Hockey observers predict at the start of the season that the Detroit Red Wings will finally start to struggle, then coach Babcock’s team goes out and proves them wrong.
“Every year at the start the experts make predictions, but I don’t think people in the game can even make those predictions,” Babcock said Friday from Vancouver. “They said the same thing about us last year at the start.”
And the Red Wings won the Presidents’ Trophy.
Even without the retired Steve Yzerman and the departed Brendan Shanahan, Detroit is doing it again. The Wings are the class of the NHL with 99 points in 71 games and are in position to finish first overall for the third straight time.
That says something to Babcock.
“I hear people talk about the President’s Trophy not meaning anything,” he said. “Well you know what? It means over 82 games you’re the best team in the league and it’s hard as hell to win.
“It’s not what we’re all interested in winning, but when you have it you still like to have it.”
They’d also like to again raise the Stanley Cup in June.
Before that can happen, the Red Wings need to get some good news from the sick bay. Forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Valtteri Filppula and Tomas Kopecky are all currently out with injury.
Babcock would take the eighth seed in the Western Conference in exchange for those players being back in his lineup. There aren’t any easy opponents in the playoffs and teams need some good fortune to get to the Stanley Cup.
Detroit knows that all to well after finishing first overall last year and losing to Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs.
“If you look at the West last year, the top four seeds fell in the first round and it’s even tighter this year,” said Babcock. “Where you finish to me is not near as important as how healthy you are.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get healthy. There’s not one team in the top eight right now, including ourselves, that I’d be all that excited about playing. They’re all that good.”
The Red Wings are getting a taste of that this week. After beating rival Nashville in consecutive games, they flew across North America to Vancouver.
They’ll face the Canucks on Saturday, travel to Calgary and play the Flames on Tuesday before returning to Detroit and hosting Columbus on Thursday.
It’s a brutal stretch of schedule that Babcock has embraced as a good test for his team.
“It gives us a better dry run (for the playoffs) than we could ever set up,” he said. “Good teams with real good goaltending and lots of travel.
“That’s the challenge. That’s the same as it is at playoff time.”
And ultimately, that’s what every year is about in Hockeytown USA.
Babcock was pleased with GM Ken Holland’s additions of Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder at the trade deadline. The Wings want to wear opponents down with toughness.
“I thought Kenny did a good job of getting us more players to play on the inside than the outside,” said Babcock. “We’re trying to be a harder team to play against.”
Calder, in particular, has thrived.
The 28-year-old was having a miserable season in Philadelphia but has received a new lease on life in Motown. Calder has two goals and eight assists in eight games with the Red Wings.
Detroit is also 6-1-1 during that stretch.
“I consider him to be a Ryan Smyth-type player,” Babcock said of the gritty Calder. “He’s tenacious on the puck. He just keeps coming. He works hard. He does the dirty work.
“And he’s got enough hands around the net to help create some offence. To me, guys like him are contagious.”
Just like winning seems to be in Detroit.
The Red Wings last finished a season with less than 100 points in 1998-’99. They’ve created a franchise that should serve as a model for almost all others.
Personnel changes, injuries, trades, retirements.
None of it seems to slow the Red Wings.
“The expectation is success,” said Babcock. “We don’t talk about the Presidents’ Trophy. We don’t talk about finishing first. We don’t talk about any of that.
“We talk about getting better. That’s the environment and the atmosphere that we have here.”