When the pretty much expected announcement of Mike Babcock as coach of the Maple Leafs hit the wire a few days ago (we likely didn’t really expect a different outcome; this has been talked about for a long time), the so-called ‘Shanaplan” came into clearer focus.
Perhaps Shanny will indeed be the super GM, as I’ve noted here before, and his assistant GMs will run the day-to-day operations. Babcock brings a winning attitude to the bench, and the hope is he will transform a roster with talent but in need of heart and grit (and some new personnel, yes).
Will the Leafs be better right away? Will it take a few years? Whatever, Leaf fans are happy now, because they got the guy everyone seemed to want. This franchise, given its heritage, should seek to bring in the best General Manager and coach they can find. Maybe Babcock fits that bill.
(Quick aside: I would buy the argument that someone is taking on a job like this for the “challenge” if he did not also have to be the highest paid coach in hockey by far. But I quibble.)
Shanahan’s “different” way of organizing the brain trust is intriguing. Usually it’s a terrible idea to hire the coach before the GM, but as I’ve said, I sense the real day-to-day GM/GMs are already in place—Shanahan and his assistants. Babcock will also have a loud voice in the decision-making process, which may or may not be a good idea—or functional. We’ll see.
This all caused me to reflect on another time in Leaf (fairly recent) Leaf history when they adopted an unconventional way of doing things. That of course was back in 1997, when former Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden was brought in as President of the Leafs with nary a minute of hockey management experience on his resume. Dryden (right) was a thoughtful individual, and brought a different way of thinking to his leadership role. If memory serves, he created a kind of non-traditional, three-headed management/leadership group, which included himself, Anders Hedberg and Mike Smith. I believe Bill Watters was around at the time as well.
In any event, Dryden’s approach was ahead of its time or unworkable, depending on one’s point of view. Bottom line, it didn’t really work, and ultimately new Head coach Pat Quinn became General Manager. Quinn was an outstanding coach and oversaw a period in Leaf history that was pretty darn successful, though it did not, unfortunately, result in a championship.
Once what we now know as “MLSE” really took over (Tanenbaum and the Teacher Pension Fund) from Steve Stavro and brought in Richard Peddie as President, things kind of shifted south, in my view, because of off and on meddling. And despite further ownership adjustments over the years, with Bell Media and Rogers eventually at the helm, things haven’t really progressed from an ownership or leadership perspective.
Yes, Tim Leiweke came to town—loud and full of hubris and superficial promises. Short term, he oversaw has the seeming resurgence of the NBA Raptors, but their apparent progress has stalled. TFC (in Major League Soccer) has spent all kinds of MLSE money, but has not yet found a consistent rhythm- lots of big names but not that many wins.
The early positive Leiweke reviews have died off as he prepares to leave town.
But Leiweke and the MLSE did bring in Shanahan, who is much more than a figurehead former player. And now Babcock is here, and that should be a game-changer as well.
Success in sports is never guaranteed, of course. Babcock has coached for 12 years in the league, and won one Cup—three times making it to the finals. That’s certainly a good record, though not necessarily imposing given that he has coached some awfully talented teams in Anaheim and in Detroit. In Detroit, he was in about as good a position as a coach could be in, surrounded by outstanding hockey people, stable and supportive ownership and really good players who had been developed in a winning, team oriented atmosphere.
So what does this all portend for the blue and white now, with Babcock on board? I have no idea. We can surely anticipate this will be a team with direction and before too long, an identity. We’ve all seen the talent on hand but we also know championship teams need a lot more than that. Every organization has some skill on their rosters. The great teams have speed, skill, heart and real toughness.
A coach can be one of the straws that stirs the drink, for sure. We see that in the NFL in New England, where the Patriots only became the Patriots once Bill Belichick came to town (having Tom Brady hasn’t hurt…). Phil Jackson was that guy in the NBA (maybe Greg Popovich, too)—guys that stand above even a very talented crowd of fellow coaches in their ability to strategize, motivate, teach, communicate—and win.
Scotty Bowman had that cache in the NHL, winning Cups with three different teams. In more recent times, Joel Quenneville and Darryl Sutter have carved out a niche as out of the ordinary coaches, as has Babcock.
Can Babcock make that kind of difference here?
The media love-fest with the new hire will continue for a time. Babcock is sharp, shrewd, quotable and crafty. He’ll play the media game well here. But at the end of the day, results will soon matter—maybe not this coming season, but soon.
Shanahan has managed to revive hope again in one fell swoop. A good coach, a plan, a good draft in June, maybe a couple of trades, free agency possibilities and suddenly everyone is believing again.