Mike Babcock in Sheldon Keefe’s corner despite losing Maple Leafs job

Ron MacLean, Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston discuss all the top stories from around the NHL.

Sheldon Keefe wasn’t sure what he’d find on the other end of the phone line.

There’d been countless conversations with Mike Babcock during their four-plus years spent together in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, but this one was different since Keefe was calling in the aftermath of replacing Babcock behind the Leafs bench this week.

Not only did the former coach pick up for the current coach, they had a pleasant conversation about the team.

“He was great,” said Keefe.

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Babcock also sent along a congratulatory text after the Leafs beat Arizona in Keefe’s debut, which was appreciated.

There is a human side to these kind of hockey decisions and it’s telling that whatever combination of anger/disappointment/frustration/sadness Babcock was feeling after the first firing of his NHL career, he didn’t let it trump his support of the man 17 years his junior who stepped into his shoes.

Babcock is a big supporter of his peers and has seen many of them start getting paid more since signing his landmark $50-million, eight-year deal with the Leafs in May 2015. He had no qualms about disclosing that salary, either, believing that a rising tide would lift all boats.

Babcock is one of the driving forces behind a reinvigorated NHL Coaches’ Association and remains involved with its day-to-day operation while serving on the executive committee. It’s one of the largely unseen ways he gives back after an improbable rise to the top of his profession that started with a job at Red Deer College in 1988.

Given the contrasting views, approaches and styles that kept Babcock from getting on the same page with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, it’s hard to argue against Toronto’s decision to make a coaching change. It wasn’t working optimally. In fact, it might have happened last spring had the team not played so well in the first round against Boston — especially in Game 5, where it played tight and controlled and won on the road at TD Garden — but this was always likely to become Keefe’s job eventually.

He’s earned the opportunity, too, by travelling a hard road that Babcock would both respect and recognize. All his teams have done is win, be it in Pembroke, Sault Ste. Marie or Toronto with the Marlies.

Should that winning continue in his first NHL gig with the Leafs, you can count on one thing: Babcock will remain in Keefe’s corner even though Keefe was the one who took his job.

NAZ & CHUCKY

David Amber had a great sit-down with Nazem Kadri that aired during Saturday’s pre-game show. Of particular interest was hearing Kadri speak about his decision not to waive a no-trade clause in order to facilitate a potential deal to the Calgary Flames in June.

The Maple Leafs granted permission for Kadri to speak with Flames general manager Brad Treliving and head coach Bill Peters at that time. They gave him a lot to think about.

“It was actually very close,” said Kadri. “They put a good pitch together. I know a few guys, I train with a couple of those guys in the off-season. Even though they were on the no-trade list, it was very tempting from a hockey standpoint. Had a good team.

“I liked the city of Calgary.”

So, what did the Flames sales pitch entail?

“Who I’m going to be playing with, just the fans in Calgary, new arena coming hopefully,” said Kadri.

It’s believed the Flames hoped to acquire the 29-year-old centre in order to play him alongside Matthew Tkachuk. Just think about the possibilities for that feisty duo: There wouldn’t be many quiet shifts for opponents.

Instead Kadri ended up on Calgary’s Central Division rival in Colorado — a team not among the 10 on his no-trade list.

It’s worked out well so far. Kadri had two assists against his former team on Saturday night and has 17 points in 23 games this year.

AGENT BACKSTROM

An interesting nugget from Elliotte Friedman on “Headlines” that Nicklas Backstrom has started negotiating an extension with the Washington Capitals without the use of an agent.

It speaks to the level of trust between player and team. It also suggests the 32-year-old centre has no intention of testing the open market as a potential unrestricted free agent this summer.

Not many players choose to go this route, although Drew Doughty represented himself while hammering out his $88-million, eight-year extension with the Kings. Doughty said it simply came down to a matter of dollars and cents for him.

Agents fees can be negotiated, but typically come in at 3 per cent — potentially saving the Kings defenceman north of $2-million over the life of his contract.

Backstrom is wrapping up a $67-million, 10-year deal and this will probably his last chance to sign a lucrative extension.

It’ll be interesting to see how well he does on his own behalf.

VEGAS SEE-SAW

As the Vegas Golden Knights walked off the ice with a 6-0 win over Calgary last Sunday night, one player could be heard yelling: “We’re back boys! We’re back!”

They beat Toronto on Tuesday, lending some credence to the thought.

Then they lost to San Jose in overtime on Thursday and dropped two points to Edmonton on Saturday.

Some of this is a product of a highly competitive league without much separation between teams, but there’s a sense around the Golden Knights that they’re stuck in a middle gear. They’ve struggled defensively at points this season and don’t have a win from anyone but No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Nate Schmidt said this week that they’ve been in a “fragile state” because they don’t feel like they’ve been rewarded commensurate with the level of their play so far this season. That’s made it challenging at times to stick to the process.

“How many games have we had that are there and then just slip through your fingers?” said Schmidt.

It’s a big week for the Golden Knights with games at Dallas and Nashville, followed by a visit from Arizona. They’re not quite back just yet.

OF NOTE

The view from someone dialled into the Arizona hockey scene this week: “Rick Tocchet is the real deal.” The Coyotes head coach continues to draw praise for how his 14-8-2 team is playing … Linemates Leon Draisaitl (47) and Connor McDavid (46) are pacing the Art Ross Trophy race entering play Sunday. The last time teammates finished 1-2 in NHL scoring was 1995-96 when Mario Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) did it for Pittsburgh … Among impending UFAs, here are the leaders: goals (Jean-Gabriel Pageau, 13), assists (Taylor Hall, 16), points (Hall and Evgeni Dadonov, 20), goaltending wins (Braden Holtby, 11), save percentage (Robin Lehner, .938) … The uncertainty around a potential World Cup for February 2021 comes with scheduling headaches for the NHL. The league is trying to lock in its calendar for next season, but can’t, say, award an all-star game because that event will only be held if it is unable to revive the international tournament. There is no hard deadline hanging over talks between the NHL and NHLPA, but it’s safe to say they’ll need to determine the fate of the World Cup relatively soon.

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