Sports: 8 things ex-Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock did right in Toronto - - PressFrom - Canada
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Sports 8 things ex-Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock did right in Toronto

20:20  21 november  2019
20:20  21 november  2019 Source:   sportsnet.ca

Babcock: I'll coach 'as hard as I can, as long as I can'

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a screen shot of Mike Babcock in a suit and tie© Provided by Rogers Media Inc Babcock

It wasn’t all bad. Honestly.

Yes, the easy tact is to scoff at the reeling, injury-ravaged version of the Toronto Maple Leafs inherited by Sheldon Keefe — losers of six straight, 25th overall in points percentage (.478) — and scoop another lump of blame onto Mike Babcock as he takes the fall for a group (lack of) effort.

And the plain fact that Babcock went 0-3 in playoff series during his Toronto tenure makes it difficult to argue that he deserved to be behind the bench for the next post-season.

Results rule.

In saying that, much good did come from the Babcock era, as frustrated as fans are by the state of the club as he exits the city.

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Here are eight things Babcock did right.

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Restoring respectability

Sure, it’s human nature to focus on recent history. The Maple Leafs not starting on time, playing token defence, practically never winning a special-teams battle, and generally giving off a vibe between apathetic and disheartened.

But the arrival of Babcock four and a half years ago injected a sense of optimism and vision that was absent in Leafs culture. Toronto wasn’t considered a serious contender for free agents until Babcock arrived, and the players were less accountable.

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Simply put: More was given, less was earned.

Do the Leafs get Lou Lamoriello (and, by extension, Frederik Andersen) without Babcock? John Tavares?

Do the Leafs operate the perfect tank year and land Auston Matthews without a coach who has the job security and long-term vision to pull it off?

Yes, Babcock’s message — and it was always his message — wore out, but that bluster and leadership was needed early.

The Leafs he inherited in 2014-15 were an unmitigated disaster. They pole-vaulted from worst to a playoff berth in 2016-17. They set a franchise record with 105 points in 2017-18 and produced their only consecutive 100-point seasons in 2018-19.

Developing and unleashing the best of Morgan Rielly

Absolutely there are players who, sometimes inexplicably, just never managed to squeeze into Babcock’s good books. But there are a few that thrived under the coach.

How Babcock treated the development of Morgan Rielly was brilliant.

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Knowing the club wasn’t ready to contend when he arrived but recognizing an elite talent he could mould, Babcock refused to give young Rielly — a naturally offensive defenceman — power-play time and instead forced him to kill penalties and thrust him into uncomfortable defensive situations.

He took the long view with Rielly, then rewarded him with top-unit power-play time and all the O-zone starts he could eat for his breakout 2018-19 campaign, the first time the Leafs resembled a legit contender.

Rielly’s 20-goal, 72-point, plus-24 performance jumped him into the Norris conversation and proved that the Leafs could cultivate their own No. 1 defenceman when the outside world was clamouring for them to trade for one.

The pairing of Rielly with a safe, smart and vocal Cup winner in Ron Hainsey was also key. It’s during those two seasons that Morgan performed his best in both ends.

Defending the defenders

For the bulk of Babcock’s tenure, the coach simply was not equipped with a blue line that could match with the league’s best.

So, while Babcock often deflected blame away from him and onto others — passive-aggressively toward management, and straight-up aggressively toward his goaltender after a porous performance (“the puck went in the net”) — he was staunch in his public support for the NHL-ready defencemen he was given.

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When Jake Gardiner, who gave his best hockey to Toronto, got booed, Babcock defiantly shot back and sung Gardiner’s praises. (His prediction that the Leafs would be worse off sans Gardiner isn’t wrong… yet.) He knew well the criticism lobbied at stay-at-home guys like Hainsey and Roman Polak, and he stuck up for them too.

And we’ll never forget the time in 2017 when Rielly started taking heat and losing confidence. Babcock came to the podium guns blazing, dropping a Dion Phaneuf reference and sticking up for his favourite player.

“[Rielly]’s just gotta quit thinking and worrying about what anybody else says. He understands the manager and the coach think he’s great, and his mom and dad think he’s great,” Babcock said that day. “I’d spend less time worrying about what anyone else gives you feedback on and just play.”

Knowing a real backup when he sees one

Once Toronto acquired Frederik Andersen, a true No. 1 goalie, Babcock was provided the following backups: Garret Sparks, Michael Hutchinson, Antoine Bibeau, Jhonas Enroth, Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney.

Of that group, only McElhinney is still an established NHL player. He’s the only one Babcock went to bat for (and lost), in the fall of 2018.

No doubt, he could’ve cushioned some of the others with a couple goalie-friendly, confidence-building starts and not been so rigid in his approach to back-to-backs.

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But you get what you pay for, and the Maple Leafs have decided not to invest in No. 2 goalies. That’s not on the coach.

Running the tightest practices in hockey

Whenever the Leafs acquired a new player, he was struck by Babcock’s airtight practices. They were conducted with purpose and precision and never dragged on too long.

You can set a stopwatch to a Babcock morning skate: precisely 17 minutes.

“You want to practice how you play. So, it’s getting used to that,” Alexander Kerfoot said. “Every day when you’re here, you’re on. Whether it’s a pre-game skate, practice, game — he wants it to be fast-paced, up-tempo. That’s good.”

Forming some smart combinations

While Babcock absorbed fair blame for being stubborn with his lineup decisions — rarely putting Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together being the most obvious — he probably wasn’t given enough credit from the line-makers for the chemistry he did find.

The Zach Hyman–John Tavares–Marner trio was one of the top three trios in all of hockey last season, and neither Tavares nor Marner have looked the same without the other this fall.

When the Reilly and Jake Muzzin experiment fell flat, Babcock was able to form an excellent Muzzin–Nikita Zaitsev pairing in time for the Boston series last spring, and they did a great job of limiting the Patrice Bergeron group 5-on-5.

Matthews and William Nylander perform best side by side.

When healthy, the new-look third unit of Ilya Mikheyev–Kerfoot–Kasperi Kapanen looks like a winner.

And were not convinced grinders like Connor Brown and Hyman would’ve enjoyed 20-goal season under any other regime.

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Pushing his assistants to promotion

Fun fact: D.J. Smith’s Senators now have more wins this season (10) than Babcock’s Leafs (nine).

Even though Toronto’s defence and penalty killing have fallen off a cliff since Smith left, and the players themselves loved the fun-loving, keep-it-light nature of “Smitty,” Babcock has never been one to hoard talent or stand in the way of a promotion. (May you all have a boss like that.)

When Smith was considered for the Islanders job (Barry Trotz — not a bad pick), Babcock praised him publicly and predicted he’d make a great bench boss one day, just as he’d supported the career advancement of Paul MacLean, Todd McLellan and Bill Peters before him.

Devoting attention to the faceoff

Babcock is infamous for placing a premium on draws (“You start with the puck”), handing his backup goalie a clipboard and charging him with the task of tracking faceoffs in real time so he could ride the hot hand.

The Leafs he took over in 2015 were dot-challenged, finishing 20th overall with a 49-per cent success rate. Even the last-place Leafs in Babcock’s tank-for-Matthews 2015-16 season leapt to eighth overall (50.6 per cent).

Improvement continued, in part due to Babcock pushing his centres to improve in the dot and in part because he embraced the analytics that proved that taking draws on your strong side yields better results. So, linemates Matthews and Nylander would switch off depending which side of the ice the linesman set up.

Yes, he departs a 2019-20 club with horrid numbers in plenty of categories, but the Maple Leafs do rank No. 1 overall in faceoff winning percentage (53.8 per cent), improving again from their second-overall standing in 2018-19 (53 per cent).

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