Pucks in Deep: Kyle and Mike

by Sam Stockton | 3/25/19 2:05am

Pucks in Deep: Kyle and Mike 

At the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the National Hockey League’s premier franchise in the midst of one of the best seasons in team history, yet struggling since the trade deadline much to the chagrin of the NHL’s most passionate and neurotic fan base — are Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock. Dubas, 33, is in his first season as the Leafs’ general manager. Babcock, 55, came to Toronto in 2015, signing an eight-year, $50 million contract — making him the NHL’s highest paid coach.

Despite this being Dubas’ first season as GM, it feels as though he has been fire tested enough for a 10-year vet. In his short tenure in Toronto, Dubas has signed one of the biggest free agents in NHL history; signed the first two of the Maple Leafs’ homegrown superstars (William Nylander and Auston Matthews); and acquired a top-pairing worthy defenseman in Jake Muzzin. He has also had to listen every day to the incorrigible Toronto media insist that the Leafs’ cap situation is not tenable and discuss the fact that Mitch Marner — the final of the Leafs’ young faces of their rebuild — still needs an extension.

Meanwhile, Babcock’s resume as a head coach is spotless: three Stanley Cup Final appearances, one Stanley Cup championship, two Olympic gold medals and one World Cup of Hockey gold medal. He is the only coach to ever win the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, the World Cup, the World Championship and the World Junior. In many ways, he is the closest thing hockey has to Bill Belichick, with a thick Saskatchewan accent thrown in. He’s an X’s and O’s expert, cagey with the media when discussing anything other than the nuances of the game he coaches. Where Belichick is eager to explain the intricacies of a particular punt coverage, Babcock leaps at the opportunity to explain the vital importance of a right-handed defenseman playing on the right side of the ice.

However, despite his resume, Babcock’s #hockeytwitter critics are numerous. They point out that his last appearance in the Cup Final was in 2009 (a completely different era of NHL play); that Canada’s international rosters are all-star teams requiring little tactical genius to advance; that he is too stubborn in his philosophy; that he overplays mediocre players like Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey while regularly demoting his young stars and restricting their minutes; and that he refuses to give players he doesn’t trust any real chance at meaningful ice time.

Last week, Elliotte Friedman, hockey’s version of Adrian Wojnarowski, led his “31 Thoughts” column on Sportsnet with a discussion of the widening rift between the august coach and green general manager. Friedman suggested that the mounting tension rests on the collision between two tremendously driven and competitive individuals, confident in their own methods. To summarize Friedman’s assertions, Babcock doubts that Dubas’ analytically driven method, which prizes speed and skill over size and grit, can deliver a Stanley Cup.

Since that column, it has been reported that Dubas and Babcock met to discuss their supposed rift. Perhaps more tellingly, Babcock said on the day of the Muzzin trade, “There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work,” which some pundits perceived as an indirect slight against Dubas. I bring this up to show that whatever tension exists between the two is more than just the chatter of tabloid media. Both involved parties have acknowledged the situation, and Babcock’s own words have fanned that flame.

Before going forward, I would like to say plainly: Despite this tension, the Leafs could win one or several Cups with the combination of Dubas and Babcock in charge. The 1985 Chicago Bears won a championship and established themselves as one of the all-time great NFL teams with a coach and defensive coordinator who openly hated one another in Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan. In the end, winning tends to heal most wounds, and,though Ryan left for a head coaching position of his own, the two were able to set their personal distaste aside as the team kept succeeding. It is no coincidence that this story about Dubas and Babcock come out with the Leafs in the midst of an ill-timed extended slump, something every NHL team, whether a cellar dweller or Cup contender, endures in any given season.

What we have here is a central tension in American sports. Unlike European soccer clubs, most teams are assembled by one person (a general manager or president of operations) responsible for scouting and assembling talent, with a head coach responsible for player development and getting the most of the assembled talent. These two full-time jobs require different skill sets, but of course, symbiosis between GM and coach is necessary for success as the two must share a common understanding of how they want to play.

As a brief aside, the obvious master of this craft is Belichick, who serves effectively as both coach and talent assembler of the New England Patriots. No one is better than Belichick at identifying particular skills in players that will fit into a scheme he knows will succeed if executed to perfection. Belichick must rely on a scouting staff he trusts to have time to balance both roles.

If we consider the paradigm I established, in which one individual assembles talent and the other maximizes it, I find myself sympathetic with Dubas. Since his late-2000s Red Wings — with their ridiculous puck possession gifts — turned me on to the potential for hockey, even playoff hockey, to be not a street brawl but a ballet, closely choreographed while allowing room for its highly skilled dancers to exercise their own creativity, I have considered Babcock the best coach in hockey. (Here, I must confess I don’t know anything about ballets, and perhaps such ballets do not exist.) However, I believe both in Dubas’ philosophy and in the talent he has assembled. As it currently stands, I do not think Babcock’s reluctance to provide opportunities for players like Nic Petan or Justin Holl and his regular demotions of young forwards like Andreas Johnsson or Nylander maximize this talent.

However, I do not wish this resolution to be read as choosing Dubas over Babcock. In reality, the Maple Leafs’ struggles right now are likely due to the flu running through the locker room and the absence of key defensemen Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner. As I wrote in January, this Maple Leafs season will be defined by its playoff success or lack thereof. When I rewatch footage of Nicklas Lidström, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk destroying worlds under Babcock’s instruction in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, I am confident that it will be he and Dubas who eventually lead the Leafs to a drought-ending Stanley Cup championship. The challenge for Leafs Nation will be respecting the pair’s respective resumes enough to spare them a bit of patience. If they do, Toronto fans will finally be out from under the 1967 chirps and celebrate one of the most talented and entertaining teams in the NHL.