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The next Maple Leaf head coach: a pivotal choice…

While it’s easy to criticize the Maple Leaf coaching tenures of Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle (and Paul Maurice, for that matter), each came to town with a fairly sterling reputation.  Maurice had been the longtime coach of the Hurricanes, taking them to the Cup finals in 2002—eliminating the Maple Leafs along the way that spring. (Still a bitter memory for me and likely for many of you as well.) Wilson helped lead three different franchises—Anaheim, Washington and San Jose—into the playoffs before coming to the Leafs. And Carlyle, like Wilson a former Leaf defenseman as a player, had coached the Ducks to a Stanley Cup not that long before taking over here.

All had moments when it looked like Leafs had turned a corner, but ultimately none was able to win a playoff round with a roster that was sometimes fast and talented, but apparently lacking some of the ingredients needed to be a serious contender for the playoffs every season. (We've talked about those attributes endlessly here...grit, leadership, hating to lose, etc.)

Now, under Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs obviously face a rather important decision: whom should they sign to run the bench going forward?

Yes, ideally the new General Manager would make that call, as it’s always a recipe for disaster if the GM and coach are not on the same page.  And it’s hard to be on the same page if the coach is hired before the GM.

But, I think a lot of fans, like me, believe that Shanahan is so intent on acting like a “super GM” that I don’t know how independent the new General Manager can really be. I sense Shanahan will run the coaching interviews and, whether or not the current assistant GMs are promoted from within to take over the top job here, they will have a significant voice in who the next coach of the Maple Leafs will be.

We all know the names that are out there:  Mike Babcock is the obvious one, with a Stanley Cup on his resume. He is seemingly universally well regarded in the hockey community. While I like Babcock, I’m not necessarily on the Babcock bandwagon.  To me, his success in Detroit is not what it should have been over the last decade, given the roster he has been handed year in and year out, and the successful legacy he inherited.  That said, it’s not difficult to assume that Shanahan would sign him in a heartbeat if Babcock is indeed interested in a change of scenery.

Todd McLellan is another “big name” available at the moment (at least last time I checked). He cut his teeth in Detroit as an assistant, and had a nice run with the Sharks though, like his San Jose predecessors, always saw his team hit a wall come playoff time. Losing to the Kings a year ago (it was last season, right?) after being up three games to none was perhaps an indication that his time was running short on the coast.  Who knows what might have happened if the Kings didn’t have that miracle turnaround? McLellan will likely be interviewed by a number of clubs looking for a coach (Sabres, Edmonton, Philly, etc.)

I can’t imagine Shanahan would seek out John Tortorella, but the lightning rod coach certainly gained a lot of notoriety during his time with Tampa, New York and Vancouver—for a range of reasons.  He pushed players hard, demanded effort (and lots of blocked shots). By most accounts he certainly wasn’t an overwhelmingly well-liked coach from the players' perspective, but he had success and won that championship in Tampa.  He is too acerbic for my liking, and his media relationships here would no doubt be testy and sarcastic at best.  But maybe he’s on the list of candidates, who knows?

Am I remembering correctly that former Florida and New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer is available, too?  He was on the "hot list" a few years ago.  Recently dismissed Sabre coach Ted Nolan gets an awful lot out of middlish rosters. I've always thought he is a guy who has demonstrated he can motivate underachievers.

In addition to recently fired NHL coaches looking for their next gig, there are always up and coming assistant coaches and minor league coaches looking to earn their first NHL head coaching assignment. Some years back, teams started a trend of looking at minor league coaches, like Boudreau and Dan Bylsma and both of those guys have had great NHL success. So maybe the Leafs are looking at AHLers who are waiting in the wings.

Other names? Bruce Boudreau fits into the "ex-Leaf player" category, which has not always worked that well over the years, though the Leafs were an annual contender under the finest Leaf coach of this era, Pat Quinn, who had played for the blue and white in the late 1960s. Boudreau, who played here off and on in the mid '70s,  would be an intriguing choice if the Ducks didn't advance further and he became available. I'd certainly talk to him if I was Shanahan.  Boudreau seems to get a lot out of his players, and he would have a positive disposition with the media- a helpful attribute in this often toxic market.

Would Dallas Eakins draw any interest?  I wonder.  He has no seeming connection to Shanahan, and like many before him, couldn’t get all those high draft picks in Edmonton to resemble a successful roster in his short time in Northern Alberta. But he was a well-respected figure during his time with the Leaf organization as the head coach of the Marlies.  Does his stint in Edmonton disqualify him?

It’s funny.  It always seems to be the case that if a team just fired a coach because he was too much of a “player’s coach”, the next guy in town will naturally be a taskmaster. If a guy is seen to have pushed too hard, it’s likely the new person will be a good communicator, a “listener”, etc. 

Either way, in the early days of any new coach’s regime, we will hear how much the players like the new guy, implying that he is very different from the previous coach.  (Hey, players will always make sure the blame goes elsewhere, eh?  It’s never them, though they always mouth the words, "it's on us...".)

So who are the other individuals the Leafs may be thinking about?  More importantly, as you assess the coaching landscape as a Leaf supporter, is there one individual that you truly feel would be the “must get” candidate for the Leafs? What are the qualities we need next time around? Do we need a “proven” winner?  A great communicator?  An x’s and o’s guy?  A motivator?

The Leafs have managed to sell fans on yet another rebuild.  For this organization—ownership and management—to retain any credibility at all, their summertime moves will have to pan out.

If not, can we ever believe them again?


  1. With whatever decision the Leafs make, Michael, at least they have the advantage of being able to offer just a ridiculously handsome financial compensation package to whoever they decide to target. May as well flex those financial muscles in non-Cap areas, where some other teams may not be able to.

    As far as the actual candidate, good God, that's a tricky one. I don't think someone with strong Toronto ties is a great idea, and by that I mean Bruce Boudreau, even if he became available. An excellent coach, but based his personality, I think he'd get too mired down in media interactions, and it would ultimately become a distraction. Dallas Eakins not getting the job the last time it was available would also raise too much unwanted controversy, at least in my eyes.

    My pick wouldn't be Mike Babcock, for some of the reasons you mentioned Michael, but also because it just reeks of a power struggle that would ultimately rear its ugly head, based on the management structure that's in place. My head coaching choice isn't available, sadly, and that's Alain Vigneault, currently coaching the Rangers. Not only do I think he's a level headed and very smart man, but I respected how he dealt with the relentless Vancouver press, during the many roster nightmares his GM created. With Toronto, Wilson had a snarky side, and Carlyle had a gruff side, which is no big deal when things are going well, but when the results sour, it's difficult for that sort of coach to survive in Toronto. Vigneault has a soft and friendly way of dealing with people, which I think could pay dividends not only with a young Leafs roster, but also with all the extra curricular garbage that comes with coaching the Leafs. Not letting them see you sweat is a great sign of confidence. He's not available though, so I'll stop beating a dead horse.

    In terms of who's available, I don't have any issues with Dan Bylsma being offered a kick at the can, or even Todd McLellan. Both men are in their 40s, and have lots of coaching years ahead of them, but plenty of pedigree as well. I think either of them could weather a rebuild that has some pretty sour years attached to it, without turning bitter, or overly demanding with the group.

    Regardless of the next head coaching choice for our Leafs, I really hope Shanahan and his group offer him not only term in his contract, but also back the coach publicly during what could be a couple of really crappy years, while we acquire assets and develop young talent. Please, no more stop-gap solutions, as eventually we need to get some management and coaching positions filled for more than 2-3 years, and actually let someone's vision get realized.

    1. It's hard to know for sure, Russ, if Shanahan is zeroing in on one or two candidates, or is going into this open minded- we'll see!

  2. I would not disqualify Eakins as a choice; he fell into a tire fire when he took the Edmonton post. He's a young coach who has some ideas in his game that I personally like. Still, maybe not a good fit for the Leafs right now, he begun to crack under the pressure a bit towards the end with the Oilers, the pressure won't be off for any coach who takes the Leafs post next, even with the current prognosis. The early results will suck, period.

    In that sense, I wouldn't mind Babcock. But would he? For two or three years, we'll probably draft pretty high. It's going to be a long and winding road for anyone who takes the post, yet that person needs to get the benefit of a doubt for long, frustrating, heartbreaking periods during that time, even understanding that he might one day get the boot before any real success. So we'll need a coach who has a very definitive system for both playing the game and for nurturing talent. I can't think beyond Babcock in that sense. But we'll also need a coach who is willing to accept that he'll be losing games in bunches in the early going, and that the said "early going" might be a tad bit longer than early next season. In that sense, Babcock might not be ideal fit for him, or the Leafs.

    But we would need experience behind the bench. No, not necessarily a Cup-winning or Adams-winning coach, just someone who can handle the pressure and not play dump-and-chase, and be willing to accept to go down as the Toronto MSM's unanimous choice for The Worst Coach Ever and be able to to build a playing identity for the franchise and bring up the right talent while getting vilified all the way.

    Not an easy choice for the brass, and no matter the money, not an easy choice for any coach. Both parties will need to keep the faith while getting pelted with rotten eggs for a good while, going forward. Ambition will need to be tempered with patience, ability, hard work, and above all, humility. Virtues not often recognized by us fans.


    1. Well said, CGLN. The new coach will hopefully have (or acquire) some of the traits you cited. And yes, building a team with an identity would be nice, too.

    2. A team identity wouldn't be nice, in my mind, but a must-have cornerstone, if we are to actually rebuild. The ruins have been smoking for quite long enough, and shuffling coaches and approaches would only maintain the status quo of nothing actually getting done.

      Vision first, and Shanahan seems to have one. That's fresh to me, as Burke came to Toronto to be a hero without needing to have one; after all, he just makes winners. Don't get me wrong, as arrogant and, well, wrong, Burke, in his approach, was an improvement to things and people gone on prior. He had a view on how things get done, but a vision is something more. Burke landed Pronger, lucked into a Cup, and had all the answers afterwards. Not many of them turned out to be good ones, changing climate.

      Shanahan, on the other hand, had no answers coming in, so immediately not cleaning the house was a justified call. He didn't extend Nonis or Carlyle, but he gave them a shot. And that's a whole lot better than cleaning the house right away, just because people had turned against them in masses, and he read about it somewhere. He came in without a plan or a vision, so any immediate changes would have been made for the sake of making changes. Hasn't that been done enough, already?

      I'm not sure what Shanahan's vision is, but at least he seems to have one. Whether it's a working one remains to be seen, but we've been without one for far too long.


  3. Even though I've been a fan for almost 5 decades now, I have less opinion now about the 'right' way the Leafs should run things.

    I'm beat. What a roller coaster we've been on. With every new coach and GM, I've been on board with the new theory on how to build a team

    I was excited when Burke traded for Dion and believed him and the media on what a stolen gem Phil Kessel was. And so on and so on. Now they are the Leaf 'pinups' for everything wrong about them.

    I can't believe anymore that there has been any Leaf GM, post cap era, that understands how to succeed. And it's a GM that is responsible for player chemistry and finding a coach that can translate the GM's calculations on ice.

    I'm not pessimistic about Mr. Shanahan's decisions so far but I'm apathetic that my patience so far has made no fruition. Why now, after all these years, I can only guess is part of my age?

    1. I'm probably in a similar Leaf "place" as you, drgreg- Shananhan may succeed but it will take a while for some of us to get excited.

    2. not sure your age there dr. greg, but i can definitely relate to what you wrote. the mid-90's were such an exciting for me as a young leaf-fan... but since the cap-era has begun it's been one unfulfilled promise after another. apathy for me has set in. maybe the draft will light another spark (in us fans). we'll see!

  4. Hi Michael,

    Being a neophyte hockey executive, I expect Shanahan to pick a coach that is a neophyte to the nhl. I also expect him to hire a raw gm, who will do as he's told. I think right now the coach is a more important choice since he'll be hands on in player development. So my guess is that it'll be a fairly young coach with a proven track record, preferably in the AHL, also preferably with junior success as well.

    Also, I am not impressed with Shanahan thus far. The way he handled the Kadri situation was inconsistent, the guy's suspended twice for the same infraction. Also, his silence during this season's downward spiral was appalling. I like his bringing in new blood, such as Dubas and Hunter, and the revised player development strategy. I would credit Dubas for acquiring Winnick and Santorelli whom both worked hard and obtained assets at the trade deadline. The Shanaplan will likely work in the long run, but the prez needs to be able to assemble competent pieces for his management vacancies. Time will tell.

    1. Shanahan will no doubt canvas the marketplace thoroughly for both a coach and GM, AJ., though I would not be shocked if he promoted from within for the GM position.

  5. I'm not on the Babcock bandwagon myself. As you say, Toronto's last three coaches had sterling reputations before they came here; how would Babcock be any different?

    I thought Jonas Siegel's story about Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill put a pretty good case forward ( The young Leafs probably need that soft touch, a good communicator. Eakins would fit in the same basket - I always thought he was the coach they should have hired over Carlyle. He could be another option. I wonder if he'd swallow his pride and come back to coach the Marlies if he didn't get any NHL offers. Let's be honest: the Marlies will probably be a better team than the Leafs next year...

    1. Yes, someone who communicates and can also teach (while still holding players accountable) will likely be at the top of Shanahan's list, Peregrine. As you and AJ mentioned above, an AHL coach with solid credentials may be considered.

  6. I spent most of the season hoping that Babcock would end up behind the Leafs' bench, but now that the time has come to act I find myself more persuaded by those who would look elsewhere.

    It's interesting that teams seem to recycle the same coaches over and over again. It seems that having an NHL head coaching job is the primary qualification for obtaining another one. This despite the fact that it is just about statistically impossible (I stand to be corrected on this point, as I think I take care to note whenever I stray to deeply into math!) for the best 30 hockey coaches in the world to already be occupying those positions. As well, to a lesser extent, prior experience plus availability also tends to imply at least one past failure (depending on how we want to define the word; I'm sympathetic to the argument that being fired is not necessarily an indictment of the coach).

    I think the best way forward is to keep an eye out for the next Jon Cooper. USHL to the NHL in 5 years, and he still seems to be doing alright these days.

    On that note, I hope the rest of your family doesn't burden you with their disappointment tonight!

    1. To your last point, Oliver- yes, my family history (other than myself) is pro-Habs. I'm a bit surprised the series with Tampa has gone the way it has.

      It will be interesting to see if Shanahan looks at up and coming minor league coaches...

  7. Hi Michael and fellow posters. Wishing you all the joy of Spring...finally.

    I'm very anxious just to hear some news. I don't know how successful Shanahan will prove but he was one of the first to identify how much hockey has changed over the past ten or so years and I am open to whoever they decide to put in the head coach position.

    I don't think it will be Babcock. I'm leaning toward McLelland, who Shanahan knows well, or Guy Boucher--if the Habs don't grab him first. Boucher has been very successful in international competition, winning several gold medals over the years in U18, U20 , the 2014 Spengler Cup and coaching his own Swiss team to the championship. His short stint with Tampa didn't end well but they did have structure, low goals against and high scoring before the bottom fell out. From what I've read of the story, it sounds an awful lot like Horachuk's struggle with the Leafs but possibly a good learning experience. Paul Maurice, who I've always liked, came back to the NHL as, admittedly, a much smarter coach so I'd like to see what Boucher can do.

    From what I've seen on MLHS some pretty amazing "Hangouts" featuring quality guests are coming in the near future. Can't wait! Hope I haven't spilled the beans.

  8. From what I read they have already talked to McLellan and Babcock so too early to say what happens. They also talked to Chiarelli but as expected he was not interested and from the sounds of it Shanahan will still be calling all the shots and is the de facto GM no matter who they hire.

    Rebuilds take time and prospects and they traded Franson, Santorelli, Winnik and Holzer and all four are now UFA's so the Leafs can resign all of them, meanwhile they have the Preds first and Leipsic and Pens 2nd and 4th and a Ducks 4th and a 6th from the St. Louis. They are spending big money to rebuild the team by trading Clarkson and firing Nonis and on scouts and have also signed a few free agents like Bailey and Soshnikov. If a few of these picks and signings work out the Leafs will be well on the way.

    In the past they always thought they were better than they were and never considered an actual rebuild. Last year they signed Winnick, Santorelli, Booth, Komorov because they thought the top six were good but they needed help from the bottom six. That sort of thinking has left them falling short year after year. Now they understand - or it seems like Shanahan understands while Nonis was like Burke and thought they were better than they were. So they won't add the support players which only make sense on a good playoff team. So instead they sit back develop their kids don't sign the Winnicks and finish at or near the bottom get another top pick and rebuild the way teams like the Bolts, Hawks and Pens did.

    Somehow I think this time it will be different because this time they have been so bad and such an embarrassment they are finally ready to do a proper rebuild. From what I have read this Austin Mathews kid who just signed to play in Europe for 500k at 17 is another Connor McDavid and the Leafs are right in the running for him. Surely to God at some point the Leafs will win the lottery or at least make a few smart moves that finally make them a contender again.

    Anyway I am still hopeful and I have bought in to this latest rebuild and really looking forward to the draft this June. It can be pretty interesting reading Hockey News Draft Preview and then seeing what the actual picks are. I know I will get pretty get excited if I see a fairly highly rated player slip down and get picked up by the Leafs at 22 with the Nashville pick.