Hurt So Good

How Babcock Fits In With “The Plan”

Michael Friggin Babcock. Never thought we’d land him. In fact, I sneered at the very notion. I went so far as to poke fun at the futility in luring a highly decorated and globally respected coach given the impending evisceration this team will soon undergo. From a pure hockey standpoint, there were laughably few reasons to expect him to choose us. He is a coach who can make contenders and champions out of GOOD teams…not THIS team. Why, at this stage in his career, would he choose to lead a mashup of core players which has been exposed by the last few seasons as being untenable and fatally flawed? Why would a hockey man so revered even entertain the idea of placing his long term professional fate in the hands of an ambiguously defined management team burdened with the long and arduous task of remaking this franchise despite having yet to cut their collective teeth outside of minor hockey?

Like most long-time fans, I’ve often had my (naively optimistic) hopes dashed by a hall of fame worthy list of prodigal NHL sons who were rumoured to be joining the Leafs to single-handedly usher in the dawn of a revitalized franchise.  Media of all types have long enjoyed the easy spoils of shovelling us tasty but baseless “insider” chicken feed that we’ve eagerly gorged on while telling ourselves we were too smart to be fooled again.

But we were fooled again… and again… and again.

From Ontario raised all-star power forwards to elite 2 way centres to up and coming coaching prodigies – whichever was deemed to be our perceived biggest weakness was exactly the carrot dangled in front of our noses by those who would use our desperation against us.  What suckers we’ve been. But thankfully, those days are behind us right? This fan base has now become more hardened and savvy right? Given the fact that we’ve ALL been through this rodeo before, I can only assume that we were FAR too reasonable to get swept up in the Babcock sweepstakes… right?

After all, recent Leafs history has repeatedly reminded us that our team has been little more than the rich but entirely unappealing chess-club castoffs of the hockey world – secretly yearning to take the most popular cheerleader to the prom even though we knew damn well there were many, far more attractive star jocks standing in line.

But hey … look at us now – the coaching envy of the NHL – proudly walking arm-in-arm with our shiny new $50,000,000.00 ginger while some of our clearly jilted peers are left choking on their signature chicken wings.

The “why” isn’t even important. I’ve been so disheartened by this team for so long that I couldn’t even be bothered trying to rationalize why this coaching savant decided to bless our bench with his elite hockey chops and piercing scowl for the next 8 years. Maybe it was the challenge of resurrecting the league’s billion dollar crown jewel from the ashes. Maybe it was the opportunity for him and his wife to enjoy their new empty-nest status in a big, metropolitan city with plenty of loose change for Pusateri’s . Maybe dumb luck simply dictates that, once in a while, even this team can catch a break and capitalize on good timing. Whatever the reason, we should be thrilled that securing a big piece of any successful team has now been scratched off of our very long to-do list.


We got 99 problems but a coach ain’t one

(Satisfies pathetic hip-hop reference quota for the next decade)

Now that he’s locked up, we can all immediately move past any debate as to his merits as a coach. Though many in this market have yet to intimately dissect his specific X and O’s tendencies, line matching preferences, usage of depth and role players etc., ample anecdotal evidence as well as his successful track record should be more than enough to earn him our complete trust. He’s long impressed pundits from every possible angle of the game. We’ve witnessed his star players, young and old, flourish and win under him while maintaining the discipline to buy into and stay locked into his system. He’s managed to maximize the talent of his players who’ve, by all accounts, inherited his “hate-to-lose” passion. The numbers also tell a similar story. Underlying stats have long shown him to be an enabler of strong possession teams which is a far cry from that which we’ve witnessed in this city. No matter which litmus test you subject him to, nearly everything we’ve ever seen, read or heard supports the argument that he’s simply one of the best, if not THE best coach in the NHL.. full stop.


So now what?


We’re fortunate enough to now have a master carpenter at our disposal..and have armed him with a tool chest full of rubber mallets. Despite this, the man appears genuinely thrilled to get to work. Therein lays the somewhat confounding nature of this move from the organization’s perspective.

  • Logic dictates that a winning, veteran coach would normally rank fairly low on the priority list of a team barely out of the gates in what is promised to be a long rebuild.
  • Logic dictates that a coach of this caliber would be expected to turn THIS group around.
  • Logic dictates that you don’t spend all this time and money wooing a coach of this pedigree unless your objective is to win now.

Fortunately for us, this team is absolutely immune to logic.

When the toe-tag was mercifully tied to this horrific regular season, followed in short order by the ejection of coaches and select hockey brass, it appeared that Shanny was making good on his promise to change the culture of this team. Some veteran contracts had already been moved out prior to the trade deadline for picks, prospects and cap space. (Someone told me David Clarkson played here for a while – I’m still looking into that) Thankfully for long suffering fans, it all looked like the plan for a full and complete rebuild was on track and underway.


Then Babs Happened


Though the hiring was met with widespread applause, some rushed to warn that this signalled another move by MLSE to expedite…or worse, circumvent a rebuild and make yet another attempt at winning with this core. Some even inferred that, after all his tough talk, Shanny may have ultimately caved under the pressure of either the board or his own desire to win and bought the best man for that job.

Despite MLSE’s checkered past, I think (pray) we can FINALLY put these concerns to bed.

Even though his first evaluation year was agonizingly uneventful, I was 80% confident in Shanny’s commitment to recognize the need for wholesale changes and his willingness to take appropriate action.

Over the course of this off-season, his assurances that both he and the board had the “stomach” to invoke a patient rebuild left me 90% sure.

So how is my confidence level since the Babcock presser?

I’m about 1000% positive that the prez and his new coach have all but completed their certification to handle industrial explosives and are impatiently waiting for the end of the Stanley Cup final to commence demolition.

How have they managed to quell any fears of short-cutting a rebuild?


“PAIN”


In his initial press conference, that magnificent word was uttered several times by a coach who is widely reputed to lack either the will or ability to bullshit anyone.  That word has never before sounded so welcomed or comforting as it did that day.  It became clear that the “pain” he referred to was that which is inherent to any calculated, patient build.  The “pain” he talked about was that caused by short term losing, and all of the resulting melodrama this market’s MSM will assuredly try to fuel and then capitalize on.  This “pain” is constructive, planned and long overdue.

Coming from a Mike Babcock, that 4 letter word unequivocally tells me that he GETS what has to take place here.  To me, his comments meant he truly grasped the scope of an honest organizational re-engineering.. moreso than many of the fans and media analysts who claim they do as well.  The notion of a tear-down in and of itself is still a novelty.  Many are being entertained by the upcoming draft and trades that will surely come.

That’s not “pain” folks – that’s a front row seat to watching a volcano erupt.  That’s the fun part.

The “pain” will come from having to remind ourselves to stay the course in February 2018 amidst a 7 game losing streak featuring a couple of very green, high-ceiling prospects who are struggling to improve upon the team’s .385 winning % en route to yet another top 10 pick. THAT’S the pain he’s talking about. THAT’S what will require us to share Shanny’s “stomach” and not lose our collective shit.

Babcock had mentioned a few times in interviews that his decision to sign here rested largely on the board’s commitment to forge ahead with a proper rebuild even if (when) the pitchforks start surfacing in 3 years.  That, to me, is the thinking of someone with the long term vision to finally guide this team out of perpetual mediocrity.  This is why we should not fear the “pain” Babs referred to.

The really unbearable suffering is what we, as Leaf fans, have all had to endure over the last decade. Since the lockout, we’ve sadly been fuelled by faint glimmers of fleeting success to sneak into an 8th seed and, God willing, produce a miraculous 1st round upset. That’s not “pain” either.  That’s a numbing, spirit-crushing hopelessness. That’s the kind of thing that, if allowed to fester over a generation, will breed the level of fan apathy that MLSE should truly fear. This infinite loop of losing is what this market needs to exorcise – and from what I’ve seen, exorcisms hurt.  We deserve more and should expect more.  The main difference between the pain we’ve experienced and the “pain” Mike referred to.. is hope.  In the end, the prospect of a sustainably successful team is what will get us through the rough patches.  The new brass seems to have the skill to give us more.  All we have to do now is trust and wait.

As far as on-ice changes that are soon to happen, there is no doubt that Babcock will have a huge say.  He’s already thrown his support behind Hunter (who pretty much stands as the defacto GM) and appears to have totally earned Shanny’s confidence when speaking about plans for future personnel moves.  The interesting part will be learning what Babcock thinks of these players as he starts working closely with them.  Perhaps more than any other coach he’ll be instrumental in what will likely be many roster changes as we move towards the draft and into training camp.

 

I think it’s safe to guess that most players nearing or past the age of 30 (Lupes, Bozak, Polak, Komarov etc) with any tangible trade value will soon have red tags stapled to their ears.  Given the fact that one of Babock’s opening comments was “We need to get him (Hunter) picks”, this is not a bold assumption.

It’s also a safe bet that most players who’ll remain controllable and/or under 30 (JvR, Bernier, Reimer, Gardiner) should be given ample opportunity to be evaluated properly by Babcock before having their fates decided.

Finally, we can comfortably assume that, barring an unexpected blockbuster, any young, high end talent (Rielly, Nylander, our 1st rounder and organizational prospects) will be retained to commence immediate tutelage on “Babcock” hockey.


ICYMI: Mike Babcock Introductory Presser



The 3 linchpins that should provide the most tantalizing story lines are:


  • Kadri:  Undoubtedly talented but widely seen as someone who’s failed to realize his potential.  Some blame that on usage under inferior coaches while others cite his ongoing immaturity.  No longer a “kid”, some have called into question his discipline both on and off the ice. Shanahan himself had to make an example of him late in the year.   Babcock should be able to flush out the real Naz in short order. Especially now that we continue to (hopefully) draft and develop top flight C prospects, the time has come for Kadri to sink or swim as a reliable top centre under Babcock’s watchful eye.
  • Dion:  Babcock spoke warmly about Phaneuf in his opening presser telling us that he’s a “good kid and he tries hard”.  This can be interpreted in 2 ways as far as I’m concerned. First, it can be a vote of confidence in his captain who sacrifices personal production by taking on an unfair share of tough minutes.  Alternatively, “good kid and he tries hard” are usually comments reserved for participant badge winners or consoling a parent after their kid strikes out 4 times in a little-league game.  Though his steady minutes would certainly help a budding roster, will his age and contract make it too hard to resist almost any reasonable trade offer that doesn’t involve salary retention?
  • Phil:  You can tell people until you’re blue in the face that he’s a truly elite sniper and among the league’s most prolific scorers.  You can defend his awkwardly shy personality all day.  You can wax poetic about how he’d be a Kane if only he had a Toews.  None of that is relevant to Babcock.  Phil doesn’t need to convince his coach that he’s a great offensive player.  His coach knows that.  Based on what we know, Phil needs to convince Babcock that his conditioning is as good as it could be.  Phil needs to convince him that he can adhere to a structured system which may require him to drastically change his game.  Phil needs to convince his coach that he is a player who’s worth building around to not only produce for years to come, but also serve as a veteran example to the young talent tying to earn a spot on Mike’s roster.   As much as I’d be curious to see him evolve under Babcock, I can’t say I’m overly confident in Phil’s ability to strike the required chords that will get him in to the coach’s good books.  Going back to Babcock’s earlier comment, Phil, still in prime, would certainly land Hunter some serious picks. Are we too quick to assume Phil and Babcock will butt heads? Does Phil have the desire or ability to play Babcock’s system?  Would Babcock decide that Phil’s scoring will earn him leniency on what will likely become a more defensively sound team which requires far more disciplined play?

Whatever happens, the events of the next few months should provide some fantastic fodder for discussion.  Certainly Babcock’s hiring has already put a positive spin on our planned organizational reconstruction.  It’s already provided a huge boost to Shanny’s reputation and our confidence in his determination and hard work.  Although we now potentially face years of challenging growth, knowing we have one of the planet’s best coaches on our team certainly gives us more reason for hope.

Whispers have already started to surface that players would welcome the idea of playing in Toronto under Babcock.  This is the effect one man can have.  This is why I’m so incredibly thrilled by his hiring.  And if that isn’t enough to give a Leaf fan hope, let me leave you with one last quote that will surely warm your heart..

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,”

– Mike Babcock

Cheers.

Oak Leafs

Related Posts