TORONTO – If Mike Babcock is walking into his fifth season as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs on eggshells, he’s picked out just the right pair of slippers for the journey.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable is only one of a bibleful of Babcockisms the hockey mind pulls out on players at times like this, where a handful of NHL jobs are actually up for grabs at training camp.
So even as the thermostat has been cranked clockwise on Babcock’s seat, the only time you’ll see the man sweat is after one of his pre-game jogs around the bowels of Scotiabank Arena. Practice what you preach and all that.
Despite three consecutive first-round exits, some glaring philosophical differences between he and a boss that didn’t hire him, a hefty off-season extension granted to his presumed successor, the turnover of both his assistants, and an now-annual clear-the-air sit-down with superstar Auston Matthews, Babcock greeted reporters at Thursday’s camp ribbon-cutting with confidence, wit and charm firmly intact.
His sights are lasered toward early April and making the playoffs in a division that received a summertime talent injection, not what is likely to happen if Babcock’s group scatters long before May—and he, personally, extends his post-season losing skid to six-straight series.
“All those little slappings help you grow,” said Babcock, returning to the podium for the first time since Kyle Dubas opted not guarantee his return.
“The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year, if you’re going in the right direction. We are.
“We want more—and I think that’s the way life should be.”
Babcock is a smart man who, when on his game, has no trouble hitting all the right notes, at least publicly.
He knows those above him, below him and you, screaming at your TV at home, want more from him.
He knows exactly what some of you think of his usage of Auston Matthews during Game 7; his reluctance to rest Frederik Andersen, the NHL’s busiest goalie; and his (over?)reliance on the slowing veterans he trusted, like Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau, leaders lost in Dubas’s off-season overhaul.
“This is as much change as I’ve seen since I’ve been in the National Hockey League,” he said, encouraged by the righty-lefty balance of his top-four defence and the internal growth of the Leafs’ locked-up young core. “I think we’ve done a good job as an organization to increase our depth.”
The truism when it comes to coaches is that they are hired to be fired. Heading into his 17th season as a bench boss, the 56-year-old Babcock, remarkably, has proven the bulletproof exception to the rule. He took Anaheim to Game 7 the 2003 Stanley Cup Final and turned down an extension offer following the 2004 lockout to join the Red Wings. His playoff-rich tenure in Detroit ended not with the axe but with the greatest free-agent bidding war for a coach in NHL history.
On paper, Babcock and the Leafs are obligated to each other for four more years. In reality, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment won’t hesitate to throw money at a problem (welcome back, David Clarkson’s contract) and the Leafs have reached a point where results are paramount. The 2020 vision: You can no longer write off an early loss, even to an elite team like Boston, as a learning experience.
“Mike has proven he’s a coach capable of winning the Stanley Cup. He’s been to the finals in two other separate occasions and gone to Game 7 in both of those,” Dubas said Thursday.
“We talk a lot. We disagree, as any coach and GM do. We agree on a lot of things, and we work through it all. The key is, on the areas you disagree, that you respect one another and you work through all that.”
Honest one-on-one discussions were held between Dubas and Babcock, and Babcock and Matthews during the off-season.
“You want to be changing and adapting and not staying stale. So we spent a lot of time talking about all of that. We spent a lot of time talking about the players and their usage, and Mike’s ideal way of dealing with it. We’re certainly on the same page there,” said Dubas.
For players now expected to make the dance, conditioning and pacing are of concern.
“So when we get to the end, we know they have the gas in the tank that they can outlast the other teams and can handle more responsibility,” the GM said.
Dubas — more willing to jump on a grenade than his coach — made a point to stress that Babcock had a voice in selecting his new assistants, Paul McFarland (offence) and Dave Hakstol (defence). And Babcock is secure enough in his own abilities that he’s always been encouraging of his assistants’ promotions elsewhere. He’s open to new voices and eyes.
“They’re a personal thing for Mike,” Dubas said. “In the end, they have to be his call, his assistants.”
Careful not to dive into the weeds, this is how Babcock describes his relationship with Dubas: “I think it’s good. We talk all the time. We communicate all the time. We don’t agree all the time. I have enjoyed it.”
The power dynamics in Toronto have gradually shifted around Babcock, who at one point had more job security than his GM (Lou Lamoriello) and the bulk of the roster. For the first time, Matthews enters camp with a longer and richer organizational commitment to him than the coach.
Matthews was frank in asking Babcock to use him more in certain situations, particularly ones where the Leafs could use one of the world’s purest five-on-five scorers to get a goal.
“We made positive progress,” Matthews said. “You’re never going to agree with everything that’s being said, and you’re gonna have different opinions on stuff, but I thought coming out of it we made some good progress.
“Moving forward, I think I made it clear what I want to see out of him and what he wants to see out of me. So, we’re on the same page.”
Babcock believes Matthews, who’ll celebrate his 22nd birthday next week, has naturally evolved as a dominant voice in the dressing room and a difference-maker on the ice.
“You earn the right to be comfortable. I can’t give you that right, and I think he’s really grown in that area. He wants to be a driving force,” Babcock said. “Is it going to be rosy every day? No. But he’s an important part of our team, and we understand that.”
Babcock, too, understands how integral Matthews could be to saving his own skin.