The Leafs have inked Mike Babcock, the sexiest free agent coach, well, ever.
The Red Wings from top to bottom identified, refined and deployed talent better than any other club. Mike Babcock didn’t find Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Petr Mrazek. He deployed them.
Yes, Babcock fashioned the most devastating men’s Olympic hockey team ever for the gold medal run at the 2014 Games. But unless you count his second and final season in Anaheim, he has never had to work with a team this early in its gestation.
But the signing says five things.
One: The Leafs have reclaimed what for nearly ten years was a profound advantage: they had The Guy behind the bench.
His name was Pat Quinn and he was the Lord of every room in which he stood. The Maple Leafs stopped being the Maple Leafs nine years ago this past April 20 when John Ferguson Jr. fired Pat Quinn.
That is your line in the sand. Since then the Leafs have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs once.
Coaching in the NHL is a three-year-act. The lucky ones get a four-year contract.
That the Red Wings would still compete for Babcock a decade after he arrived speaks to his presence in Motown and his ability to keep his message fresh.
Two: Throughout the gloom of the 2014-2015 season, two dates resonate.
Feb. 26, when the Leafs traded David Clarkson to Columbus for the right to eat $26 million in Nathan Horton’s salary and today, May 20.
The next time someone says the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t care about anything but the bottom line. Knock yourself out.
Three: Babcock’s security is granite-like and everyone is going to have to adjust. Every Leaf who delivered a half-hearted shift for Peter Horachek or Randy Carlyle, every player who skipped an optional practice during a losing streak or whose chest heaved under the weight of a 50-second shift has been put on notice.
The message from the upper reaches of the team’s executive offices towards the players is the same one every husband gets from every wife when discussing their child: don’t make me choose.
Four: The Leafs are acting like the big dogs they are.
In the salary cap era the only cheap components are off-the-ice assets. The Leafs reportedly blew the coaching salary grid out of the water and every other general manager will, sooner or later, have to pay for that. And that’s a good thing. If yours is the dominant contribution to league revenues, you should get to make up at least some of the rules. Never mind that it might cost Calgary more at the end of Bob Hartley’s contract. The intriguing question is do the Leafs stop here. What is to prevent them from using the same kind of economic clout to scoop up the best talent evaluators and scouts, administrators and management minds from around the NHL. If you are going to pay twice the going rate to get the coach you want, why not line up an all-star team off the ice as well. You want to be the Yankees? Be the Yankees.
Five: Babcock’s belief.
In signing Babcock the Leafs showed the rest of the league a coach with a sterling background in how an organization should run believed enough in the franchise, the talent level, the administration and the market to take the plunge