Babcock Keeping It Real

TORONTO (Mar. 21) — The coach knows best.

In a city that gets carried away with the slightest hint of prosperity from the Toronto Maple Leafs — often irrespective of circumstance — Mike Babcock is a grounding agent. A modest, 4–2–1 uprising by the hockey club in its past seven games prompted one local columnist to suggest, on the weekend, that the team has “buried [its] old ways.” Apparently, it matters not that the Maple Leafs — in the post–2005 lockout era — have been the most prolific “garbage–time” outfit in the National Hockey League. How often, during the past decade, has the club embarked on a points splurge late in the schedule, long after the demise of any reasonable playoff hope? And, how frequently has the promise of a carryover to the next season been rapidly quashed? That the trend is repeating itself right now with a cast of young, exuberant prospects leads many to believe it will continue — unabated — into the 2016–17 schedule. Which, in fact, it may.

But, first, listen carefully to the coach: “One of the things you have to be real careful of [at this time of year] is over–evaluating what you have because the team you are [facing] some nights isn’t prepared to play,” said Babcock after Saturday night’s 4–1 triumph over the Jack Eichel–less Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Centre. “When you’re a really good team, [the opposition] prepares to play against you every night. They’re excited to play; you’re a benchmark for them. When you aren’t [a really good team], you can catch them off guard, so we don’t want to over–evaluate anybody here. There’s way more excitement in the [dressing] room when you’re going into the playoffs and you’re chasing the big silver trophy. That’s a lot more fun than this. In saying that, [the Maple Leafs have] good young players and they’re trying to get better.”

16-babslookeditedMIKE BABCOCK’S VOICE OF REASON SHOULD ECHO LOUDLY AMONG FANS AND MEDIA IN TORONTO.

If you have wondered, even for a moment, during this difficult season whether the Leafs over–paid or over–pursued Babcock last year, there’s your answer. Not only is Babcock among the most accomplished coaches of the past decade in the NHL, he has both feet firmly planted in soil. When he talks about a “really good team,” he does so not whimsically, but from first–hand experience with the terrific Detroit clubs of the early–2000’s. When he warns about rival teams gunning for a top dog, he remembers how opponents prepared to face the Red Wings each night. And, how the Wings had to rise above such competition. When he emphasizes that maintaining a playoff posture throughout the season and ultimately rising to the challenge of four Stanley Cup rounds is “a lot more fun than this,” Babcock cites clear distinction between a pressure–filled sprint atop the NHL standings and a 4–2–1 “surge” in March when nothing is on the line.

Toronto hockey fans are fortunate to have this man on their side.

Time, of course, will tell whether a sudden accumulation of points damages the Maple Leafs with respect to the NHL draft lottery and order of selection this June. I maintain that a late–season vault was not part of the so–called “Shanaplan” — certainly not after trading Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak and James Reimer for futures; or after paying such others as Stephane Robidas, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk to remain well out of sight. This was a year for the Maple Leafs to fully bottom out — and it could still happen. But, nine points in the past seven games has reduced such an outcome from a probability to a mere possibility.

During the past month, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Columbus have all threatened to “catch” the Leafs for 30th overall, only to win three–point games, often against one another. Heading into action tonight, the Jets and Oilers remain the primary competition for last place in the standings; a 20 percent shot at first pick in the draft, and a guaranteed top–four selection. Winnipeg, a playoff team last year, has tumbled precipitously in the second half and is only three points ahead of the Leafs (64–61). Edmonton, always in contention for the basement, is four points up on Toronto, but has played four more games than the Leafs (75–71). Somewhat fortunately, the Leafs are miles behind the pack in ROW’s (regulation or overtime wins) with 19 — six fewer than Edmonton; eight fewer than Winnipeg. And, ROW’s are the first tie–breaker at season’s end, should two or more teams finish with the same number of points.

16-BUF-2editedDUSTIN BYFUGLIEN AND THE WINNIPEG JETS ARE STICKING CLOSE TO THE MAPLE LEAFS.

If the Leafs defeat Calgary tonight at the Air Canada Centre, Winnipeg will be just one up in the standings — both teams having played 72 games. The Jets host Vancouver on Tuesday.

NHL CONVENIENCE: Make no mistake, the National Hockey League is bulls–eyeing goalie equipment once again primarily for one reason: Because it can.

In its quest to alleviate the second “dead–puck” era in just more than a decade, the NHL is skirting an issue over which it has no jurisdiction — the science of coaching, predicated on survival, that suffocates skill and pays no heed to entertainment. Within weeks of an apparently–shrewd initiative, coaches and their assistants sabotage efforts to open up the game. The 3–on–3 overtime format, as an example, has quickly become a cat–and–mouse exercise in which skaters largely shadow one another. We suspect the NHL could try 1–on–1 overtime with no goalies and its bench wizards would discover means to kill scoring.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. With the bulk of NHL teams comprised of third and fourth–line pluggers, the path of least resistance — and, often, to victory — involves clogging up the neutral zone and thwarting rush opportunities. Which unavoidably leads to fewer scoring chances and a reduction in goals. The easy and perhaps only answer is to blame the last line of defense — those incorrigibly bloated men between the pipes. That the science of goaltending has far outstripped that of puck movement and artistry in the offensive zone rarely enters the equation. It has to be the equipment — so obvious to the eye. Compare Gump Worsley in 1965 to Ben Bishop today and the result is startling. Forget that forwards and defensemen also wear harder and bulkier protection; it’s the goalies who ultimately circumvent the three or four truly–skilled players on each team. The NHL will target that over which it has a modicum of control.

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BENEATH THIS PILE OF HUMANITY FROM A BOSTON–MONTREAL GAME IN 1966 LAYS THE DIMINUTIVE LORNE (GUMP) WORSLEY — 5–FOOT–6–INCH STOPPER OF THE CANADIENS WHOSE EQUIPMENT WAS THREADBARE COMPARED TO THE ARMOR WORN TODAY BY NHL GOALIES. THE LEAGUE IS AGAIN TARGETING GOALTENDING EQUIPMENT AS A MEANS TO INCREASE SCORING. IDENTIFIABLE PLAYERS IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH INCLUDE (FOR MONTREAL): JEAN BELIVEAU (4), CLAUDE PROVOST (14), JACQUES LAPERIERRE (2) AND DICK DUFF (8). FOR BOSTON: MURRAY OLIVER (16), RON MURPHY (28).

As an isolated approach, streamlining goalie equipment hasn’t worked in the past. Nor will it this time. God bless my old friend Kay Whitmore — the former NHL netminder (Hartford, Vancouver, Boston, Calgary, 1989–2002) whose prime chore as the league’s current goaltending supervisor is to police the latest crackdown. Like always, he’ll work diligently at the role, but he won’t be able to nab all the tricksters. As with any rule change, the equipment decree will be heavily administered at the outset. As time marches on, enforcement will invariably slacken and goalies will find little pockets here and there in which to bolster their protection. It happened before and it will happen again — save for a “policeman” in every dressing room before and during every game (actually, not a bad idea if the league is truly committed this time).

Ultimately, the NHL will come to realize there is only one manner of off–setting goalie equipment and gluttonous over–coaching — making the nets bigger. By several inches all around. At the moment, it is still a rogue concept. One day, when all else fails to increase scoring, it will be a solution.

NHL EXPANSION — FIRST WORDS

Though caution prevails, it is a virtual certainty that Las Vegas will become — to start the 2017–18 season — the NHL’s 31st team, and the first expansion entry since Minnesota and Columbus joined the league in 2000. It got me digging deep into my newly–engorged collection of THE HOCKEY NEWS to the very first mutterings of expansion… as it turned out, 51 years ago last month. The issue of Feb. 13, 1965 offered evidence that the six NHL owners would soon meet to devise a plan for widening the league west of Chicago — particularly, into the large TV markets of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. And, as you’ll see below, it was 51 years ago yesterday (Mar. 20, 1965) that THE HOCKEY NEWS detailed plans for a second, six–team division to begin play “not before the 1966–67 season.”

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As it were, the six new entries (California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues) joined the NHL to start the 1967–68 schedule; it remains the most ambitious expansion project in the history of professional sport. Between Mar. 20, 1965 and Feb. 19, 1966, THE HOCKEY NEWS printed much speculation about where the new teams would materialize and which owners would land the $2 million franchises:

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