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Caps Coach Candidates: Mike Babcock

In our next look at potential Caps coaches, we take a look at one of the most recognizable names out there — Mike Babcock

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Los Angeles Kings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Caps and Todd Reirden having parted ways, the search is on for the next bench boss - so we’re taking a look at some of the possible candidates, what they bring to the table, and where they might come up short. Next up? A coach who has been there, done that, often. Just not lately – Mike Babcock.

Early Career

Mike Babcock’s early development was not unlike a lot of other Canadian youths. He eventually reached Canadian junior hockey, with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL as a defenseman, and later with the Kelowna Wings of the WHL. He also logged stops at the University of Saskatchewan and McGill University, but playing professional hockey was not in the cards for Babcock.

He went into coaching, returning to the WHL and the Moose Jaw Warriors in 1991-1992. Except for a brief stop at the University of Lethbridge, he spent eight seasons as a head coach in Canadian juniors before moving up to coach in the AHL, taking over the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in 2000-2001. After posting a record of 74-59-7 (20 ties) over two seasons, both of which finished with playoff berths, Babcock got his chance in the NHL at the age of 39 when he took over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002-2003.

NHL Coaching Record

It is hard to have a bigger splash in one’s first NHL coaching season than Mike Babcock had with the Anaheim in 2002-2003. To that point in their history, the Ducks could hardly be described as “mighty.” In nine seasons since coming into the league in 1993-1994, the Ducks managed a record of just 269-338-11 (88 ties), reaching the postseason twice and winning only one playoff series. Never in any of those nine seasons did the Ducks reach 40 wins, and never did they finish better than fifth in their division.

Enter Babcock. He started slowly, guiding the Mighty Ducks to a 15-16-3 (seven ties) record over the first half of the season. He and the Ducks came on over the second half, though, going 25-11-3 (two ties) over the second half of the season to finish second in the Pacific Division. The momentum carried into the postseason where the Ducks opened by sweeping the Detroit Red Wings, each of the four wins by one-goal margins, two of them in overtime. The Ducks continued their march all the way to the Cup final, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games.

That would be a difficult bar to clear, and it proved just that the following year when Babcock and the Mighty Ducks finished 29-35-8 (ten ties) and out of the playoffs. Coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout, Babcock declined an opportunity to return to Anaheim and joined the Detroit Red Wings. His first four years in Detroit were among the most successful of any coach in NHL history. His Red Wings topped 50 wins in each of the four years, compiling an overall regular season record of 213-77-38. Those four teams went 43-26 in the postseason, winning the Stanley Cup in 2008 and losing in the final in 2009.

Although Babcock remained a successful head coach after that, the success of those early years in Detroit left those later years with the appearance of disappointment. In his last six seasons in Detroit he never reached 50 wins and never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, although in 2013-2014 he would earn his 500th career head coaching win, becoming the second-fastest head coach in NHL history to that mark, trailing only Scotty Bowman.

Unable to come to terms on a new contract with the Wings, Babcock was named head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs in May 2015. Expectations are high for any coach in Toronto, but Babcock’s record might have added fuel to that fire. It burned him and his team. In five seasons with the Leafs, he went 173-133-45, reaching the postseason three times but failing to win a series. He was relieved of his duties in November 2019 when the Leafs suffered a six-game losing streak and amid charges of presiding over a toxic work environment.

Before and After

Let us take a look at how Babcock’s teams did before and after his tenure in each of his three postings.

In his first stop, Babcock took over an Anaheim Mighty Ducks team mired in mediocrity. Things were bad enough that the season before which Babcock took over, 2001-2002, was worse (29-42-3, with eight ties) than the Ducks’ inaugural season in 1993-1994 (33-46, with five ties). That 2001-2002 season was the second straight campaign in which the Ducks finished with fewer than 70 standings points. You could say Babcock was a short-term improvement, but was not until he left after the 2003-2004 season that the Ducks took off. Randy Carlyle took over after the 2004-2005 lockout and took the Ducks to a conference final in his first season and a Stanley Cup in the following season.

When Babcock replaced Dave Lewis in the 2005-2006 season in Detroit, he was taking over a team that won 48 games in each of the preceding two seasons under Lewis and won its division in both years, but a club that won only one playoff series in two trips to the postseason. Babcock, as noted, lifted the Red Wings to greater heights, averaging 53 wins over his first four seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup final twice, and winning once. But that star faded over his last six seasons in Detroit. What happened after his departure might have been the inevitable fate of a team with sustained success. Jeff Blashill took over in 2015-2016 and reached the postseason on a 41-30-11 record, but the Red Wings have not reached the playoffs since under Blashill and are in the midst of a rebuild.

Before Babcock arrived in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were a struggling franchise. Randy Carlyle (who replaced Babcock in Anaheim) was not the answer, having failed to win as many as 40 games in any of his parts of four seasons with the Leafs and reaching the postseason only once. Carlyle was relieved after 40 games of the 2014-2015 season (21-16-3) in favor of Peter Horachek, who was not the answer either, going 9-28-5. The losing (including Babcock’s 29-42-11 first season in Toronto) meant high draft picks, and Babcock benefitted from the club drafting and introducing skill and talent to the organization – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly among the promising players. But Babcock was unable to bring that new core along fast enough, reaching the postseason three times in Toronto, but failing to win a series. When the Leafs seemed to regress this season, Babcock was relieved after posting a 9-10-4 record in favor of Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe, who turned things around in the regular season (27-15-5), although the postseason frustration continued with a five-game elimination in the preliminary round of the playoffs at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Caps Connection

While coaching Toronto, he coached former Caps Connor Carrick, Brendan Leipsic, Daniel Winnik, and Brooks Laich. Does that count?

Intangibles

Mike Babcock is, at least looking from the outside, a commanding presence. His record precedes him (more on that in a moment). A coach who can flash a Stanley Cup ring, point to a world junior championship (coaching Team Canada in 1997), a world championship (Team Canada in 2004), two Olympic titles (Team Canada in 2010 and 2014), and a World Cup of Hockey (Team Canada in 2016) will get the locker room’s attention.

Pros:

  • He has won at just about every level of competition.
  • He is a disciplinarian; it is unlikely shortcuts of lackadaisical play would be tolerated.
  • His teams have been among the least penalized in the league during his tenure (especially true during his stay in Detroit).

Cons:

  • His methods might be inappropriate. At least one former player and current executive thinks so, who himself is hardly a shrinking violet.
  • He has not won a playoff series since 2013, going 12-20 in five trips to the playoffs in seven seasons. His teams haven’t been out of the second round since his Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup final in 2009.
  • His episode with Mitch Marner in Toronto, asking the young forward to rank players according to their devotion to a work ethic, could be a bit of uncomfortable baggage to drag into a locker room, especially among younger players.
  • Babcock signed an eight-year contract with Toronto paying him $6.25 million per season, the richest coaching contract in NHL history and one with three more seasons to run. Compensation would seem to be all but certain an issue in any contract with Babcock.

The Bottom Line:

Mike Babcock enjoyed a great deal of early-career success. Three Stanley Cup finals and a Cup championship in his first six seasons is impressive in any context. In 11 seasons since then, he has remained a well-respected name, but the respect might not match the performance, especially as it comes to the postseason (32-42 over those 11 seasons in nine appearances). One wonders if he is more “celebrity coach,” whose best years (and perhaps his hunger) are behind him than a leader who can reach the promised land once more. With diminished late career performance, potential personality issues, and just the overall “celebrity” aura that accompanies him (more than a “success” aura), one cannot help but think ”just say no” when it comes to considering Mike Babcock as the Caps’ next head coach.