By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 21) — It has been unmistakable during Mike Babcock’s 13–season career as a coach in the National Hockey League: You play the way he commands or you watch others play. This will not change in Year 14. Ominously for Mike, however, he will soon encounter an 82–game schedule in which 18 skaters and two goalies are required per match. As he so eloquently conveyed during his introductory press conference with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, pain will ensue.
It is hardly the type of discomfort that two Advil and a cup of hot tea can alleviate. As it says on the label of all such products, they provide relief of “minor” aches and pains. Not compound fractures. Babcock’s pain relief will be derived from the front–loading of his eight–year agreement with the Blue and White. If you’re wondering why he held out for $16 million in the first two years, have a glance at the Maple Leafs roster. It doesn’t guarantee the club will be frightful through at least the end of the 2016–17 schedule — the 50th anniversary of its last Stanley Cup and the 100th anniversary of the NHL. But, neither is the possibility remote.
MY PHOTO OF A PENSIVE MIKE BABCOCK DURING MEDIA SCRUM AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE.
What Babcock requires in order to gain traction with the Leafs is a trump card. An ace–in–the–hole. At least one elite player through whom he can confidently impart his message. A player to which he can point and say: “Look boys, this guy is putting in the work and getting results. If he can do it, there is no excuse for the rest of you.” Through all of his years coaching in the NHL, Babcock has had that commodity. In Anaheim, it was Paul Kariya. In Detroit, it was half the friggin’ roster, but mainly Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Multi–talented, character–rich players that led by example, on and off the ice.
It is difficult to presume, upon the catastrophe of the past two seasons, that the Leafs have even one–such player. If there is a latent example on the roster, the Toronto skaters have become so accustomed to — and poisoned by — losing, that transformation would seem unlikely. About the team captain, Babcock said on Thursday, “Dion [Phaneuf] is a good kid. I like him; he works hard.” Though an accurate appraisal, this was hardly a bell–clanging endorsement. Almost certainly, the Maple Leafs will have to develop such a player or acquire one from another team. Morgan Rielly is a candidate, though still very young. If you can think of another candidate, be sure to enlighten me at your nearest convenience.
THE AIR CANADA CENTRE IN MID–SPRING. WHILE AT THE BABCOCK INTRODUCTION, I STEPPED INTO THE ARENA BOWL. HOW MANY MORE YEARS OF CONCRETE RATHER THAN ICE?
Whenever successful, Toronto coaches have been provided trump cards. Working in reverse order, Pat Quinn had Gary Roberts and Mats Sundin. Pat Burns had Doug Gilmour. Roger Neilson had Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald. In the dynasty of the 1960’s, Punch Imlach had a host of such players, but primarily Dave Keon and Tim Horton (the captain, George Armstrong, was a trusted voice but not an elite performer). In the late–40’s and early–50’s, Hap Day had Syl Apps and Teeder Kennedy. Dick Irvin had Charlie Conacher and Red Horner. Not coincidentally, all of the aforementioned, save for Roberts, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And with 438 career goals, Gary wouldn’t be out of place among them.
The pain that Babcock alluded to on Thursday will curtail rather dramatically once he cultivates at least one–such ally. Until then, he’ll have to be content trying to make chicken–salad out of you–know–what.
Even the quick $16 million may not calm that irritation.
Other images from the Babcock unveiling, courtesy my trusty NIKON:
BRENDAN SHANAHAN ENJOYS A MOMENT OF MIKE BABCOCK HUMOR.
WIDE SHOT OF PODIUM WITH STEVE KEOGH — THE LEAFS MEDIA RELATIONS DIRECTOR.
PART OF THE MEDIA SWARM AT AIR CANADA CENTRE — GATE 5.
MIKE BABCOCK’S “HOUSE OF PAIN” — DEATHLY QUIET ON THURSDAY.
BABCOCK WITH LARRY TANENBAUM (LEFT) AND BRENDAN SHANAHAN.
HOW MANY “NEW BEGINNINGS” HAVE PAUL HENDRICK (LEFT) AND JOE BOWEN BEEN TO?
SILENT MICROPHONES IN THE AFTERMATH.
START SPREADIN’ THE NEWS…
BABCOCK COMES ABOARD THE SAME DAY LETTERMAN SAYS GOODBYE.
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