The eagle (complete with a stack of $100 bills in its mouth and not a worm), has landed. Mike Babcock is the 30th coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The shock is complete. So many thought if Babcock didn't stay in Detroit he'd move on to Terry Pegula's oil bucks, and instead he moves on to the telecommunications riches of the two largest media companies in Canada begrudgingly working together. If Mike Babcock succeeds, he's a hero of the highest order. If he fails, might well be time to fold the Leafs and start over. Will it?
The story that was being fed to us through the media was that Mike Babcock was searching for a new challenge and that money was no object in his search for a new job. He had it both ways in Toronto. He knew MLSE and the Leafs were desperate and would pay whatever his price was to bring him in. They had thrown away so many years and dollars down the drain with failed coaches, general managers and expensive players before and Babcock knew exactly that. He could play the Red Wings off the Sabres, who openly flaunt their wealth, and then the Sabres off the Leafs, who are even more flush with cash.
What did Babcock want out of his next job, exactly? The media spin from before the hire now looks entirely different. Babcock likely wanted (and will get) some personnel say in Toronto because of the murky management structure beneath Brendan Shanahan. He would not have had that in Buffalo, and evidently he didn't have enough of it in Detroit. The Red Wings are by no means the dynastic behemoth they were 6 or 7 years ago, but they're closer to a Stanley Cup than the Leafs are. Hell, the Sabres are closer to the Cup than the Leafs are, because you can pinpoint three young building block centers and a few dynamic wingers to build around. Tim Murray's professed method of building a team (a la Dean Lombardi and the Kings) would also move the Sabres towards competitiveness quicker than the Leafs scorched earth rebuild.
It's a risk. A calculated gamble from a man whose ego will not be bruised severely if it fails in Toronto, but a risk in all respects. The Leafs are starting entirely from scratch, and even with their megabucks behind them, success feels like eons away. Mike Babcock has always had a strong foundation wherever he has had success before. The 2003 Mighty Ducks had a goaltending masterclass from J-S Giguere, plus players like Paul Kariya, Petr Sykora, Adam Oates, Rob Niedermayer and others. The Red Wings team he walked into had Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. His Canada gold medal teams were fantasy teams. What does he have in Toronto? Morgan Reilly? Jonathan Bernier? William Nylander?
Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. But how much better is he than say, Alain Vigneault, Jon Cooper or Joel Quenneville? $4-5 million better? That remains to be seen. Does Mike Babcock have the patience to go through the promised scorched earth rebuild, or will his instincts push him forward and the rebuild forward and possibly endanger it? All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but the answers to those questions could well determine the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs and many teams around the NHL at large.
Mike Babcock has taken a gamble in which he either wins massively or wins just a bit less. The Leafs have gone all in. Will they turn up trumps or turn up another bust?
It's Toronto, so no matter the optimism, a bit of brevity might be needed.