TORONTO – Mike Babcock believes. There is forceful intent behind each of his waking moments, an attention to detail and preparation that gives him confidence every challenge will be met with a favourable outcome.
Now that the Toronto Maple Leafs have drawn a powerhouse opponent in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is Babcock’s job to prepare his players to believe, too.
“You’re here, you have an opportunity,” Babcock was saying Tuesday, of the impending matchup with the Washington Capitals. “I told the young guys today (that) you think when you’re a young guy, you think: ‘Oh next year, next year.’ Next year never comes in sport, you make good on the opportunities you get. You put everything into it and if it doesn’t go your way you regroup.
“But put everything into it here, we’ve got an opportunity just like they do. We’re going to put our skates on just like they do. We’re going to Washington and we plan on winning.”
The reasons why this shouldn’t happen, or won’t happen, are easily identified by those of us observing from arm’s length.
Washington has the more accomplished goalie, a much better blue line and arguably the two best forwards in the series. Heck, five of the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards scored more goals this season than Zach Hyman, who spent 82 games playing top-six minutes with Auston Matthews.
This is an issue of both depth and quality.
In Babcock’s eyes, it is also one of expectations, and so that is the door he’s opened to the media and walked everyone through. Come on in, look around, imagine what might happen if Toronto introduces some doubt by having success right away…
“Well that’s the whole key, as you know,” he said. “If you let them get going, then they’re going and they’re loose and driving, but that ‘pucker factor’ is an unbelievable thing. Until you’ve been the best seed, until you have your whole city expecting, you don’t know what’s that like and how good a defence that is for the underdog.
The Leafs coach speaks with authority. We refer to him as a former Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, but he’s also a man who once watched his 58-win team get upset in the first round against an opponent it had no real business losing to.
“I’ve been the underdog lots and won,” said Babcock. “I’ve been the Presidents’ Trophy winner (in 2006) and lost in the first round (to Edmonton). … My first year in Detroit, I’d never experienced anything like it and I couldn’t believe how we couldn’t skate or pass. So pressure’s a wonderful thing when you’re the underdog.”
Before the puck is dropped for Game 1 on Thursday they will be searching out additional ways to apply it. The Leafs returned to work with a fair amount of urgency in the air, and were briefed on Washington’s tendencies in a Tuesday morning meeting before taking the ice for a tough practice.
Babcock looked like he might chew right through his whistle while running drills and often delivered quick individual messages to players once each was completed. After once such exchange with Mitch Marner, the 19-year-old rookie chuckled.
“I shot it and I scored on it and he comes up to me and tells me that’s what I’ve got to do more of and see what happens when I shoot,” said Marner, who finished the regular season with four goals over the final 23 games.
Without prompting, the coach then pumped Marner’s tires when speaking with reporters.
“You look at a guy like Mitch, whose not a big guy, I mean he’s been a dominant playoff performer everywhere he’s been,” said Babcock. “So let’s be here.”
The veteran coach is forever pulling levers and pushing buttons. He flipped right-wingers William Nylander and Connor Brown in lines rushes Tuesday after keeping his top-nine static throughout the second half of the season.
Consider it foreshadowing for what’s to come, with the matchups destined to be a major point of emphasis. Babcock will only have limited control in Games 1 and 2 because of first change, but had clearly spent some time analyzing how Barry Trotz – an assistant on his Team Canada staff at the World Cup – might approach the Caps roster deployment.
“I just think it’s going to be tighter,” said Babcock. “We might need to be different.”
It was with a moment like this in mind that Leafs president Brendan Shanahan so aggressively pursued him in May 2015. It explains why Babcock ended up getting paid $50 million on his unprecedented eight-year contract – an amount currently unmatched by any other member of the organization.
After playing for Scotty Bowman in Detroit, and then spending one year under Babcock, Shanahan gained an appreciation for what a great coach can do for his players.
“I had some good coaches along the way but in my 10th year in the NHL I played for Scotty Bowman and he had a big reputation,” Shanahan told my colleague Michael Grange in October 2015. “I remember at a certain point that season him making some adjustments, some decisions and some calls on the fly and it was the first time I remember being on a bench thinking our coach is better than yours, and that felt really good.”
He came to see some of those same traits in Babcock.
“We had a gap between Scotty and Mike (in Detroit) and we had Dave Lewis for a couple of years, and players are smart. They can hear when coaches are undecided. They can hear when coaches are unsure. They can hear them whispering behind them, ‘who do you think we should put on’ … those are all death signals, you know?”
There will be none of that from Babcock as the Leafs head to Washington. He believes in his process and believes in his preparation and believes his team is ready to be a disobedient underdog.