Mike Babcock takes on enormous challenge with Maple Leafs

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the enormity of the challenge ahead of coach Mike Babcock now that he chose the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres, among other offers.

BURNSIDE: And there you have it, an end to Babs-mania. And I must tell you, I’m still having trouble getting my head around the fact that after all the visits and talks and discussion Mike Babcock decided his future lies with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Babcock must have a hidden masochistic streak to have signed on as head coach for the most dysfunctional, backward team in the NHL. Of course, I guess he must also like money and security -- both of which he got with the Leafs giving him an eight-year deal for $50 million, making him the highest-paid coach in the game. It’s a decision that brings to a close the most interesting coaching derby in recent memory, perhaps since Scotty Bowman left the dynastic Montreal Canadiens after those Stanley Cup runs in the 1970s. But it’s also a decision that begs more questions, first and foremost, why the Leafs? You have been close to this situation from the get-go. Were you at all surprised that this was how it shook down, especially since a few days ago it looked like Babcock would return to Detroit?

LEBRUN: Yes, I am surprised to be sure. I really felt all along that if Babcock left Detroit -- and I wasn’t sure he would -- that he would go to Buffalo, because the money would be good there and the team is ahead of the Leafs in terms of its rebuild. Having said that, Toronto’s offer, as another NHL head coach said to me, was impossible to turn down. No one should criticize Babcock for taking such an incredible offer. His kids’ kids will be taken care of with this. But it’s not just the money with Babcock, I can assure you of that. His chance to start a new legacy with an organization that matters, his place in history and a fresh challenge are all things that were huge motivating factors for Babcock. He’s definitely found a huge challenge in Toronto. But imagine if he’s the coach who brings home a Stanley Cup to Toronto for the first time since 1967; his legacy would be stamped forever. Don’t underestimate his sense of history. This is a guy who’s loved the pressure of coaching Team Canada in two Olympics and the scrutiny that came with it. He doesn’t shrink under pressure, he gets fueled by it. He’s going to love this.

BURNSIDE: OK, I can’t believe you just mentioned the Leafs and the Stanley Cup in the same sentence and it wasn’t just to poke fun at their futility for more than five decades. Let’s agree that Babcock is the greatest coach of this generation and maybe one of the greatest of all time. He’s won consistently at the highest levels, starting in Anaheim where he took a bunch of blue-collar players and aging stars to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, then in Detroit and of course at the Olympic level. But coaching the Leafs is like handing a guy a bucket of rocks and telling him to build the Great Wall of China. We’ll find out more in the next day or so about just what Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has promised Babcock in terms of what this lineup is going to look like come September, but I am wondering if this move, nabbing the hottest free-agent coach in decades, stands as Shanahan’s big move. Remember when the Leafs were committed to changing the complexion of the team and that meant, at least in theory, dismantling a core that includes captain Dion Phaneuf and sniper Phil Kessel? Have to wonder if part of the gauntlet that will be thrown down for Babcock will be to try and instill some character and pride in a group that shamefully laid down under interim head coach Peter Horachek.

LEBRUN: Well I can tell you this, Babcock’s hire immediately changes the perception of the Toronto market for players around the league. It’s a place many didn’t want to go to. Now that has changed. So there’s that. But you’re right, just how exactly this changes -- or doesn’t change -- Shanahan’s plan to do a methodical overhaul of the roster will be interesting. It appeared a done deal that Kessel and Phaneuf would be shopped this summer. Does Babcock’s hire mean they stay? I feel bad for Buffalo in all this. The Sabres were aggressive in their pursuit, made two different offers and now find themselves losers not only on the Babcock front but also in the draft lottery, where they missed on the chance to take Connor McDavid (although Jack Eichel will be a heck of a player). That’s a sports town that’s taken many hits over the years and it just took another massive one. I mean, the Sabres could have lived with seeing Babcock staying in Detroit. But to go down the highway to Toronto? Ouch.

For the Wings, though, I don’t think this is the end of the world. You could tell in Ken Holland’s demeanor during his media availability Tuesday that he was ready for this. He had a Plan B all along and I think his name is Jeff Blashill, the Wings’ AHL head coach in Grand Rapids. Holland said he needed to speak with Blashill and would interview two or three candidates overall. But I think this job is going to Blashill, whom many see as the next Jon Cooper. The Wings survived Scotty Bowman’s retirement, they survived Steve Yzerman and Jim Nill going elsewhere to become GMs, they can certainly survive Babcock’s exit. Holland deserves a lot of credit for handling all this so well, with class, and with purpose, putting a time limit a few weeks ago to Babcock’s window shopping.

BURNSIDE: Those are excellent points (even if you did say Cup and Leafs together) and it will be interesting to see how the dominoes fall now that Babcock has made his decision. What happens for Buffalo as a Plan B? Is Dan Bylsma someone on their radar? Paul MacLean would be a good fit with that young team. Does this change what happens with Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis? Where does San Jose look now? The coaching carousel doesn’t stop now that the biggest horse is off the ride. Finally, this is going to be a fascinating test case in Toronto. We sometimes debate how important coaching is to a team’s evolution. And obviously the coaches we think of as some of the best in the business are the ones that consistently get more from less and find ways to get their teams to compete at the highest levels at the most important times. Babcock has come to bedrock in terms of a team that seems capable of any of those things. How quickly is he able to effect change? And will there come a point in time when his patience and belief in making this choice gets rocked?

LEBRUN: Yes still some coaching positions to fill around the league, and perhaps even in Boston where Don Sweeney didn’t exactly give Claude Julien the biggest backing Tuesday upon his introduction as the team’s new GM. There’s Arizona, too, where Dave Tippett’s future still isn’t 100 percent in terms of whether he stays. The Sharks have been incredibly diligent in their pursuit of a new coach. Not sure any team will have talked to more candidates by the time they’re done, including the likes of Adam Oates, Peter DeBoer, Randy Carlyle, etc. I bet you they end up talking to 10 or so guys before deciding where they go.

As for Babcock, I think he was right to leave Detroit. He needed a new challenge to stay hungry. He’s got it. And then some.