By W. Glenn Rowe
Earlier this year, following a road trip in which the Toronto Maple Leafs lost five of seven games, team management fired coach Randy Carlyle, who was hired to replace Ron Wilson in 2012 by former GM Brian Burke. A follower of the proven-winner theory, Burke had hired Carlyle because he had won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (when Burke was that team's GM). Under Carlyle the Leafs made the playoffs just once, which is why current GM Dave Nonis let him go.
If hockey world speculation is correct, the Leafs are again at risk of disappointing fans by thinking about replacing Carlyle with Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock if he becomes free to jump rinks this summer. Why? Because Babcock is a proven winner.
The idea of hiring Babcock to coach Toronto had plenty of support even before Carlyle's departure. "The Maple Leafs ought to make a run at Mike Babcock as their next head coach," declared a 2014 Toronto Star column by sports writer Dave Feschuk, adding Babcock's winning record makes him "the perfect candidate to replace the ill-fitting Carlyle." It appears that Feschuk is another proven-winner theorist.
Babcock is indeed a very successful coach. He has won at multiple levels, including a Canadian University Hockey Championship with the University of Lethbridge in 1994, a World Junior Hockey Championship with Canada in 1997 and an IIHF World Hockey Championship in 2004. He won Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014. He led the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League to the WHL finals in 1996 and 2000. As an NHL coach, Babcock has missed the playoffs just once, during his second season (2003/2004) with the Ducks after leading the team to the Stanley Cup finals the previous season, his first as an NHL coach. During his tenure with Detroit, he has led the Red Wings to the playoffs every year for nine years, including two trips to the finals with one Cup victory during the 2007/2008 season. The Red Wings lost the Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins during Babcock's other trip to the finals in the 2008/2009 season.
According to SportsNet writer Jeff Blair, if there was ever a coach with a resume that would seem bulletproof for the Toronto market, it's Babcock. Simply put, as Blair declared in a Sportsnet article, the Leafs and Babcock are widely seen as "a match made in hockey heaven." Unfortunately, NHL history says different if the objective is to win a Stanley Cup.
If the goal is to increase compensation levels for the fraternity of hockey coaches, then the Leafs should pay whatever it would take to land Babcock. But if the objective is to bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, the data does not support importing a proven winner. In addition, if Babcock desires to add another Cup to his impressive record, the odds say he should stay in Detroit.
Since the 1926/1927 season, 46 coaches have led their teams to Cup wins. Of these, 23 have been given the opportunity to win with another team. And only three (13 per cent) succeeded: Dick Irvin, Tommy P. Gorman and Scotty Bowman. With their second team, the other 20 coaches made the playoff finals just three times with zero wins. That's not exactly a record that suggests hiring a coach with a Stanley Cup ring is a good idea.
Over the same period, coaches who won a Cup with one team and tried to win again with the same team, succeeded 26 per cent of the time. So Babcock's odds of winning again are twice as good in Detroit (26 percent versus 13 percent).
As I mentioned in an earlier blog on NHL stats, it is easy to be seduced by the glitter of a Stanley Cup ring and to argue for the proven winner theory. But the Leafs have been there with Burke and Carlyle and have failed to achieve the desired results. So unless the Leafs want to remain the NHL team with the longest record of not winning a Stanley Cup (the team with the next longest record of not winning a Cup is the St. Louis Blues), management should think twice about trying to hire Babcock (should he become available) and look elsewhere for a solution to their current woes.
Glenn Rowe is the Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership and an Associate Professor, Strategic Management, at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario.