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Babcock fired, not solely to blame for Maple Leafs' problems

Struggles on offense, penalty kill among reasons Toronto making change

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

Mike Babcock leaves the Toronto Maple Leafs with 173 regular-season wins, fifth in their history.

What the coach didn't win was a Stanley Cup Playoff series. Three times he tried. Three times he failed.

That's not the progress Maple Leafs management wanted to see.


[RELATED: Babcock fired as coach of Maple LeafsBabcock career timeline]


Nor was the Maple Leafs (9-10-4) being mired in a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) after a 4-2 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday. It's the first time Toronto has been under .500 since it was 3-4-3 the morning of Nov. 3, 2016.

So president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas decided they'd seen enough. Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday morning and informed Babcock he was fired.

"Once you realize there's something that you should do and have to do, it's best to act on it," Shanahan said.

Video: Mike Babcock relieved of his duties as head coach.

One day earlier, Dubas was noncommittal when asked by if Babcock was on shaky ground in his fifth season with Toronto.

"We collectively have to pull our way out of this so that involves everyone -- that's myself in management, our staff, the players and coaching staff alike," Dubas said.

He wasn't lying. Toronto's struggles have been the product of all of them.

The Maple Leafs have allowed the first goal eight consecutive times and in 18 of their 23 games. That, for the most part, should be on the players.

Toronto's penalty kill has allowed at least one goal in 13 of the past 16 games, including two Tuesday. Whether that's a product of a poor system or the wrong personnel, much of that must be on the coaching staff.

Dubas acknowledged recent criticism that he's built a team that lacks grit and sandpaper. Fair enough. He and Shanahan prefer skill and speed. When that wasn't working and the team wasn't scoring -- they have 15 goals during the winless streak -- the alarm bells went off.

"Our game is not really meeting our expectations," Shanahan said. "We're mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren't there. And even the offense, the explosive offense that our team has been known for, has been missing for a while now."

Video: Dave McCarthy joins NHL Now

In promoting Sheldon Keefe to replace Babcock, the Maple Leafs are getting a coach who is familiar to management and players.

The 39-year-old was in his fifth season coaching the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate. He helped the Marlies win a Calder Cup championship in 2018. His previous job was coaching Sault St. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League. He was hired there by Dubas, who was then the GM.

Another important aspect of his new job: Maple Leafs forwards William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Trevor Moore and Pierre Engvall, defensemen Martin Marincin and Justin Holl, and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo played with the Marlies under Keefe, who is known as a good communicator with young players.

That wasn't always the case with Babcock, who traveled to the home of center Auston Matthews each of the past two offseasons to iron out alleged misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, the man can still coach. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to listen to the accolades that came from other NHL coaches after the news of his firing.

"He's a very good coach," Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith said. "I know that Mike would keep battling and and get that thing turned around in time … All I can do is be here for Mike if he calls."

Smith was an assistant under Babcock with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19.

"He never takes anything for granted," Smith said. "He lets you know that every day, and it certainly helped me in my journey getting here."

Video: Elliotte Friedman reacts to Mike Babcock's firing

Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien was an assistant to Babcock staff in winning a gold medal with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and again with Team Canada in winning the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

"I think everybody knows here Mike Babcock is a good coach," Julien said. "He's won everywhere he's gone, at all levels as well, whether it's junior, in the pro level, the Olympics, et cetera, et cetera. As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to work again tomorrow, he's got a pretty good chance of getting back to work. That's how I think everybody who knows Mike feels about him."

Babcock released a statement to TSN thanking Maple Leafs majority owner Larry Tanenbaum, defenseman Morgan Rielly, the fans, the city of Toronto, even the media. There was no mention of Shanahan or Dubas. No surprise.

Keefe will coach his first NHL game Thursday at the Arizona Coyotes (9 p.m. ET; FS-A, FS-A PLUS, SNO, NHL.TV), who have allowed the second-fewest goals (49) in the League this season.

It won't be easy. Neither will winning a playoff series with the Maple Leafs, who haven't won one since 2004, something Babcock knows too well. columnist Dave Stubbs and independent correspondent Sean Farrell contributed to this report

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