TORONTO (Jan. 16) — No one can deny that Mike Babcock is an elite coach in the National Hockey League. And, there is absolutely no debating that Babcock is the highest–paid coach in the NHL. Ever.
But, is he the league’s best?
It’s a subjective query; one bound to garner derision in Chicago, where Joel Quenneville wears three Stanley Cup rings and resides beneath only Scotty Bowman in all–time victories. Ken Hitchcock of St. Louis ranks fourth all–time and also has a Stanley Cup on his resume (Dallas, 1999). Darryl Sutter is currently a threat to win his third championship in five seasons with Los Angeles. Heck, even rookie Jeff Blashill is accomplishing in Detroit essentially what Babcock did in the post–Nick Lidstrom era. The Red Wings are on solid playoff footing for the 25th consecutive season with a 23–14–7 record for 53 points; second in the Northeast Division; four points behind first–place Florida. Nonetheless, Blashill and Babcock are mentioned in the same breath only when pointing out the coaching succession in Detroit.
Then there’s that “other guy” — available, without restriction, to the Leafs after the 2013–14 season and the epic, final–month collapse under Randy Carlyle. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chose to await cosmic intervention in MoTown and scarcely turned an eye toward Barry Trotz, the long–time and lone bench boss in Nashville — fired after an unprecedented (in hockey) 15–year term with an expansion club. He was scooped up by Washington and he managed to achieve, in the course of one season, what many considered impossible — transforming Alex Ovechkin into a reliable, 200–foot forward without hindering the Russian’s goal–scoring mastery. Today, the Capitals stand atop the NHL by a five–point margin (69–64) over blistering–hot Chicago… and a 30–point margin over the doddering Maple Leafs.
In December, Trotz quietly surpassed Bryan Murray in victories and broke into the top ten among NHL coaches. Seems that Barry does everything quietly. As of today, he is just 13 wins behind Ron Wilson for No. 9 all time and will move past Mike Keenan into eighth spot next season. Washington has allowed the fewest goals in the league (91) thus far, buying into Trotz’ renowned ability to harvest defensive structure. So, did the Leafs get the best man? Or overlook the best man? To prove this is not an argument–in–hindsight, I shamelessly refer to several of my blog passages from April 2014, while Trotz was still a free agent:
* In my view, a perfect candidate [to replace Randy Carlyle] came available today. If there’s a coach in the NHL that has gotten more out of less for the past 15 years than Barry Trotz, I’m not aware of him. His record with Nashville speaks loudly of discipline and defensive awareness. Shanahan and Nonis should move swiftly. — Apr. 14, 2014.
* The best three coaches in the NHL over the past decade are Mike Babcock, Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz. One of them [Trotz] is currently on the market after an unprecedented term with an expansion team. Nashville made it to the Stanley Cup tournament three or four times when it shouldn’t have while performing, almost exclusively, with direction and discipline behind center ice. These, of course, are words that require a dictionary here in Toronto. — Apr. 16, 2014.
* Trotz would be a very good hire for the Maple Leafs, given his ability to craft and successfully implement a defensive game-plan. But, it seems that Shanahan and Nonis either disagree or are waiting for a lull in the basketball playoffs to announce a decision on Carlyle. — Apr. 28, 2014.
This is all a moot point now and the Leafs have every reason to be excited about their new coach. But, it’s still worth a reminder that Trotz was available — and far–more economically — a full summer before MLSE opened the vault for Babcock. Time will tell whether Toronto or Washington made the better move.
If you’re wondering why the Leafs have suddenly lost four consecutive games in regulation time — and you’d prefer to venture beyond my parochial stance that the roster is simply inept — look no further than the ghoulish goal differential. Toronto has been defeated 2–1 by Los Angeles; 7–0 by San Jose; 3–1 by Columbus and 4–1 Friday night by the defending Stanley Cup–champion Chicago Blackhawks.
For the most part, this losing streak has been richly earned.
Patrick Kane toyed with the Leafs at Air Canada Centre, notching his first regular–season hattrick (third goal into an empty net). Kane is vying to become the first American–born skater (he’s from Buffalo) to win the Art Ross Trophy and the first Blackhawk to lead the league in scoring since Stan Mikita in 1967–68. He is currently a whopping 13 points (67–54) up on Jamie Benn of Dallas, the defending Art Ross champion.
TSN IMAGES (above and below).
LIGHTEN UP: Haven’t we taken this John Scott/All–Star situation a bit too seriously? We live in a world where innocent people are murdered on sidewalk cafes and in theaters; where cancer still runs amok. And, we’re going purple in the face over an alleged miscreant being voted All–Star captain. The skills competition in Nashville will feature breakaways in which shooters ferry the puck on their blades and attempt to score with figure–skating maneuvers. The All-Star game itself has been converted to a three–on–three competition because there’s far–too much money at stake in today’s NHL for even the fiercest of rivals to brush against one another in a typical 60–minute exercise. When you cut to the chase, the All–Star weekend is primarily an opportunity for the NHL to wine and dine its major sponsors. If the Bettman administration is concerned about credibility, it would issue an All–Star ballot — as in Major League Baseball — with names of the best players from the first two months of the season. Fans would vote from Dec. 1 to Jan. 15. The ballot would have no “write–in” provision, thereby precluding a repeat of the Scott fiasco. But, for now, why not direct our angst and energy at something truly important?