Dom Lunardo Aug 8th, 2019
Each September the National Hockey League is filled with various sights and sounds that would give any hockey player, coach, executive, broadcaster, analyst, insider or passionate fan goosebumps. The summer is over, the start of the new campaign is just a few short weeks away, and NHL training camps are up and running across Canada and the United States. Players young and old, are hopeful for their “shot” at cracking the big club. New faces are hoping to make an all-important first impression with their new clubs, and for head and assistant coaches and general managers across the league, they’re trying to get a read on their clubs and hope to hit the ground running come puck drop. With this excitement, also come the pressures of being at the highest level, surrounded by the best teams, players, and fans on the planet. Pressure, “hot seat”, “under the microscope”, you name it, is something that Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach, Mike Babcock, will be at the pinnacle of in 2019/20.
As we enter year four of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto, it’s important to note that “Babs”, as he’s commonly referred to around the NHL, has come a long way with this group. Leaf fans can painfully recall the lean years of Vesa Toskala/Jason Blake, or the monumental collapse in 2012/13 at the hands of the Boston Bruins when the blue and white blew a 4-1 lead in the third period in the deciding 7th game of their Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals series. In Mike’s first year behind the bench in Toronto, he successfully orchestrated a 30th (dead-last) place finish in the league en route to landing the number 1 overall pick that summer, which turned into none other than Auston Matthews. But even with the talented ensemble hosting names like Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, John Tavares, Frederik Andersen, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner in his back pocket, to the frustration of many die-hard Leafs fans, Babcock has failed to get this team out of the first round. A feat he has not been able to overcome over his past 6 seasons in charge of both Toronto and Detroit.
Enter Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas. The 33-year-old, who can easily pass himself off as a student at the University of Toronto, perhaps now more than ever before, has full autonomy over the club and player personnel. In his early days in Toronto, Dubas played second-fiddle to long-time GM Lou Lamoriello and his budding friendship that goes back generations with current President of Hockey Operations, Alternate Governor of the club and Hall-of-Famer, Brendan Shanahan. Dubas’ focus seemed to be geared more towards the Toronto Marlies franchise and wasn’t always offered a seat at the table with the big boys. But after being named General Manager on May 11, 2018, and after having his first full NHL campaign under his belt, it’s safe to say that Dubas isn’t driving the Fisher-Price car anymore.
At the American Hockey League (AHL) level, Kyle Dubas has an enormous playing chip at his disposal in the form of Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs AHL Affiliate team), Head Coach, Sheldon Keefe. Both Keefe and Dubas have long-standing ties, heading way back to Juniors when the two of them were involved with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. A very well-respected coach, excellent communicator, and the ability to win big games, Keefe opted to pass on other assistant coaching jobs around the National Hockey League in favor of the hockey hot-bed of Toronto. On defense, Dubas traded for the likes of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to add to a D-core that was in desperate need of a shakeup. Upfront, Dubas countered with the addition of Alexander Kerfoot and Toronto native, Jason Spezza. These reinforcements to an already-top heavy Maple Leafs roster, coupled with their usual list of suspects, would surely give Babcock a wealth of riches to work with as the season gets underway. However, if the team is underperforming by any means come late November-early December then Kyle Dubas will have no choice but to make a coaching change. One thing remains certain, the Toronto Maple Leafs under the tutelage of Mike Babcock will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch once the NHL season kicks off on October 2.
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