Why Maple Leafs’ Bet on Babcock Is a Big Gamble

by: Issues: May / June 2015. Tags: Leadership and Strategy. Categories: IBJ Insights.
New Leafs' Coach Mike Babcock

Despite spending US$50 million to land one of the most respected coaches in National Hockey League (NHL) history, the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again setting fans up for disappointment by handing Mike Babcock a golden eight-year contract.

Earlier this year, following a road trip in which the Toronto Maple Leafs lost five of seven games, team management fired former coach Randy Carlyle, who had been hired to replace Ron Wilson in 2012 by former general manager (GM) Brian Burke. A follower of the proven-winner theory, Burke had hired Carlyle because he had won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (when Burke was that team’s GM). Under Carlyle, the Leafs made the playoffs just once, which is why then-GM Dave Nonis let him go.

Now hopes are being raised by the hiring of another so-called proven winner.

The idea of hiring Babcock to coach the Leafs, of course, had plenty of support even before Carlyle’s departure. More than a few NHL commentators consider him the perfect candidate for the job.

Babcock is indeed a very successful coach. He has won at multiple levels, including a CIS University Cup with the University of Lethbridge in 1994, an Ice Hockey World Junior Championship with Canada in 1997 and an Ice Hockey World Championship in 2004. He won Olympic gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014. He led the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League to the WHL finals in 1996 and 2000. As an NHL coach, Babcock has missed the playoffs just once — during his second season (2003/2004) with the Ducks, after leading the team to the Stanley Cup finals the previous season, his first as an NHL coach. During his tenure with Detroit, he led the Red Wings to the playoffs every year for nine years, including two trips to the finals with one Cup victory during the 2007/2008 season. The Red Wings lost the Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins during Babcock’s other trip to the finals in the 2008/2009 season.

According to Sportsnet writer Jeff Blair, if there was ever a coach with a resumé that would seem bulletproof for the Toronto market, it’s Babcock. Simply put, as Blair declared in a Sportsnet article, the Leafs and Babcock are widely seen as “a match made in hockey heaven.”

Unfortunately, NHL history says different.

If the goal is to increase compensation levels for the fraternity of hockey coaches, then the Leafs have scored. But if the objective is to bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, the data does not support importing a proven winner. In fact, if Babcock desires to add another Cup to his impressive record, the odds say he should have decided to stay in Detroit.

Since the 1926/1927 season, 46 coaches have led their teams to Cup wins. Of these, 23 have been given the opportunity to win with another team. And only three (13 per cent) have succeeded: Dick Irvin, Tommy P. Gorman and Scotty Bowman. With their second team, the other 20 coaches have made the playoff finals just three times with zero wins. That’s not exactly a record that suggests hiring a coach with a Stanley Cup ring is a good idea.

Over the same period, coaches who have won a Cup with one team and tried to win again with the same team have succeeded 26 per cent of the time. So Babcock’s odds of winning again are twice as good in Detroit (26 per cent versus 13 per cent).

It is easy to be seduced by the glitter of a Stanley Cup ring and to argue for the proven-winner theory. But the Leafs have been there with Burke and Carlyle and have failed to achieve the desired results.