Toronto Maple Leafs: Mike Babock Is More Progressive Than You Think

LUCAN, ON - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on during morning skate at Kraft Hockeyville Canada at the Lucan Community Memorial Centre on September 18, 2018 in Lucan, Ontario, Canada.(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
LUCAN, ON - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on during morning skate at Kraft Hockeyville Canada at the Lucan Community Memorial Centre on September 18, 2018 in Lucan, Ontario, Canada.(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock is in a good place, because he’s got a great team and near universal approval among the fanbase.

While any coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is going to have his share of detractors, Babcock’s detractors are a little different than normal.  Usually a coach is hated by the shortest tempered of fans looking for the first guy to blame when something goes wrong.

Sometimes a coach is legitimately a bad fit and the fans will get pretty loud, but mostly we all have that one buddy who just hates the coach and it doesn’t generally matter why.

With Babcock is seems different.

The criticism of Babcock tends to come from the kinds of people heavily into detailed strategy and statistical discussions.  And these people, who have swayed me from time to time, tend to be honestly curious about things, rather than loud and reactionary.

The main complaints  about Babcock, as far as I can tell, are as follows:

1. That he is too beholden to vets and too old-school when it comes to making lines. For example Marleau and Hainsey too high in the lineup, or sticking with Komarov and Polak forever, despite the evidence, etc.

2. Last year he employed a breakout strategy that people say is not optimum for such a high powered offense (essentially he had the Leafs play chip-and-chase hockey where they bang it off the glass, rather than trying for controlled breakouts..)

Possibly Unfair

I think these criticisms are fair and likely even correct, but I also think we sometimes forget about the disparity between writing about something and implementing it in real life.

It`s easy to lament certain decisions that seem don’t seem ideal, but Babcock doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a progressive, forward thinking coach.

Babcock had no problem inserting Auston Matthews into the #1 centre position as a rookie, and if you give him a massive upgrade over Hainsey, I think he’ll use it.  What we forget is that the actual difference between NHL players who aren’t stars is microscopic.  Yes, Polak is an easy target, but in third pairing minutes, how many more wins is the next best option going to really get you?

There is a lot of risk to making a move like sitting Polak in the middle of a season that people don’t seem to even think about, myself included.  From Babcock’s perspective, there’s a lot of risk in swapping out a rookie for a vet, and little upside.  And yet, whenever possible, he has seemed to test certain hockey dogmas that do not match his old-school reputation.  We already mentioned Auston Matthews, but what about dressing five offensive defenseman? What about sitting Matt Martin or what about the projected fourth line of  Kapanen-Lindberg-Johnsson?  That certainly isn’t your prototypical grind-line.

For any coach, I think it’s only natural to go with veterans, and the NHL is especially a hard league to make it in for a rookie. How much extra talent does Player A need to have over Player B to make a change in the middle of the season, if Player B knows the system inside out and Player A would have to learn it on the fly?  Do we even think about this when we criticize a coach for not taking out Komarov and replacing him with a rookie?

A coach could easily know the rookie is better and still not feel comfortable making the change.  But its these little things that get people thinking Babcock isn’t very progressive, and what I’m trying to illustrate is that it’s very easy to see a decision like in the way that you want to see it. “He is still sticking with the grinders, what is this, 1998?”  When in realty, there might be very good reasons for his actions.  What I am saying is that Babcock has shown enough willingness to go outside the box and adopt and adapt that he deserves the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this.

A lot of times we think we should just throw rookies in because the stats and scouting report say they’ll be fine, but Babcock has to trust what he sees in practice. Plus, he is under enormous pressure to deliver results, so if he knows and trusts a player, its pretty hard to put a guy in you just heard about over him because some numbers say it’ smart.

There is a huge upside to icing a rookie #1C if he’s Auston Matthews.  But Carrick over Polak? It’s a minor improvement at best, and it’s not hard to see from Babcock’s perspective that the risk might not justify the reward.  But like most humans, we focus on what we aren’t getting, not what we are.  Babcock dressed nine rookies regularly just a couple of years ago.  That certainly doesn’t jibe with the old-school image of Babcock refusing to promote Kasperi Kapanen ahead of Leo Komarov.

Sure it might be a good idea to take Komarov out for Kapanen, on paper, but you know what Komarov gives you and you know you can live with it.  There’s no risk for some writer to say so, but there’s also no Incentive for Babcock to not play it safe, because all the risk is on him.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take any risks.  He eventually moved Matt Martin out of the lineup to make way for more skill, after all.  We just forget that every time we see Hainsey shoot the puck off the glass.

This year his fourth line looks like a decent second or third line.  There is no grit anywhere upfront, and it’s not going to matter.  The Leafs strategy seems to be: don’t take penalties, don’t fight, just win with skill.  This doesn’t seem like the way a coach with the old-school reputation of Babcock would do things, but it is our current reality, and it suggests that Mike Babcock doesn’t get enough credit for being forward thinking.

Mike Babcock

As for his breakout and overall play style, I think we forget that a defense with Roman Polak, and a 37  year-old Ron Hainsey, as well as a one-footed Nikita Zaitsev, a rookie, and two of the highest risk/reward players in the league didn’t exactly lend it self to playing a higher risk/reward game.

If Babcock seems super old-fashioned at times, it’s most likely because he’s trying to balance new approaches with some measure of what’s worked for him in the past.

From Babcock’s vantage point, he knows what works and he knows who his guys are.  Just because he doesn’t jump headfirst into new ideas, players and strategies doesn’t mean he isn’t listening and learning.

In fact, you know that he is.  No one, ever, has risen to the pro ranks of something, and then earned a reputation as the best-of-the-best without listening, learning, adjusting, re-thinking, taking advice, changing their mind, and adapting.  It would be a impossible to do so.

So there should be no concern about Babcock being too old-school to coach a Kyle Dubas team.  In fact, it’s reasonable to assume they will be perfect compliments.  Since each has different skills and talents, while obviously having the traits listed above in common.

When Dubas was hired, I often heard people asking how a 50 something Mike Babcock – the best coach in the NHL, at least by reputation – was going to handle having a 32 year old “kid” for a boss.

But this was a ridiculous question.  You don’t become Mike Babcock if you are the type of petty ego-maniac who lacks in self-confidence so badly that you couldn’t take orders from a  younger boss.

Those kinds of people max-out or fail long before they are Mike Babcock, which is why I’m not worried that any of the criticisms leveled at him will turn out to be long lasting problems.  If the Leafs use Hainsey on the first pairing, it’s not because Babcock is an idiot. It’s because Hainsey buys them time and he doesn’t have worry about rookie mistakes at crucial junctures.

Training Camp Shocker. dark. Next

Everyone who thinks about it for five minutes knows that whether it’s now or at Christmas, or the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to upgrade on Ron Hainsey.  Just because  Babcock has other areas to focus on know doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to how much he’s overusing a 37 year-old declining player.

I’m certain that he knows it, and that he’ll address it at the opportune time. I know this because Mike Babcock is far more progressive than his old-school image let’s on.  He really should get more credit for it.