When elite hockey writers began scanning flight plan websites, you knew this was going to be a different kind of circus. And when it was finally confirmed that the Toronto Maple Leafs had hired Mike Babcock as their new head coach, the corresponding media bomb went off. Less than 24 hours later, the former Detroit Red Wings bench boss has his first press conference out of the way and the table has been set…somewhat.
If there was a theme to the words spoken by Mike Babcock and team president Brendan Shanahan, it was patience and pain. Shanahan has been on the patience train since arriving in Toronto and clearly has a man on the same wavelength in Babcock.
Now the question is one of execution.
It’s been a long time since Babcock helmed a rebuilding team, which the Maple Leafs certainly are. Think about it: Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were all on the roster when Babcock took over in Detroit for the 2005-06 season. Heck, Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios were on that team, too. So a bit of a running start there, eh?
Lidstrom would stay on until the end of the 2011-12 campaign and by that time, Niklas Kronwall was established as a pretty good rearguard himself. Datysuk, Zetterberg and Johan Franzen were still in the fold, as well. The Red Wings could always bring up players slowly thanks to this wellspring of talented veterans and the current crop of youngsters – Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Brendan Smith among them – benefitted greatly from that succession plan.
In Toronto, there will be no such luxury. The Leafs are not deep down the middle and do not have a defenseman who would fit in the No. 1 slot on a playoff team right now. So when Babcock foresees pain, he has clearly done his research.
This will be a big summer for the Leafs, since the franchise is in the process of being completely reconstructed by Shanahan and his crew. But don’t forget that “patience” is our other word of the day. Since there is no quick fix for the roster (“Hey Steve, it’s Brendan. How about Stamkos and Johnson for…Hello? Hello? Hmm, he must have gone into an elevator.”), Babcock will be in tough just to get the Leafs into the post-season, as presently constructed. And if big names such as Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul are shipped out, you can guarantee it will be for younger talents and assets, not players who would make similar immediate impacts.
So while all players aim for the post-season, this franchise won’t be too upset if Babcock’s first year behind the bench involves a lot of teaching, with winning a hopeful but not necessary byproduct.
For me, the most interesting part of this process will be the players who emerge as “Babcock guys.” High-end skill and smarts were always a hallmark in Detroit and Toronto does have some of that emerging. Defenseman Morgan Rielly is the most obvious, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lost 2014-15 seasons. He comes with the benefit of being just 21 years old, so the next eight years under Babcock could be very fulfilling.
There’s also William Nylander, Toronto’s first-rounder in 2014 who went from Sweden to the AHL Marlies and impressed once he got his bearings in the more north-south pro game on this side of the pond. I’ve asked execs from other teams and skill coaches about Nylander recently and they liked what they saw. The teenager is not a finished product yet, but he’s figuring things out and the sizzling natural talent he possesses up front isn’t going away.
Otherwise, there will be a lot of established players who need to impress Babcock, or quickly learn his ways. Do Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri remain as Toronto centers, for example? Can Jake Gardiner rebound from an awful campaign and revert to the confident offensive defenseman he has been in the past? And what about promising bottom-sixers Richard Panik and Brandon Kozun; can they make a case for sticking around?
That’s a lot to take in for next season, especially since this year’s NHL campaign still features four teams on the ice. But patience is hard when there are so many permutations of the future. Babcock and Shanahan say they’re ready to take it slow; now the fun is in seeing how that plays out.