If you’re an NHL fan, and you weren’t preoccupied by sideshows like the Eastern Conference Finals yesterday, you’re doubtless aware that Toronto fans have found a new savior, as the Maple Leafs announced that long-time Red Wings (and Team Canada) head coach Mike Babcock will take over behind the team’s bench next season. Given Babs’ pedigree as a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal winner, and as the boss of a lot of superb possession teams, the move has created a lot of excitement, with some expecting a return to the postseason in 2015-16 and others wondering how quickly the team can realistically contend for a Cup.
Leafs fans have certainly suffered a lot in recent seasons, and a part of me is tempted to sit back and let them enjoy this moment, rather than be the voice of skepticism. On the other hand, if you do something well, you’re probably wise to keep it up. So, here are some reasons to be skeptical about Babcock’s ability to engineer a quick turnaround in Toronto:
1. The puck possession brilliance of his Red Wings teams depended significantly on Nicklas Lidstrom. On one hand, Babcock’s ability to wring tremendous performances out of talented lineups is beyond question. Even leaving aside the Stanley Cup championship in 2008 and the President’s Trophies his Wings won in 2005-06 and 2007-08 (along with playing in Game 7 of the Cup Final in 2009), score-adjusted Fenwick data from WAR on Ice reveals an incredibly impressive fact: over the past ten seasons, four of the five strongest possession teams were Babcock-coached Wings teams, including a 56.8% SAF in 2008-09, a 57.6% SAF in 2005-06, a 58.5% SAF in 2006-07, and an unbelievable 59.9% SAF in 2007-08.
Still, it should be noted that having an all-universe two-way defenseman can make an enormous difference in a team’s possession game. Zdeno Chara in Boston is an obvious example, but probably the best lies in the contrasting possession numbers of Randy Carlyle-coached teams with and without Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Carlyle’s Anaheim teams posted very solid possession numbers in 2005-06 (52.5% SAF) and 2006-07 (53.4% SAF), and respectable numbers in 2007-08 (50.6% SAF) and 2008-09 (50.7% SAF); without Pronger in 2009-10, those numbers plummeted to 46.7%, and without both in 2010-11, they dropped to 45.2% (I don’t think Carlyle’s team possession numbers in Toronto deserve further comment).
The bottom line here is this: in seven seasons with Lidstrom patrolling the blueline, the Red Wings had a score-adjusted Fenwick just over 56%. In the three seasons since Lidstrom retired, that number has been 52.4%. While that’s still a very solid number, the gap between these two figures implies that Babs is unlikely to repeat the dominating possession numbers we often associate with his teams, especially with Toronto’s lineup.
2. While the Leafs’ possession game is almost certain to improve, the wins may not follow. With the dark days of the Carlyle era over, the Leafs’ possession will almost certainly be better than the 43.8% SAF they’ve had over the past three seasons. And honestly, for a team that’s been unbelievably poor defensively, Babcock could be exactly the remedy that’s needed: with or without Lidstrom, his Wings teams have been some of the NHL’s best when it comes to shot prevention. Still, this begs an obvious question: how was Babcock able to maintain the Red Wings’ defensive performance after the loss of Lidstrom?
The answer, it appears, lies in the Wings’ rate of shot creation. After being one of the league’s most dynamic offenses, in terms of the rate of Corsi attempts for, between 2007-08 and 2011-12, Detroit dropped to the middle of the pack in the following two years, and ranked just 23rd last season. Unsurprisingly for a team lacking a true sniper, their goal production dropped off dramatically: after being one of the higher-scoring teams in the league for several seasons, Detroit’s even-strength scoring fell to 27th in 2012-13, 13th in 2013-14, and 25th this season. What these numbers suggest is that Babcock essentially focused on defensive soundness at a considerable cost to the Red Wings’ attack. While this approach was unquestionably effective in terms of goal prevention, the implications for wins and losses are more debatable. While Detroit’s 2012-13 team is best remembered for a playoff run that included besting the Pacific champion Ducks and blowing a 3-1 series lead to the eventual Cup winners, it’s fair to point out that their season got off to a very rocky start, and they needed a scorching stretch run to get into the playoffs as the West’s 7th seed. In 2013-14, a late run and the Maple Leafs’ collapse was the difference in letting Detroit sneak in as the second Eastern wild card. This past season, the Wings got off to a strong start, but slumped towards the end of the year, only avoiding being a wild card team by a single point. So, for everyone who’s ready to pencil next season’s Leafs in for a playoff spot, remember that, post-Lidstrom, Babcock’s Red Wings have essentially been a bubble team.
3. The rebuild. While the public-relations impact of the hiring is obvious, a part of me was more than a bit surprised that the Leafs chose to go with a big-name coach rather than a “placeholder” guy, for the simple reason that the Leafs aren’t, today, a team that’s anywhere close to contention. One obvious concern, if you’re a Toronto fan, has to be this: given the organization’s extensive history of short-term thinking and the notoriously difficult Toronto sports media, are the Maple Leafs really willing to tolerate losing for a few seasons, especially after such a high-profile hiring? The worst thing the team could do right now would be to stand pat with their existing roster in the hope that Babcock can work enough magic to get the Leafs back into the playoffs next season. Whatever your expectations are for Babcock, or Brendan Shanahan, or for Kyle Dubas and the analytic braintrust in the front office, the simple fact is that years of mismanagement by previous regimes are going to take time to undo. There’s no reason to think that the Leafs can’t be good in a few years, but there are plenty of reasons to think they can’t be good next year.
Assuming that Toronto sticks to their plan for a rebuild, their opening-night roster for 2015-16 is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the group that started 2014-15. In order to correct the mistakes of the past and position the team well for the future, the Leafs need to get younger, and (for the time being) they need to get cheaper. Behind William Nylander, Toronto’s current prospect depth is very thin, and there’s a strong case to be made that a few more seasons of high draft picks could do wonders for their talent pipeline. The imperative to shed salary will likely mean the end of Phil Kessel’s time in a Leafs jersey; Kessel is owed $56M over the next seven seasons, but as a proven scorer in a low-scoring league, he’s the only big Leafs contract with a lot of value to other teams. Toronto, unfortunately, has some terrible contracts on the books that need to be moved before any rebuild can begin: Joffrey Lupul hasn’t played anything close to a full NHL season since 2008-09, and he’s owed almost $16M over the next three seasons; Dion Phaneuf, while still a potentially useful player, is vastly overpaid at $7M a year until 2021; the aging Stephane Robidas will make $6M over two more years; and Tyler Bozak will be paid like a top-two center for three more years. The most likely scenarios for these players are either (1) they stay in Toronto, which is bad for the rebuild, (2) they’re traded in retained-salary deals, which is also not great for the rebuild, (3) they’re dealt in return for other bad contracts (again, not good for the rebuild), or (4) the Leafs deal them without retained salary, but are forced to package a good player with them to make the deal happen. Regarding option four, it would be unfortunate, if not entirely surprising, if Nazem Kadri left the team in a deal of this sort, given his conflicts with the team this past season. The broader point, though, is that Toronto fans shouldn’t expect other teams to just take the Leafs’ bad contracts on without some benefit to themselves.
My expectations for the first year of the Babcock era, then, are not all that rosy. Fixing the problems created by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis will not be a quick process, or an easy one. Babs can be counted on to get every ounce of talent out of the roster that he’s given. But for at least the next year or two, he probably won’t be given much.