I know it’s nearly June, and I wrote about hockey last week, but gall darn it, the latest sports rocker out of Toronto screams for comment.
The Toronto Many Laughs actually appear serious about returning its once proud and famous NHL franchise back into a respectable hockey club.
On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs hired the very best hockey coach currently in the world—and spent a whack of bucks to do so.
There is hope, once again, for the blue and white.
In true Toronto fashion, however, Canada’s most frustrating professional sports team managed to make its significant off-ice move in typical bull-in-the-china shop style.
Only at the “Centre of the Universe” could a perennial losing sports franchise (with a crumpled line-up and little in future talent on the horizon) hire a coach for a larger individual salary than at least 20 of the 24-man roster.
The Leafs lured Mike Babcock out of Detroit by offering an eight-year coaching contract worth $50 million. That’s a lot of Tim Horton doughnuts.
In fact, that’s more than $6 million a season, which makes Babcock the fifth-highest paid member of the team—even though he will not score one goal all year.
Only Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, and a couple of other players will earn more dough next season than Babcock.
It’s enough money to make the likes of Conn Smythe toss in his grave—and perhaps, ironically enough, rightly so.
But then, when have the Maple Leafs done anything normal since 1967?
In case you fail to connect the dots, the Toronto Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since that year—in fact, they have barely even come close.
Yet that’s exactly what both Leaf fans and ownership want and expect within the next eight years.
Is $6 million a year too much for a coach?
Perhaps, but not if he brings home a Stanley Cup. At least not in Shaky Town.
Some Leaf sceptics remain unimpressed, saying the deal to steal the Red Wings coaching guru won’t change much.
I figure if there has ever been a time for some potential sunshine in the forecast for the hapless hockey club it’s now.
During his 10 years with the Wings, Babcock never missed the playoffs, coached Detroit to the Stanley Cup championship in 2008 and to the Cup Final in 2009, losing to Pittsburgh in seven games.
His regular season total of 458 wins, 223 losses, and 105 overtime or shoot out losses makes him the Wings’ all-time leader in wins.
He boasts an 82-62 record in the playoffs.
The Red Wings finished third in the Atlantic Division this season and lost to Tampa Bay in a seven-game Eastern Conference first round series.
The Maple Leafs went 30-44-8 this season, finishing 15th in the Eastern conference.
Make no bones about it, this blockbuster move proves Leafs ownership and its head honchos are serious about winning again—and willing to spend the dollars in acquiring key hockey savvy folks to run the show.
That certainly appeared to be the case when Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment hired retired Red Wing star player Brendan Shanahan as Toronto’s team president 15 months ago and suggested Shanny would be left to make the key decisions.
Shanahan played under Babcock in Detroit and is well aware of Babcock’s no nonsense, hockey brilliant, demeanour and abilities.
It’s the ultimate compliment to Babcock’s skills and style.
If the Leafs really do turn themselves around over the next few years, it will be through shrewd drafting and trades.
That will begin this year with the fourth pick in the upcoming rookie draft.
If the hockey gods are kind, talented Dylan Strome—a sniper centre for the Erie Otters—will still be available.
The talented pivot is a good place to start a rebuild.
And there are a few other young bodies on the squad worth keeping around including goalie Jonathan Bernier, defensemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly and fast-skating winger William Nylander.
With the arrival of a wise coach like Babcock, a perennial floater and one-dimensional player like overpaid star Phil Kessel is hopefully gone.
Kessel’s skill level has never been in question but his consistency, leadership, and commitment have certainly been.
I have a sneaking hunch despite his huge contract, Kessel is taking a jet plane somewhere soon.
Not since Pat Quinn have the Maple Leafs had anyone seriously take charge of things in Leafville, and even back then, Quinn never had the sort of support to make the changes needed that Babcock is seemingly going to enjoy.
If ever there was a coach to resurrect the career of a journeyman jock like Dion Phaneuf, then it must be Babcock.
Clearly, if Babcock was not convinced he is stepping into a scenario that will provide him a chance to truly create a winner, and fulfill his destiny; he certainly had other options on where to go. Detroit never wanted him to leave and aside from the Leafs he had entertained significant offers from the Buffalo Sabres, San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues.
Clearly Babcock thinks Toronto can be a winner soon—and that, my friends, is good enough for me.
Dare I say it?
Go Leafs Go.