This might be Babcock’s time
NHL’s highest-paid coach has been building for moment
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.