The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock this summer to much fanfare. They signed the man regarded by many as the league’s top coach to an eight-year contract for an unprecedented $50 million. Naturally, he’s expected to be a key figure in Toronto’s rebuild, so it’s worth taking some time to look at how he runs a bench.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive piece, as it’s far too short for that. The goal here is to identify some key trends.
Evidence that Babcock isn’t set in his ways can be seen by how he embraced a new strategy with regard to his forwards last season.
In all the years Babcock coached the Red Wings, no line started a higher percentage of its shifts in the defensive zone than last year’s trio of Luke Glendening, Drew Miller and Joakim Andersson. Babcock had always been willing to double-shift a centre for defensive zone draws (Kris Draper would often get the assignment) but in the past two years he moved more firmly towards a fourth line that specialized in defensive zone work.
While Babcock only recently started designating certain forwards as defensive zone specialists, he’s never had any compunctions about keeping forwards he doesn’t trust away from their own end of the rink.
Generally, these are young forwards; Jiri Hudler spent most of his first two years in the offensive zone and, more recently, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan were given the same treatment as rookies. Veterans near the end of their careers are sometimes used the same way (Tomas Holmstrom was) and on the rare occasion when the Red Wings employed enforcers, they didn’t start in the defensive zone either.
Babcock also exhibits a strong preference for matching power-vs.-power. It used to be popular to talk about Detroit’s checking line, centered by Draper, but a look at the numbers reveals that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg played the toughest opponents every year. Actually, Draper generally ranked near the bottom of the quality of competition list.
Speaking of Datsyuk and Zetterberg, it’s worth noting another Babcock tendency. While he sometimes played those two forwards together, for the most part he kept them separate to generate matchup problems for the opposition. At most, the two would only take half their shifts together, and the percentage was frequently a lot lower than that.
There’s nothing terribly surprising about the quality of competition breakdown for Babcock’s defencemen during his time with Detroit. As one would expect, his best defencemen played the toughest minutes. Originally, that was Nicklas Lidstrom and his partner; more recently it was Niklas Kronwall and his partner.
What is interesting is the way the role evolved over time. Early in Babcock’s tenure with Detroit, Lidstrom faced extremely tough competition and reasonably favourable zone starts. But Kronwall, while still taking on the toughest opposition, didn’t seem to be matched as tightly against them as Lidstrom was.
Unlike Lidstrom, Kronwall regularly started a high percentage of shifts in the defensive zone. That could reflect a desire to put Lidstrom in offensive situations, but it may also reflect a shift in philosophy, away from hard line-matching and into a hybrid line- and zone-matching system.
Babcock has consistently given his depth defencemen the lightest opposition and the least amount of defensive zone work.
Under Babcock, the Red Wings were a consistently great power play team. From 2005-06 to the present they ranked second in the NHL with a plus-591 goal differential (San Jose, at plus-594, is the only other team to top plus-560 over this span). The penalty kill, in contrast, consistently ranked near the middle of the league. Much of that likely relates to personnel, as Anaheim was a brilliant penalty-killing team and only a good power play club during Babcock’s two years there.
Babcock runs the standard four forwards/one defenceman alignment on the power play, and both of his units get work. If we compare the 2014-15 Red Wings to the similarly efficient San Jose Sharks, we find that Babcock had 11 players who appeared in 25-or-more games average at least 1:30 on the power play; the Sharks had just six. Again, some of that may be related to the depth he had at his disposal, but Babcock does not seem to rely on just one top unit.
In recent years, Babcock has leaned heavily on just two sets of penalty-killing forwards, though he will use three on some occasions. These players are mostly recruited from the bottom-six; it’s telling that two-way stars Datsyuk and Zetterberg haven’t been used as regular penalty-killers since 2012-13.
The same tactic doesn’t hold true on defence, where Babcock’s top options kill lots of penalties and his depth guys are used more sparingly.
Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have been splitting the net in a 1A/1B rotation for two seasons now, and nobody should expect that to stop. Babcock’s history suggests he’s entirely comfortable running without a clear-cut No. 1.
He hasn’t hesitated to move away from Jimmy Howard over the past two seasons when Howard was struggling, even when the backup choices were underwhelming veteran Jonas Gustavsson and rookie Petr Mrazek.
That trend stays consistent when we look further back. In three of his first four seasons with Detroit, Babcock’s No. 1 goalie didn’t even get 50 starts in a year. He’s repeatedly shown a willingness to go away from his starter during a slump, but even if the starter is playing well, Babcock seems to prefer to keep his backup in a regular rotation.
What Leafs Fans Should Expect
Babcock enters Toronto with expectations so high that they’d be difficult for anyone to meet. But, at the very least, we can expect him to run the bench with the same rational thinking he did in Detroit.
His best players up front will be expected to go head-to-head with the opposition’s best. He’ll break in rookies gently. And he’s likely to once again create a defensive specialty line. He’s going to give all of his offensive weapons a chance at real power play time, while his depth forwards will do the bulk of the lifting on the penalty kill.
On the back end, Babcock tends to ask a lot from his best defencemen in all situations and go easy on his depth guys. If Dion Phaneuf ends up carrying the load in Toronto it will be interesting to see if he can deliver more in that role for Babcock than he did for previous Leafs coaches.
In net, Bernier and Reimer should be expected to play a fairly similar amount, just as they have in the past. This probably isn’t the year either player takes over clear No. 1 duty.
This is going to be an exciting test for both Babcock and the Leafs. We’re going to see what one of the most highly-regarded coaches in the game can get out of this roster – and that outcome is going to significantly reflect on both the players in the lineup and on Babcock’s reputation.