TORONTO (Apr. 2) — I begin this blog with somewhat of a contradiction: Though I believe Mike Babcock should be among the finalists for the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League coach–of–the–year, I do not believe he is the overriding factor in the Toronto Maple Leafs remarkable improvement this season.
In that realm, I respectfully disagree with my friend, Chris Johnston, who does an excellent job covering hockey for Sportsnet and Sportsnet.ca. In a column from Detroit (http://sprtsnt.ca/2nLf5qz) — where the Leafs improved to 10–2–1 in their past 13 games by edging the Red Wings, 5–4, Saturday night — Chris wrote that Babcock has done his “finest work” behind the bench. In no way am I here to argue that the Maple Leafs coach is unworthy of abundant praise, or having difficulty earning his record–sized contract. To claim it’s a coincidence the 2016–17 Leafs — in Babcock’s second year of projected “pain” — are among the most–improved over the span of one season in franchise history would be unfair… and disingenuous. As it turned out, however, Babcock couldn’t possibly have foundered with the roster presented to him last September. Doubly so, given the club has remained unusually intact throughout the 82–game schedule.
YES, MIKE BABCOCK — AS ANTICIPATED — HAS DONE A TERRIFIC JOB WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS THIS SEASON. DO NOT, HOWEVER, LOSE SIGHT OF AN INCREDIBLE BOOST IN PERSONNEL.
Johnston cites numerous examples of how Babcock has nurtured the club through its 22–point rise in the standings — none of which are debatable. But, the coach had nowhere near the same impact on last year’s team. Nor would he likely have prospered with any of the non–playoff clubs in the post–2005 lockout era. This renaissance falls on management — president Brendan Shanahan; general manager Lou Lamoriello and chief bird–dog Mark Hunter — for crafting a traditional scheme of retaining prospects and building through the draft; for claiming William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews in consecutive years; for obtaining Frederik Andersen in a trade with Anaheim and, yes, for opening the vault to sign Babcock.
Cast a nod westward at Brian Burke for signing free agent Tyler Bozak and drafting Nazem Kadri in 2009. For his acquisition of James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia (Luke Schenn went to the Flyers) on June 23, 2012.
The selection, under Burke, of Connor Brown, 156th overall, in the 2012 draft also worked out rather well.
Babcock was given a team last autumn that has surprised most of us, but probably shouldn’t have. It features the best crop of rookie forwards in franchise history. And a goalie that appears to have finally broken the post–Ed Belfour malaise (not since 2003–04 has the club been rock–solid between the pipes). In other words, there is nothing accidental about the improvement of the Maple Leafs this season. Babcock has certainly aided the cause with his ability to keep the players focused… and while bestowing upon them a short memory. The club has immediately bounced back from its few dreadful performances. Kadri is playing, by far, the best hockey of his career under the veteran coach. Andersen has responded to a heavy workload.
So, yes, Babcock has done a very commendable job in his second year with the Blue and White. As expected of the highest–paid coach in the history of the NHL. But, no, he is not the prime determinant in the club’s advancement. For that, we can look directly at the personnel assembled by management over the past seven years… but chiefly since the 2014 draft in Philadelphia.
Even Babcock might confess to it being a coach’s dream.
JERSEYS AND WINNING
There appears to be a connection, in the past 50 years, between the Maple Leafs re–designing their jerseys and improving their performance. Courtesy of Andrew M. Greenstein’s magnificent website (http://nhluniforms.com/), here are the Toronto examples since 1967:
THE LEAFS BEGAN WEARING THE JERSEYS AT TOP–LEFT (WITH SLIGHTLY–MODIFIED LOGO) DURING THE 1964 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS AND WON THEIR THIRD CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP UNDER PUNCH IMLACH. AFTER CEDING THE NHL TITLE TO MONTREAL IN 1965 AND 1966, ANOTHER UNIFORM DESIGN (TOP–RIGHT) FOR THE 1967 PLAYOFFS RESULTED IN THE CLUB’S FOURTH — AND MOST SURPRISING — CUP OF THE DECADE. THE LOGO REPLICATED THE 11–POINT MAPLE LEAF ON THE NEW FLAG OF CANADA; STRIPING WAS MODIFIED ON THE SLEEVES AND JERSEY–BOTTOM.
THE 1967 SWITCH HAD VIRTUALLY NO SHELF–LIFE. WHILE WEARING THE JERSEYS, TOP–LEFT, FOR THREE SEASONS, THE LEAFS MISSED THE PLAYOFFS IN 1968 AND 1970, AND GOT DESTROYED BY BOSTON IN THE 1969 OPENING ROUND. A RADICAL CHANGE IN JERSEY AND LOGO OCCURRED (TOP–RIGHT) FOR THE 1970–71 SEASON. THE CLUB IMPROVED BY 11 POINTS AND WAS BACK IN THE STANLEY CUP TOURNAMENT, LOSING A SIX–GAME QUARTERFINAL TO THE NEW YORK RANGERS.
THE LEAFS KEPT THEIR NEW UNIFORM FROM 1970–71 TO 1991–92. AND THOUGH FRANCHISE LEGENDS DARRYL SITTLER, LANNY McDONALD AND BORJE SALMING WORE IT WITH DISTINCTION IN THE MID–TO–LATE 70’s, THE JERSEY IS MORE–CLOSELY AFFILIATED WITH HAROLD BALLARD AND THE WORST DECADE IN CLUB HISTORY: THE 1980’s. FINALLY, FOR THE 1992–93 SEASON AND THE ARRIVAL OF PAT BURNS AS COACH, THE LEAFS RETURNED TO THEIR 1960’s ROOTS (TOP–RIGHT), DISCARDING THE FULL SHOULDER–TO–SLEEVE YOKE WHILE ADDING THE FORMER JERSEY AND STOCKING STRIPES. SADLY, THE CLUB CHOSE TO RETAIN THE “BALLARD” LOGO. THE JERSEY RE–DESIGN, HOWEVER, COINCIDED WITH THE BIGGEST ONE–SEASON IMPROVEMENT IN TEAM ANNALS: FROM 67 POINTS IN ’91–92 TO 99 POINTS (WITH BURNS AND DOUG GILMOUR) IN ’92–93.
AFTER MISSING THE PLAYOFFS IN 1996–97 AND 1997–98, THE LEAFS HIRED PAT QUINN AS COACH AND SIGNED GOALIE CURTIS JOSEPH AS A FREE AGENT FOR THE FINAL SEASON AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS: 1998–99. AS PART OF THE MLG COMMEMORATION, THE TEAM UNVEILED A WHITE ALTERNATE JERSEY (MIDDLE, TOP–LEFT) WHICH REPLICATED THE ROAD UNIFORM WORN BETWEEN THE 1964 PLAYOFFS AND THE END OF THE 1966–67 REGULAR SEASON. COINCIDENTALLY OR NOT, THE LEAFS AUTHORED THEIR SECOND–BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT, LEAPING FROM 69 TO 97 POINTS, AND LOST TO BUFFALO IN THE ’99 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS. THE RESULTS OF THIS 100th–ANNIVERSARY SEASON WHILE WEARING THE NEWLY–MINTED JERSEYS (TOP–RIGHT) HAS CONTINUED THE TREND.