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ve out-attempted their opponents 1,161 to 1,011 and outshot their opponents 598 to 569. So maybe there’s something to salvage with a new coach.
The Blues aren’t the only recent team to fire a coach during the season and rally to become Cup champs. The Devils famously fired Robbie Ftorek in March 2000 with the team in first place and won the Cup with Larry Robinson behind the bench. The Pittsburgh Penguins turfed Michel Therrien for Dan Bylsma in February 2009 and won the Cup. The Los Angeles Kings replaced Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter in December 2011 and won the Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave up on Mike Johnston in December 2015 in favor of Mike Sullivan. Bylsma’s and Sullivan’s stories warrant extra attention, as they have the potential to mirror the path of new Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
Bylsma and Sullivan weren’t assistant or associate coaches promoted to the big job like Robinson and Berube were, nor were they established “celebrity” hires like Sutter was. Bylsma and Sullivan were call-ups from the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Scranton. Sullivan is a particularly interesting comparable to Keefe in that Sullivan had a ton of experience shepherding players who ended up on the NHL roster the same season he did, such as Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray, each of whom played crucial roles in the Pens’ run to the championship that year.
Keefe, of course, coached the Calder-Cup winning Toronto Marlies squad of 2017-18, which included current Leafs Andreas Johnsson, Dermott, Frederik Gauthier and Justin Holl as pillars. Other current Leafs who toiled under Keefe as Marlies at some point include Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander and Hyman. So a significant portion of the roster can draw from a previous rapport with Keefe.
Does it mean Keefe will save this team, that the Leafs can rally from the NHL’s 25th-best points percentage to make the playoffs or, gasp, contend for the Stanley Cup? We can’t say for certain. The comparative case studies are anecdotal. But they have some undeniable similarities. And while this team is flawed, it’s talented. Maybe a new artist can mold the clay into something that works.
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