One thing is clear as the Leafs enter the Mike Babcock regime. The team is going to be terrible for the immediate future.
And that’s a good thing.
Babcock, the 30th coach in team history, was introduced to the Toronto media on Thursday morning. The Leafs gleefully won the sweepstakes for the now-former Red Wings bench boss, inking him to an eight-year $50-million deal.
Babcock’s credentials don’t need repeating, but let’s list them anyway. He is the only coach in the IIHF Triple Gold Club, comprised of members who have completed the rare feat of winning a Stanley Cup (2008), a World Championship (2004) and an Olympic gold medal (2010 and 2014).
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For good measure, he has also coached Canada’s junior team to an Under-20 gold medal, in 1997.
So what can the Leafs players expect out of Babcock?
An expectation of a commitment to excellence, with zero tolerance for anything less than 100 per cent effort.
How would Phil Kessel’s indifference in the defensive zone go over with the new coach? Or Dion Phaneuf’s lack of ability to live up to the “C”?
Ask PK Subban, or Matt Duchene, or Rick Nash. Olympians – all of them finding Babcock’s doghouse in Sochi. A vast majority of the current Leafs roster would last for only as long as it takes to throw up after a bag skate, under Babcock.
Babcock’s hiring is exemplary of a full commitment by former Red Wings’ protégé and now Leafs president Brendan Shanahan to build a framework around excellence.
No shortcuts, no trading of first-round picks.
Players not performing to their full potential can expect to be jettisoned. If that means Kessel or Dion Phaneuf are shipped elsewhere, then the dysfunctional core of the team will be replaced by young developing prospects.
The Leafs won’t win many games over the next two to three years. But for the first time in decades, they are in the proper direction for a rebuild.
No more ninth-place finishes; not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough for a high draft pick. This team will be terrible for now. We’re talking pre-McDavid Oilers levels.
“I have a burning desire to win. But I also know what you’re trying to do and where you are trying to go. I understand how long the process is going to be,” Babcock said. “If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming.”
The new sheriff is in town for eight years. The first couple of them are expected to produce dismal on-ice results. But despite the immediate growing pains, Leafs fans are entitled to feel genuine optimism.
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