This might be Bab­cock’s time

NHL’s high­est-paid coach has been build­ing for mo­ment

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Bruce Arthur

Mike Bab­cock is the high­est-paid coach in the Na­tional Hockey League, and he is jus­ti­fi­ably proud of that. He has coached the Cana­dian men’s na­tional team, the most tal­ented group the world can of­fer, to back-to-back Olympic gold medals, and he is jus­ti­fi­ably proud of that, too. He is aim­ing to be the great­est hockey coach who ever barked an or­der in the clean echo of an empty rink, and he will be proud of that, if it comes to pass.

But now, as his Toronto Maple Leafs open their 2017 play­offs, they are deep un­der­dogs to the Washington Cap­i­tals. The Leafs are young, and al­most no­body is pick­ing them to win. Which makes this sit­u­a­tion per­fect for the Toronto leg­end of Mike Bab­cock, The Coach.

“I think you can make ad­just­ments and all that,” says Bab­cock, on what he can con­trol about this se­ries. “I can prom­ise you we’re go­ing to be pre­pared. I know (Washington coach Barry Trotz) real good, his team is go­ing to be pre­pared too. They have ex­pe­ri­ence on their side. I think we have a real good team that knows how to play, and I think we’re go­ing to be a real hard out. We’re com­ing to play.”

Of course Bab­cock would say his team knows how to play: He is the one teach­ing them. He has been drilling this team since day one, every minute, every day, with a ros­ter that had nine skaters who played at least half of last sea­son, and a team young enough that Bab­cock asks his youngest son what they are think­ing, some­times.

“And he’ll tell me what they’re think­ing,” Bab­cock says.

But will Toronto’s habits, which are a lit­tle bet­ter than they are given credit for, hold up? Toronto has blown more leads than any team in the NHL, but only once where they were lead­ing af­ter the sec­ond pe­riod and lost the game in the third, be­fore 3-on-3 over­time and shootouts. There’s none of those things here. They have got­ten bet­ter de­fen­sively, tighter, though far from per­fect.

If Mike Bab­cock is the coach we all say he is, this se­ries will go some way to see how much the work he has done sinks in.

“I think we’re a to­tally dif­fer­ent team, in a pos­i­tive way,” says Nazem Kadri.

A coach needs play­ers, of course, but be­yond that, coach­ing should be one area in which the Leafs have an ad­van­tage. Trotz is deeply re­spected in the game, but he has also helmed five Nashville teams that lost in the first round, and two teams apiece in Nashville and Washington that have lost in the sec­ond.

So Bab­cock is pre­sum­ably a coach­ing edge here, right? Pre­sum­ing coach­ing, at this stage, mat­ters.

“I think it’s huge,” says Leafs de­fence­man Matt Hun­wick, who has played un­der Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault. “Just the abil­ity to make ad­just­ments in games, be­tween games, keep the psy­che of the group where it needs to be. No mat­ter if you’re a vet­eran team or a young team, you can win a cou­ple games and think you’re rolling, and then you go home and you drop a game, and there are so any highs and lows dur­ing a seven-game se­ries: just the abil­ity to stay fo­cused and keep that even keel is some­thing he has a great han­dle on.”

The ups and downs are al­ready start­ing: de­fence­man Nikita Zait­sev will miss Game 1 with a sus­pected con­cus­sion, mean­ing Bab­cock has to shuf­fle his de­fence pair­ings. In prac­tice Wed­nes­day it was Mor­gan Rielly-Hun­wick, Jake Gar­diner-Ro­man Po­lak, and Con­nor Car­rick-Martin Mar­incin. It’s a shuf­fle, no mat­ter how it lands.

That means, yes, Bab­cock’s im­pact as a coach will be seen through in-game ad­just­ments, and in pres­sure-seek­ing barbs. Bab­cock opened the se­ries in­tro­duc­ing the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy-win­ning Cap­i­tals to the phrase, “That ‘pucker fac­tor.’ ”

But it will be some­where else, too. It will be in how this team re­acts to the play­offs, and what habits they fall back on. Bab­cock drilled the de­tails every day, didn’t vary in his ap­proach, made every minute count, by his own watch. Against Washington, we will see how much of it sticks.

“We’ll have to be as sharp as we’ve been all sea­son, in terms of know­ing what our as­sign­ments are, just be­cause every play is mag­ni­fied, and every mis­take is mag­ni­fied,” Hun­wick says. “The only way as coaches and play­ers you know how to do it is to do it right every sin­gle day. I think he wanted to in­stall that work ethic and build that foun­da­tion last year, and ob­vi­ously it’s car­ried over with the changes we’ve made this sea­son.”

“They have to (have that),” Bab­cock says. “Be­cause the pres­sure, the play­off at­mos­phere, the noise, ev­ery­thing’s swirling around you, and if you don’t have that foun­da­tion to go back to, this is what we did every day, this is what we did every game . . . you kind of just fall back on the good habits, the way you play, and you don’t have to think. Be­cause there’s go­ing to be so much stuff go­ing on that some­times it’s hard to think. You’ve just got to play and rely on the good habits you’ve formed.

“You go over and over a foun­da­tion of how to play, so in the big mo­ments you do what you do.”

The big mo­ments are here.


Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Bab­cock has been set­ting a foun­da­tion that his play­ers can rely on when the big games ar­rive. The first one is Thurs­day night in Washington.

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