It’s Babs vs. Torts at Halfway Mark

TORONTO (Jan. 15) — There remains solid evidence that the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League coach–of–the–year is followed by impending doom. Indeed, seven of the past 11 winners have come to an ignominious end with their teams: Bob Hartley (Calgary), Patrick Roy (Colorado), Paul MacLean (Ottawa), Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh), Bruce Boudreau (Washington), Alain Vigneault (Vancouver) and Lindy Ruff (Buffalo).

Should he therefore stumble upon this blog, Mike Babcock would be wise to look elsewhere for his Sunday reading. It says here that were the Adams bauble granted at the half–season mark, Babcock would stand a terrific chance of being only the second Toronto Maple Leafs coach to earn the honor (after the late Pat Burns, in 1992–93). Named in memory of the irascible Detroit Red Wings boss that won seven Stanley Cups between 1936 and 1955, the trophy has been allotted since 1973–74, when Fred Shero won after Philadelphia became the first of the 1967 expansion teams to claim the NHL title. In 1975–76, Donald S. Cherry took the honor with Boston; then was the first winner to be axed by his club — three years later.

Given its history, which plainly reflects the insecure coaching profession, Babcock may look forward to the Jack Adams as one would the prep for a colonoscopy. If so, he’d best engineer the classic “18–wheeler” that fans of the Blue and White have grown accustomed to in recent years. As it stands, only another late–season nosedive will remove Babcock from consideration for the award. Right now — in my view — it’s a two–horse race between the Leafs coach and John Tortorella of the implausible Columbus Blue Jackets… with Bruce Boudreau (of the Minnesota Wild) and Bill Peters (of the surprising Carolina Hurricanes) several lengths back. Of course, much can change between now and the season finales on Apr. 9. But, there’s little doubt that Babcock (whose team is on pace for a 27–point improvement in the standings) and Tortorella (who authored a 16–game win streak; second–longest in NHL history) are heavily favored for the Adams trophy.

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THE LEAFS, THIS SEASON, ARE CLEARLY UNDER THE SPELL OF THE NHL’s HIGHEST–PAID COACH.

Here in Toronto, hope is commingled with tempered excitement.

Those having lived through the longest playoff drought in franchise history during a full (non–lockout) season are clinging to fear as a defensive measure. “Every part of me wants to let go and just believe, but I can’t,” read a Facebook message to me early this morning. “I keep hearing about half a season left and I can’t help but think there’s a slide coming.” Said another: “Unfortunately, I want to say ‘this is awesome’, but I’ve been gulled in so many times before the wheels came off the bus. Mind you, this doesn’t feel like that.”

And, therein may lie the difference.

Whereas the Leafs were in solid playoff contention at the midway point of the 2011–12, 2013–14 and 2014–15 seasons — only to fall apart down the stretch — those teams were not guided by Babcock; they did not possess the burgeoning draft talents of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, nor the steady goalkeeping (after a rough start) supplied by Frederik Andersen. Additionally, veteran centers Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are playing the best hockey of their NHL careers. Club–wide health has been a phenomenon in the first half of the schedule and will be severely tested during the current stretch of 15 games in 28 nights.

But, this team is showing poise that belies its professional experience.

And, more importantly, a willingness to be prepared and fully engaged for the opening face–off.

“Start on time” has been Babcock’s mantra from the outset — knowing that Leaf teams in the past decade have routinely fallen behind in the opening minutes. The coach has earned his top salary by turning this young outfit into the best first–period club in the NHL; proven again over the past two nights when the Leafs went into New York and Ottawa after a five–day layoff with their work–boots tightly fastened. Both games resulted in 4–2 victories. William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk had the visitors ahead, 2–0, after the opening period at Madison Square Garden on Friday; Kadri and Bozak furnished the same lead by 1:07 of the middle frame Saturday at the Canadian Tire Centre. Despite vacationing in the Caribbean and Cayman Islands during the week — and playing on consecutive nights — the Toronto youngsters showed no evidence of “sea legs” in either match. Instead, the Leafs looked dogged… and supremely–coached.

Numbers, right now, are more–than encouraging for Leaf fans. Heading into Sunday’s action, the club is 8–1–1 in its past 10 games, which ties Washington and Minnesota for the hottest segment. After appearing lost away from home in the first six weeks, the Leafs are an astounding 9–1–2 in 12 road games dating to Nov. 28. At the mid–season mark, the club is 20–13–8 for 48 points — 16th in the overall standings — and tied for fewest games played with Minnesota, Ottawa, the New York Islanders and Colorado. Doubling the figures shows Toronto on pace to finish at 40–26–16 for 96 points; 27 more than a year ago. This would represent the third–highest increase over the course of one season in franchise history — behind the Pat Burns/Doug Gilmour team of 1992–93 (32 points) and the Pat Quinn/Mats Sundin club of 1998–99 (28 points).

The kind of numbers that could easily bedevil a coach by winning the Jack Adams Award.

STUFF (some funny) I FOUND…
IN THE HOCKEY NEWS

People you know today… from back then:

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