Mike Babcock didn't have a chance. Not with the way he didn't see eye-to-eye with too many of his players. Not with his team's record. And not with boy wonder General Manager Kyle Dubas in charge.
Things came to a head Wednesday in Arizona, when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Babcock as coach and Dubas got the long-awaited green light to install his own man, Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
"I'm disappointed in myself that coming into the job, knowing Mike was the coach, you want everything to work out," Dubas told reporters Thursday in Glendale, Ariz.. "I tried to do as best I could and I'm disappointed in myself and only myself that it didn't work out and we couldn't become sympatico."
Babcock is old school, Dubas is an analytics whiz. Oil, meet water. Sympatico they were not. This one seemed like a matter of time.
Babcock obviously has quite the resume to his name with a Stanley Cup in 2008, three appearances in the Cup final, Olympic gold medals and a World Cup of hockey championship. And in Toronto, he took a team at the bottom of the NHL and put up the first back-to-back 100-point seasons in franchise history.
Of course, it didn't mean much when the Leafs got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive years. Last year's seven-game loss to Boston was particularly hard to swallow because the Leafs had a 3-2 lead in the series and couldn't clinch at home in Game 6. They got buried in Game 7, 5-1, and then had to watch the Bruins go all the way to Game 7 of the Cup final before losing to St. Louis.
Babcock ran afoul of star Auston Matthews last year because he was not as free with his star's ice time as he probably should have been, and traveled to Arizona to make peace with the player in the offseason.
As for Dubas, there's clearly been a simmering war between coach and GM. It was Dubas who waived backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney last year and foisted his man, Garret Sparks, on an agitated Babcock. McElhinney thrived in Carolina while Sparks was eventually waived.
Dubas didn't fix the backup situation this year either as Michael Hutchinson was waived last week after not winning a game. Babcock had his favorite players and Dubas dumped several of them. When Dubas signed veteran Jason Spezza in the offseason, Babcock sent a take-that to his GM when he healthy-scratched the Toronto native in the season opener against Ottawa, his old team.
Ultimately, detente could have been reached if the Leafs played well. But Babcock was fired with the Leafs just 9-10-4. Newcomers Tyson Barrie, who had no goals until Thursday, and Cody Ceci were struggling on defense and injuries have cost the club big amounts of time from Zach Hyman, John Tavares and now Mitch Marner.
Team president Brendan Shanahan is believed to have saved Babcock after last season's playoff elimination when Dubas wanted to make the move to Keefe, but the Leafs didn't make Keefe available for interviews for teams looking for coaches in the offseason. Keefe was widely thought to be on the Sabres' interest list when Phil Housley was fired, but those discussions were never allowed to take place.
It was no secret in Toronto that Babcock was toast with another first-round loss. It was pretty stunning the end came so soon. Shanahan finally agreed with Dubas and flew to Arizona on Thursday to personally give Babcock the bad news.
The Leafs felt they couldn't wait anymore. The team had lost six straight, including a 6-1 embarrassment last week at Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh. In a normal week, Babcock is probably gone after that game. But it was Hockey Hall of Fame weekend and the GM Meetings in Toronto so the Leafs waited to make a move until their 4-2 loss Tuesday in Vegas.
In a year that began with Stanley Cup aspirations, the Leafs are feeling pressure just to make the playoffs. And the heat is also growing in Toronto due to comparisons with the Raptors, coming off an NBA championship and surprisingly strong again this year even with the departure of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
The Leafs have already played the most games in the Eastern Conference and are only 4-7 on the road after posting a 3-1 win Thursday in Keefe's debut at Arizona. They still face games Saturday at Colorado, Wednesday at Detroit and Friday in KeyBank Center before Keefe makes his home debut Saturday in a rematch against the Sabres.
The loss of Babcock is a hit to the Sabres/Leafs rivalry as well. He signed his eight-year, $50 million deal with Toronto after suddenly spurning the Sabres in 2015 when most of the Buffalo front office thought a deal was done. He's a big name in hockey circles who always had interesting things to say about how the Leafs had passed Buffalo in their rebuild but respected what the Sabres were trying to do. He noted the chance to build up a rivalry someday if there was a meeting in the playoffs.
Now he's gone, replaced by a promising young coach in his first stint in the NHL. It's the same thing that happened in Chicago, when Jeremy Colliton got moved up from the AHL to replace three-time Cup winner Joel Quenneville.
Babcock, it seems, was too stubborn for his own good in this one. And a new-age general manager was more than willing to push him aside. Now all the attention falls on Dubas. If the Leafs continue to fail miserably, he'll be next to go. He might want to commiserate with Jason Botterill about that kind of pressure.
Tuukka Rask's blocker snare of Evan Rodrigues' shot Thursday night in Boston was so out of character for him he didn't even want to watch the replay on the jumbotron, even as TD Garden fans roared in approval.
“I didn’t want to look,” he said. “I’m not used to making saves like that. It was tough to — I was fist-pumping, myself. I’m like, ‘That’s awesome.’ I’ve never made saves like that. It was tougher to shake off than a bad goal, you know? I just tried to regroup and focus on the next shot.”
Plain or raspberry?
Buffalo fans don't want to hear it, but Jack Eichel's defensive deficiencies get talked about around the league. NHL Network put Eichel in a spot shadow Thursday night, highlighting his lack of awareness on the two goals scored Sunday by Chicago 18-year-old Kirby Dach.
Host Tony Luftman and analyst Brian Lawton agreed that Eichel needed to be better but were quick to point out the five consecutive goals he had scored over the two games last week. Analyst and three-time Cup champion John Madden was the one narrating the highlights.
Cracked Madden when Eichel's offense was brought up: “It’s like eating cheesecake and then going and working out.”
That said, it's still germane to note that the Sabres have no goals by any forward not named Eichel over the last four games (and no goals by any forward at all in the last two).
More Sabre points
• It still makes no sense why the Sabres traded for Jimmy Vesey, who has no goals, and re-signed both Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson but didn't bring back Jason Pominville. The veteran had 16 goals last season and could have still brought some offense this season. For those who scoff that Pominville was only good with Jack Eichel, my response would be then to play him with Eichel. How could Pominville be any worse than what we've seen to date?
Vesey and Rodrigues have no goals while Girgensons, Larsson and the again-concussed Kyle Okposo have one apiece. And all of them are costing a lot more money. Just makes no sense. Another example that reeks of not being a Botterill guy. Pominville was reacquired, remember, because Minnesota sent him along with Marco Scandella in the deal for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.
And in the 50th anniversary season of the franchise, it seems downright disrespectful to simply cast away one of the franchise's most popular players in this manner when he would do anything to play again for this team and its fans.
• To a man, the Sabres were thrilled by Wednesday's return of assistant coach Don Granato from pneumonia and a severe bacterial infection that landed him in the intensive care unit of Buffalo General Hospital and kept him off the ice for more than a month.
Said Vesey: "Everyone was pumped up. No one could have seen that coming. It's very unfortunate and definitely puts things into perspective. We're lucky to do what we do for a living and it can be taken away at any second. It's good to see him healthy first and foremost, good to see him back at the rink."
• Defenseman Brandon Montour on the winning mentality he learned playing in the Western Conference final for Anaheim in 2017: "It's a big thing. The teams that I was on when we were winning, you go on strides where you lose a couple games but you've to get right back into it. You can't be focusing on a bad game you have. You've got to get right up and move forward and get right back on the next game and focus on that."
Around the boards
• Who might be firing a coach next? You wonder how much time Bill Peters has in Calgary or Peter Laviolette has in Nashville. The Flames entered the weekend seventh in the Pacific having dropped five straight while the Predators are sixth in the Central and have lost six in a row.
• NHL general managers meeting in Toronto last week spent plenty of time talking about tinkering with the offside rule and seem to finally be getting closer to recommending a change that should be obvious: Players should not be called offside if their skate is on the air but still not over the blue line. The blue line should have a plane up to the ceiling, just like the goal line in football.
The GMs agreed to take up the topic again in March. The hope here is they push for a change in the rule, albeit one that almost certainly wouldn't be put into play until next season. It would cut back on challenges and foolishly disallowed goals.
• The GMs also unanimously approved the renaming of the award for the top member of their group to the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award, in honor of the longtime Leafs GM and beloved league executive who died on Oct. 30 at 83.
• Buffalo native and St. Joe's product Dennis Gilbert received a two-game suspension from the AHL for an interference penalty he received Saturday for the Rockford IceHogs in a game against Grand Rapids.
Gilbert, 23, will miss Rockford’s games Saturday at Texas and Sunday at San Antonio. Chicago's third-round pick in 2015, Gilbert has no points in seven games for Rockford this season and had none in three games with Chicago. He had five goals and nine assists in 63 games for the IceHogs last year.