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Maple Leafs make Mike Babcock the highest-paid ex-coach in NHL history

“I’m disappointed, we didn’t have the start to the year we wanted and that’s on me,” Mike Babcock said. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Toronto Maple Leafs secured the services of Mike Babcock in 2015 with an unprecedented eight-year, $50 million contract. On Wednesday, the team made him the highest-paid ex-coach in NHL history.

With his Leafs stumbling out of the gate at 9-10-4 and riding a five-game losing streak, Babcock was fired less than a third of the way through Year 5 of his mammoth deal. Team president Brendan Shanahan, who bestowed that contract on the 56-year-old coach, traveled to Arizona along with General Manager Kyle Dubas to break the news to Babcock.

“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant, days like today are not,” Shanahan said in Scottsdale, not far from where the Maple Leafs are set to play the host Coyotes on Thursday. “But it was what we felt was important for the club. Once you realize there’s something you should do, and have to do, then it’s best to act on it.”

In a statement provided to TSN, Babcock thanked the chairman of the corporation that owns the Maple Leafs, Larry Tanenbaum, and called former general manager Lou Lamoriello “another friend for life.”

“I thought we did an amazing job taking a franchise from where it was to where we had 100-point seasons, we set franchise records if I’m not mistaken, got into the playoffs,” said Babcock, who went 173-133-45 in Toronto. “I’m disappointed, we didn’t have the start to the year we wanted and that’s on me.”

Brought to Toronto after a highly successful, 10-season stint with the Detroit Red Wings that included a Stanley Cup in 2008, Babcock was charged with taking a franchise that had missed the playoffs in nine of the 10 previous seasons and leading it to it first championship since 1967.

In 2017-18 and 2018-19, he helped produce the first 100-point seasons for the Leafs since 2003-04, but his teams failed to advance past the first round of the postseason. In both of those years they lost seven-game series to the Boston Bruins (the Capitals bounced the Leafs, 4-2, in the first round of the 2017 playoffs), and this spring saw Toronto cough up series leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.

Replacing Babcock will be Sheldon Keefe, a former NHL player who spent the past four-plus seasons coaching the Maple Leafs’ top minor league affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Keefe, 39, led the Marlies to their first Calder Cup in 2018, and posted a 199-89-31 record.

Keefe will attempt to turn around the Leafs’ negative-0.30 per-game goal differential, ninth-worst in the NHL. It will help if he can coax more from the team’s collection of high-priced offensive players, including centers Auston Matthews and John Tavares and forward Mitch Marner.

Because of injuries, Babcock rarely had the luxury of deploying every member of that trio in games this season, but Shanahan asserted Wednesday that, overall, expectations aren’t being met.

“We’re mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offense that our team was known for has been missing for a while now,” said Shanahan, who played under Babcock in Detroit, “so there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”

Babcock spent his first two years as an NHL head coach with the Anaheim Ducks (then the Mighty Ducks), and in his first season, 2002-03, they went all the way to their first Stanley Cup finals before losing in seven games to the New Jersey Devils. He nearly went back-to-back with the Red Wings, but they lost a seven-game series in 2009 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Babcock also coached Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014. His most recent NHL win, over the Vegas Golden Knights earlier this month, was the 700th of his career, making him just the eighth coach to reach that plateau.

There have been reports that the record contract Babcock signed with the Leafs was front-loaded, and if so, the team won’t be forking over quite so much to pay him not to coach. But his departure signals the end of yet another era for Toronto in which a would-be savior has failed to cash in a chance to finally return the franchise to glory.

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