The applause was generous. Most at the Air Canada Centre stayed sitting in their seats, although a few chose to stand and offer Mike Babcock a little extra.
Which seemed appropriate. Babcock was behind the bench Thursday night for the 1,000th regular season game of his coaching career — a noteworthy mark — but it was only his 50th with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rest were spent in Anaheim and Detroit. And while Leafs fans are certainly happy to have the 52-year-old coach, it’s not like he’s done much for them yet.
So they’ll save the standing O for another time. For better times.
Babcock’s successes in Toronto so far have been relatively subtle — more about laying a foundation than getting a team back to the post-season. But this week has been a good one with a comeback triumph in Boston on Tuesday and then another rally on Thursday, a 3-2 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils.
That gave Babcock his 19th triumph behind the Leafs’ bench, bumping the club out of last place in the Atlantic Division and up to 27th place overall — good or bad depending on your feelings about June’s draft. In points, the Leafs are tied with Winnipeg and Calgary, two teams that imagined Toronto would barely be able to see their tail lights by this point in the season. Montreal, incredibly, is now only five points ahead of the Leafs, and Toronto has two games in hand.
Under Babcock, the Leafs are a better defensive team by almost a half-goal per game, but still not in the top half of the league. They’re an improved possession team, although those numbers have slipped as the season has gone on.
There have been few nights of the Babcock-predicted pain — a 7-0 home ice loss to San Jose was one — but many nights when, quite frankly, the building has sat in quiet and near boredom watching a team that doesn’t have much firepower and has had even less since winger James van Riemsdyk went down with injury. That was the case for the most part on Thursday, although Tyler Bozak’s late goal tied the game, an exciting OT session followed and P.A. Parenteau delivered the shootout dagger to give Babcock the win on his milestone night.
“I’m proud of (the milestone), but to be honest, to me, you just want to win this game. You want to win today’s game,” he said.
The general sense is that the Leafs play harder under Babcock, and certainly with more structure. Since a horrific 1-7-2 start, they’re 18-15-7 for a .538 winning percentage, a hefty improvement compared to last season’s .415 percentage. Babcock needs 11 wins over the final 32 games to match last season’s win total under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek which would give him some evidence pointing to progress.
Whether he makes it could depend on how many bodies Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello chooses to jettison between now and the Feb. 29 trade deadline. If it’s more than two, bettering last season’s points total of 68 could be a greater challenge than it seems even today.
Babcock, to his credit, has only occasionally shown frustration with this construction project after years of coaching the Red Wings — a team always in the playoff mix. He talked Tuesday morning about his first NHL game behind the bench of the Mighty Ducks, as they were then known, back in October of 2002. The game was in St. Louis and he got a great effort that night from the forward line of Andy McDonald, Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov.
He was 38 then, and against the Devils Thursday he probably imagined facing a coach starting out in the same way in 40-year-old John Hynes, who was coaching his 52nd NHL game.
Hours before the contest, Babcock chuckled over getting his very first coaching start in Alberta with Red Deer College, a job he only applied for in the first place because it came with a free pass to the Calgary Stampede.
“After that I lost my way and I’ve been doing this the rest of my life,” he said.
He’s in the first year of an eight-year contract with the Leafs, and the second year will include more expectations. More firepower should be on the roster in William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The Leafs could land another potential impact forward like Auston Matthews or Matthew Tkachuk or Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine in the draft — and of course there’s the Steven Stamkos scenario to be played out.
Babcock’s done a good deal of what he suggested he could do in the short-term, including making the Leafs a “safer” organization to play for. Captain Dion Phaneuf has been a prime beneficiary of that, with his reduced minutes and exposure leaving him subjected less to the virulent criticism that followed him in recent seasons.
Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly have both improved, and look like they can be significant parts of a better future. The farm team has been left mostly to itself except for emergencies, which means players with the Marlies are being given a full season on a very successful team to develop their abilities.
You get the feeling Babcock is imagining having a little more finish to work with, excited about finding more young men who want to reach for more.
“I’ve only had two players in 25 years of coaching didn’t want to get better,” he said.
So that’s 50 out of 1,000 games with the Leafs, and given that only four coaches all time — Al Arbour, Billy Reay, Lindy Ruff and Barry Trotz — have ever coached 1,000 games with one team, it’s hard to imagine at this point No. 2,000 will come in Toronto.
If it did, it would come 66 games into the 2028-29 season, when Babcock will be 65 years old. He wasn’t quite willing to project that far into the future when asked if he’s got another 1,000 games in him.
“Well, I’ve got this year and seven more, and then I’m gonna stay for two more after that because the team’s going to be that good,” he said.
He said it without irony, without a smile, almost enough to make you believe him. If you’re a Leafs fan, it seems a safe bet that if Babcock’s still around after another nine years, the team will have ended it’s Stanley Cup drought.
If that happens, there won’t be any shortage of standing ovations.