TORONTO (Oct. 6) — The off–season chatter has ended. It is now time for pain.
If he’s lucky, Mike Babcock will land on his pocketbook during nights in which he’s bouncing off the walls. That front–loaded contract — reportedly worth $16 million in the first two years — may physically cushion the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mentally, he’ll have to deal with a new set of circumstances.
Babcock and defeat aren’t going to blend smoothly.
Behind the bench during 12 National Hockey League seasons (two in Anaheim; ten in Detroit), he has missed the playoffs once — with the not–so–Mighty Ducks of 2003–04. It happened a year after he guided the club to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against the New Jersey Devils. The home team held serve throughout that series and the deciding match took place at the old Continental Airlines Arena. Pat Burns, God rest his soul, lifted the silver mug; Babcock soon shuffled off to MoTown. As an opening act, he led the winged wheel to 58 victories in 2005–06: fourth–highest total in NHL history. Soon–after came consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup final — a win over Pittsburgh in 2008; a seven–game loss to Sidney Crosby et al in 2009. Less than a year later, it was Crosby scoring for Babcock, in overtime, to cop gold on behalf of Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. An easier conquest, at Sochi, followed in 2014.
Something tells me Babcock will not win 58 games in his first season with the Leafs. The total, in fact, will be closer to 5.8 victories. His club, frightfully similar to the bottom–feeder of a year ago, is going to scuffle. It didn’t score with Phil Kessel and it won’t score without him. Defensive structure (almost certain to evolve under Babcock) and celestial goaltending will provide occasional relief — like Advil and a cup of water. But, this pain will be chronic rather than acute… and no one will feel it more palpably than the head coach.
Anticipating defeat is far different than experiencing defeat. Babcock, sharpie though he is, has no concept of the lunacy that will prevail in these parts while the Maple Leafs blunder. Silicone earplugs may help. As will the occasional rye–and–ginger. But, ol’ Mike will need to garner emotional insulation — a tolerance, if you will, for failure. Which is difficult to imagine, given his trail of success in the NHL; unvarnished intensity; his ravenous desire to win, and — by his own acknowledgment — an urge for “immediate gratification.”
The latter is unlikely to be satiated by a two–goal eruption against Arizona.
Babcock will therefore need more than simple patience. He’ll have to somehow engender the emotional antibodies required to combat his DNA. Otherwise, he’ll be on a couch my mid–November. This isn’t to suggest Mike is delusional or intellectually unaware of the circumstance surrounding his new team. He knows the so–called “Shanaplan” and he signed up for it. The blueprint does not include playoff contention this season or, perhaps, for a couple to follow. But, again, it is easier to acknowledge probable deficiency than to withstand it on a nightly basis. Particularly for someone so–well affiliated with achievement.
Some suggest the Leafs may surprise; that Babcock’s mere presence will elevate the club beyond expectation. As the saying goes, anything is possible. From a personnel standpoint, however, it cannot happen. There isn’t enough talent on the roster and whatever the club possesses will be stymied by inevitable injury. A worst–case scenario would be for some faction — the president (Brendan Shanahan); the coach; skittish ownership, or all three — to lose its mind and hasten development. William Nylander, Connor Brown, Mitch Marner and others will undoubtedly dazzle in their respective environments and may, quite easily, serve as temptation. Babcock, in the throes of a six–game losing streak, could be bursting for an injection of youth, speed and creativity. Any such yearning must repeatedly be conquered.
We have poked good–natured fun at Babcock and the Leafs for the gargantuan deal consummated in the third week of May: an unprecedented eight–year, $50 million pact — heavily front–loaded — that will likely help to revamp the wage–scale for coaches elsewhere in hockey. Make no mistake, it is also a psychological stanchion for Babcock; one that may soften the blow of mediocrity this year and next.
But, it won’t come easily.