(Photo Courtesy of Sportsnet.ca)
After weeks of speculation, the highly anticipated finale to ‘Babwatch’ saw longtime Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock take his talents north of the border to become the next head man for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As a Sabres fan, Babcock’s decision was a disappointing one, and an entirely confusing one.
On the surface, Buffalo appeared to represent an opportunity that fulfilled all of requirements and hopes that Babcock laid out to the media when discussing his future.
Immediately after Detroit’s first-round loss to the Lightning in this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, Babcock openly questioned whether his current club projected well into the future. He also spoke of his admiration for Tampa’s ability to regroup with high-end prospects down the middle and in the backend. Those sentiments seemed to line up with the direction and makeup of the current and future Sabres roster.
Babcock’s love of Detroit and his strong familial ties also seemed to agree with what Buffalo had to offer. While Buffalo’s hockey tradition (and arguably every other NHL city’s) fails to compare to “Hockeytown” in many respects, there are certainly similarities between the two locales and fan bases. His affection for his family, and his need for their backing in his decision also seemed to coincide with everything that we’ve grown to know about Terry Pegula.
If you throw in Babcock’s previous relationship with Sabres general manager Tim Murray in Anaheim, and Pegula’s likely willingness to offer a sizable contract, it seemed that the Sabres presented a combination of attractions that no other interested party could offer.
Ultimately, that proved not to be the case.
In the aftermath of Babcock’s decision to accept Toronto’s reported eight-year, $50 million contract, the reaction of most Buffalonians was understandably a frustrated one. Sabres fans were left feeling jilted by a man who by all appearances carried significant interest in leading a franchise that seemed primed to emerge from years of irrelevance. As a result, those feelings led to a swarm of fans jumping to discredit Babcock’s resume and ability.
At the end of the day, Sabres fans can obtain happiness from these last few days without attempting to disregard their previous affections for Babcock. Babcock was and is a great coach. The Sabres pursued him, and based on existing reports, made him an offer that was very similar to the deal he accepted in Toronto. While I’d hesitate to tell anyone else how to feel his or her feelings, my personal frustration quickly turned into bemusement.
Despite the protestations of Leafs fans, and even some fairly well known columnists, the Sabres are in far better shape than their rivals.
For a man that preached strength at center and at defense, the Leafs are simply outmatched by Buffalo throughout the organization at both positions.
Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri have proved to be capable NHL players with room for improvement under Babcock, particularly in Kadri’s case. In a mostly miserable season for Toronto, 24-year-old former 2009 first-round pick Peter Holland proved to be a nice find. Last year’s 8th overall pick William Nylander will also likely be joined by either Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner at the end of June to give the Leafs a pair of very promising prospects.
However, I’ll take Jack Eichel. I’ll take Zemgus Girgensons. I’ll take Sam Reinhart. I’ll even take players like Mikhail Grigorenko and Johan Larsson who are far from surefire NHL-caliber players, but did show late-season glimpses of becoming valuable pieces to a young team.
Likewise, I’ll take Buffalo’s crop of defensemen over Toronto’s. Although, once again, Toronto does boast interesting young talent in the form of Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, I’d side with a similarly youthful top-four of Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Zach Bogosian, and Mark Pysyk.
If Babcock honestly looked at the names listed above and did indeed side with Toronto, then, well, fair enough Mike. I’ll gleefully remember this day when I watch Eichel dominate Bozak at the age of 19.
For a man that praised the Red Wings organization and the city of Detroit, Babcock is certainly taking on an entirely different beast in Toronto.
Despite his sole coaching membership to the Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup ring, Olympic Gold Medal, World Championship Gold), every decision that he makes will be scrutinized far more then ever before in his career. While the highs could potentially be higher than no other in Toronto, Babcock could just as quickly discover a similarly disappointing fate that so many other qualified coaches before him faced. In his mind, the money, the increased personnel control, and the history outweighed the pressure and the likelihood of a complete roster overhaul.
As a Sabres fan, Babcock’s decision only provides more reason for excitement. Despite the well-documented failings of both clubs this past year, the rivalry between players and fans was still very much alive. With his choice, Babcock only has further incentivized Buffalo victories over the Leafs. One can only imagine what a playoff game might look like between these clubs in the near future.
As a fan, I’d also like to see the Sabres and the local media move on from this narrative that Babcock screwed the organization over. Like any free agent in sports, Babcock likely did pit competitors against one another during discussions. And who can blame him?
However, much like Tim Murray’s draft lottery disappointment, the Sabres, and their fans, need to quickly refocus on the bigger picture.
The organization possesses an elite group of prospects that will only be supplemented by Eichel, and three other selections in the Top-60 during this year’s draft. The club will have roughly $35 million in cap room to target unrestricted, and perhaps restricted free agents this offseason. The Sabres also have several capable veterans on the NHL roster, an owner that is prepared to help fashion a Stanley Cup-winner in any way possible, and a general manager that is willing to aggressively pursue additions through trades. Just because Babcock chose Toronto, that doesn’t make Buffalo any less of an incredibly appealing landing spot.
Whether it’s Dan Bylsma, Luke Richardson, or another qualified candidate, the uncertainty regarding the head coaching position is dwarfed by another certainty that does exist in Buffalo.
The future in Sabreland remains a bright one.