Babcock, Leafs a match made in hockey heaven

Nick Kypreos and Damien Cox discuss the coaching situation with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jake Gardiner returning to the lineup against the Detroit Red Wings.

Yeah, somebody tossed another jersey on the ice at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night. Seriously, it’s enough to make a guy long for waffles. But for Randy Carlyle, the good news out of a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings is that the game never got to the point where chants of ‘Fi-re Car-lyle!’ or ‘We want Bab-cock!’ rained down from the stands.

Do the Toronto Maple Leafs want Mike Babcock to be their head coach next year? Of course they do. Can they pay the $3 million – minimum, considering that Joel Quenneville’s deal with the Chicago Blackhawks pays $2.7 million – it will take to get him? That’s not even worth answering. Hell, make it $4 million. Whatever.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported on Friday that the Leafs spoke to the Red Wings about Babcock’s availability during the off-season, just after Brendan Shanahan was hired to be the Leafs new hockey supremo. Nothing transpired, and Carlyle was given the most meaningless two-year contract extension in Leafs history, but the knowledge that the Leafs took that aggressive approach might be the best thing we’ve seen from Shanahan so far, and it augers well for the future. Why wouldn’t you make a call to see whether the Red Wings might be persuaded to deal Babcock, knowing that he’d made it clear that if no extension was done over the summer he wanted negotiations shut down during the season.

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It only seems as if Babcock’s won the Stanley Cup in each of his 10 seasons with the Red Wings – just as the Leafs 2-3 start to the regular season is being treated like it’s 2-33 in some quarters. But Babcock hasn’t won the Cup every year; truth is, he and Carlyle are tied with one Stanley Cup as head coaches. And since most of us talking about this haven’t played for either man – haven’t been in the dressing room after a good win or an awful loss or been bag-skated – the most we can do is go by what others say. Babcock’s bedside manner is said to be similar to Carlyle’s -- they’re not much for warm and cuddly. Both men have fudged a bit on their affinity for the new analytics craze that has found a beachhead with the Leafs, although the conventional wisdom seems to be that Babcock might be a little more intellectually curious than Carlyle. There’s that McGill tie, right?

Ken Hitchcock, who has coached against Babcock and with him on the Olympic team, once told Sports Illustrated that what separated Babcock from other coaches was that he was able to explain the ‘why’ to players as well as the ‘how.’ Not as easy it sounds. What that requires is an eye for detail, a meticulous nature that not even the most die-hard Leafs fan could say has characterized this club under Carlyle.

For Gustav Nyquist, who had a goal and an assist Friday and has four goals in as many games, that was evident again after Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. That loss clearly stuck in the craw of the Red Wings – Babcock himself noted that he found Henrik Zetterberg sitting in his office on Thursday, brooding about the performance – but Nyquist said Babcock’s preparation was no different than after a satisfying win.

"Mike’s no more detailed after a loss like that," said Nyquist. "Every game, we have our game plan and most of the time we know what to expect from the other team. One thing about us: we’re usually never surprised by what we see from an opponent. That’s Mike’s style."

But, see, for the Leafs it’s not just about replacing Carlyle. In order to give Babcock the requisite power, general manager David Nonis is going to have to be turfed as well, because with that resume – and a sense over the past two years that he has chafed a bit with some of GM Ken Holland’s decisions – you’d think less of Babcock if at this stage he didn’t ask for all the power he can possibly get.

Only Babcock and his family know how much he wants the pressure and scrutiny that comes with coaching a team that is perilously close to half a century without a Stanley Cup. Only Babcock and Shanahan know what pressure points remain from their relationship as coach and player in Detroit. But given the amount of hockey people who will tell you that far from being bothered by the speculation -- Babcock is in fact tickled by it -- the sense is he isn’t the type of individual shy of ego. He doesn’t refuse interviews on the subject; he cherry-picks them.

This much ought to be clear: If there was ever a coach with a resume that would seem bulletproof for this market, it’s Babcock. I mean, seriously: What’s so scary about Leafs Nation when you’ve been the head coach of Hockey Nation and twice won Olympic gold medals? Has any coach had as much pressure on him as Babcock had during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics? That wasn’t just a gold medal that Sidney Crosby & Co., won in Vancouver, it was an outcome that put a red and white bow on the entire Olympics, because for all the brilliance of the Jon Montgomerys and Alexandre Bilodeaus and Virtues and Moirs, the Olympics would have been strangely empty for many Canadians without the hockey gold.

As Daren Millard of Sportsnet put it so adroitly during Friday’s first period intermission, the meeting between the Red Wings and Leafs was a rarity, as the coach with the two-year contract is the real lame duck compared to the coach with the one-year contract. The fact that Mike Babcock seems completely and utterly comfortable with this status only serves to make him more attractive in this market. The fit and timing is so perfect, it almost makes you think it won’t happen. It’s the Leafs, right?