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.

6 responses on “Why Maple Leafs’ Bet on Babcock Is a Big Gamble

  1. Glenn Rowe

    23 is not a small sample-it is the entire population! Brian Burke came in with very high expectations as GM! It is even worse for GMs who are proven winners. Glen Sather is now in his 15th year as GM with NewYork after winning five Cups as GM in 20 years in Edmonton! He has not yet been able to build a Cup winner in NY!

  2. Doogs70

    I’m not sure I buy the logic put forth. In essence you’re making an argument for hiring a coach without a Stanley Cup on his resume because of a statistically insignificant sample size? The analysis also over- emphasizes the relative contribution of a coach to winning a Cup – I’d suggest the players have much more influence on the outcome than the coach does. In regards to the Leafs, and Shanahan in particular they appear to have finally recognized the world in which they are operating – which is to say that the only formula for winning a Stanley Cup is through a holistic organizational approach. The salary cap era doesn’t allow free spenders like the Leafs to buy their way out of bad decisions, which was what they were able to do for many years. It’s a spending efficiency game now which means drafting and developing high quality, young talent that can be paid less than their actual contribution value. Look no further than the Lightning to see what it takes to be a contender for the Cup. The best line in hockey (Kucherov, Palat, Johnson) combined were paid less than Steven Stamkos was this year, were +102 and drafted in 2nd round, 7th round and in Johnson’s case, not at all. To accomplish that, you need to hire top draft & development people (which the Leafs have done with Hunter) look for ways to find hidden value in players (which they have done with Dubas) and stockpile as many draft picks as possible (which they have and I expect will continue to do). Babcock will prove his value in the short run through effectively establishing the Marlies development program so that when they’re ready, the players will be fully prepared to put on the Leafs jersey and deliver. The ‘past as predictor of the future’ argument doesn’t hold with me – if it did, the Rangers would have won game 7 last week against that same Lightning team (Lundqvist was 7-0 in game 7’s), but now they’re looking for answers on the back 9.

  3. Don Lato

    Isn’t a 13% success ratio much higher than the success ratio of all coaches hired since 1926-27. As you say, there have only been 46 coaches that have won a cup. Therefore your odds of winning with a coach who has won, even if they are only 13%, I am guessing are many times higher than hiring a coach who hasn’t won a cup.

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