DETROIT – Here at the scene of Mike Babcock’s greatest professional successes it seems even harder to fathom how one of the greatest coaches of his generation has never been crowned the NHL’s coach of the year.
Fortunately, the broadcasters have an opportunity to change that when they cast their Jack Adams ballots in the next week or so.
This Toronto Maple Leafs season is arguably Babcock’s finest work yet. The organization injected all kinds of young talent after a 30th-place finish a year ago, but getting them to play like this in crunch time took a lot of hours and detailed instruction from the head coach.
“The way this team has come together and how it’s run–how meetings are run and stuff–it’s very business-like, which is really good,” veteran Brian Boyle said before Saturday’s 5-4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. “I think that’s what it should be. I think it’s important for young guys, especially, to establish great habits for them. You can see how they’ve had success.
“Look at some of these guys’ years, it’s pretty impressive.”
You now have Auston Matthews with 38 goals, the highest total by a member of the Leafs since Mats Sundin scored 41 in 2001-02. He’s 19 years old. Mitch Marner, also 19, and William Nylander, all of 20, each scored against the Red Wings and are tied for second in team scoring behind Matthews.
The Leafs have at least one rookie on every forward line and are using another in Nikita Zaitsev on the top defence pairing.
Their blue line is doubted throughout the hockey world and yet they now find themselves with 91 points–already a 22-point improvement on last season, with five games remaining over a hectic final week.
Babcock’s stiffest challenge might come from John Tortorella, whose Columbus Blue Jackets have already exceeded last year’s point total by 30. But Tortorella also has the best goaltender in the league this season by a wide margin and doesn’t technically coach Sergei Bobrovsky.
What’s amazing about Babcock is that he’s only been nominated for the Jack Adams Award twice, finishing second in 2013-14 after guiding a weakened Red Wings squad to another playoff berth and third in 2007-08 when Detroit won the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.
His Red Wings teams won at least 50 games in four straight seasons, but he had taken over a locker-room already full of champions.
In Toronto? He’s taken potential and moulded it into a team capable of going 10-2-1 over the most critical stretch of the year to all but ensure playoff dates this spring. Heck, the Leafs might even start at Air Canada Centre after passing Ottawa for second place in the Atlantic Division on Saturday night.
Boyle has played for three former Jack Adams winners in Tortorella, Marc Crawford and Alain Vigneault and sees an attention to detail in Babcock that sets him apart.
“If you get to play for a coach that loves the game that much–has that much passion for something–it’s pretty motivating,” Boyle said. “He’s seen a lot of players, he watches everybody around the league. He’s well-versed, well-prepared and he puts you in a good spot as a player.”
You can really see it on nights like this one, when Joe Louis Arena was bubbling over with energy during the Leafs final visit ever here. As a divided crowd alternated between chants of “Go Leafs Go!” and “Let’s Go Red Wings!” the teams traded goals over a frantic 40 final minutes.
But the Leafs held their nerve and put another two points in the bank.
It is a product of confidence that matches their level of talent–a confidence the players will tell you comes directly from the man standing behind the bench.
Babcock has spent innumerable time in meetings and the video room this season, making sure every individual knows what’s expected of him. He’s set a high standard for rookies and veterans alike.
“I’m going to do what I do each and every day and try to make him better,” Babcock said of Matthews. “My job is to make him the best 22-year-old player he can possibly be. So big picture and short picture at the same time. And that’s the same with all those guys. If they don’t turn into real players, I always say to our coaches that’s on us.
“And so that means quality, quality people who make good decisions and team first, know how to play without the puck, know how to play with the puck and have huge desire to win championships.”
The Leafs, it should be mentioned, own the NHL’s second-ranked power play and eighth-best penalty kill. A coaching staff has a huge impact on the structure and systems deployed by their specialty teams and Toronto has won a lot of games because of those things.
Babcock may not be everyone’s cup of tea–Chris Chelios recently told a Detroit radio station that veteran free agents didn’t want to play for him here–but his level of preparation and willingness to tell it like it is undoubtedly make his teams better.
And the Leafs are currently better than anybody imagined.
“Babs is a very intense guy and he demands that everyone kind of plays his way,” winger Matt Martin said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You’re going to play the way he wants you to play or you’re going to get some sort of punishment for it. …
“[Chelios] was here for a long time and I’ve only been with him for three-quarters of a year now, but he is hard and he demands that guys play the right way and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
It would be foolish to dismiss Babcock as nothing more than a demanding taskmaster. He has a big heart and can connect with people on a human level when not in game mode.
For example, Ted Lindsay dropped by the coach’s office on Saturday morning and Babcock said “we had a little cry there” while discussing Lindsay’s wife Joanne, who died in February. He even got choked up while relaying the story to reporters.
On the impending closing of “The Joe,” a building where he won for the 245th time, Babcock talked about watching his kids grow up here before quickly turning his focus back to the future.
“I think life’s about making new memories,” he said. “I’m excited to be here, but I’ve got to tell you I’m excited about our young team and what we’re doing in Toronto and the opportunity we have now.”
He’s certainly making the most of it.