Underperforming Maple Leafs fire coach Babcock

Sports
Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Babcock

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock yells instructions during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

TORONTO (AP) — The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.

Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the struggling Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation.

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock along with general manager Kyle Dubas. Shanahan said that he felt he should be present as he hired Babcock in the spring of 2015.

“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant, days like today are not,” Shanahan said in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But it was what we felt was important for the club. Once you realize there’s something you should do, and have to do, then it’s best to act on it.”

Toronto, two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday night. Babcock’s last win for the Leafs, on Nov. 7 against Vegas, was the 700th of his NHL career. He has a career record of 700-418-19 with Toronto, Detroit and Anaheim.

Hired as part of a massive rebuild, the 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto. He joined the Maple Leafs with an impressive resume, having won the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.

After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history at US$50 million over eight years, Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.

The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Keefe was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped secure the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

“Our relationship has grown,” Keefe said about Dubas in May. “He really opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how to look at things a little bit differently.”

Toronto’s last four in-season coach firings — Pat Burns, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle and now Babcock — all took place with the team on the road.

The Maple Leafs are set to take on Coyotes on Thursday night. Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe were all scheduled to speak with the media Thursday morning.

Babcock’s Leafs stumbled this season despite a star-studded forward group led by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, a defense corps headlined by Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin, and goalie Frederik Andersen.

Toronto was unable to find traction after a summer of change that saw a number of Babcock’s trusted veterans leave town as part of a salary cap crunch precipitated by big-money contract extensions handed to Matthews and Marner.

In fact, Toronto’s Big 4 forwards chewed up nearly half of the $81.5-million cap, leaving Dubas to try and fill in the roster around the edges with young players and discount veterans.

“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” Shanahan said. “We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offence that our team was known for has been missing for a while now, so there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”

The young Leafs surprised many by making the playoffs in 2016-17 before falling to the Washington Capitals in six games. Babcock was unable to get Toronto past the Boston Bruins the last two springs, losing both series in seven games.

The 2019 series was especially frustrating given that the Leafs led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with a chance to close things out at home in Game 6 before the Bruins fought back to win two straight.

While there’s no questioning Babcock’s track record, there seemed to be a disconnect between the coach and GM in terms of roster construction and style of play after Dubas took over the top job from Lou Lamoriello in May 2018.

Driving by data and analytics, Dubas focused on skill and speed — basically trying to win with four first lines — rather than the grinding type of player Babcock had previously preferred in his bottom-6 forward group.

Toronto’s lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone the last two seasons and sub-par specialty teams were both troubling aspects Babcock was unable to rectify, even after changing assistant coaches this season.

Backup goalie was also a constant headache after the Leafs lost veteran Curtis McElhinney on waivers before the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Garret Sparks never gained Babcock’s trust, while Michael Hutchinson secured just one point in five starts before getting demoted to the AHL.

Before the season, Dubas was asked about his relationship with Babcock, who was heavily criticized for his deployment of Matthews in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round playoff exit last spring.

“We talk a lot,” Dubas said at the start of training camp. “We disagree, as any coach and GM do a lot. We agree on a lot of things and we work through it all. The key is, on areas that you disagree, that you respect one another and you work through all that.”

“We communicate all the time,” Babcock added in September. “We don’t agree all the time. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re excited about our opportunity.”

Babcock also knew he’d be on the hot seat if things went sideways.

“I do, for sure,” Babcock said. “The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you’re going in the right direction.”

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