The Toronto Maple Leafs had a crisis on their hands. Randy Carlyle had just been fired and they were searching for a new head coach. Peter Horachek was appointed to guide the club for the remainder of the season, but the damage was already done, as the Leafs went 9-28-5 under his tenure.
The end of the season rolled around and the Blue and White were still searching for their next bench boss. Rumours had been swirling about the potential of Mike Babcock coming over to coach the Leafs. Many fans, media personalities, and NHL management believed that this scenario was highly unlikely.
To the shock of many, Babcock was indeed hired by the Maple Leafs on May 20, 2015. He came over from the Detroit Red Wings, a team he had been coaching for the previous ten years. People were understandably shocked that Babcock chose to come to Toronto. He wanted a challenge and making the Maple Leafs an eventual winner was too good an opportunity to pass up. The contract may have also played a factor as he signed an eight-year deal worth a reported $50 million.
Many believed that Babcock would make an immediate impact with the Maple Leafs on-ice performance. I believe it is safe to say that through 19 games, he has done exactly that. The Leafs currently sit at 6-9-4 with a total of 16 points. You could look at the numbers and make a snap decision that the Leafs aren’t very good or you can take a closer look at the games and see the style they have been playing. Gone are the days of the dump and chase where they would lose the puck. Now, it’s hard fore-checking every shift, putting as much pressure on the opposition as possible in order to generate scoring chances.
The breakouts from the defensive zone are much cleaner, and the entire forward cast on the ice comes back to facilitate and support the defensemen making the pass. The Leafs are a much tougher team to play against now. Their shot differential is up, as well as their prowess in the face-off dot. It’s a welcome change for the club who are now playing a much more sustainable style.
Babcock is a no nonsense kind of coach. He expects things to be done a certain way in order for the product on the ice to work at optimal efficiency. This includes everything from how the drills are run to the players taking the ice each night. He’s a tough but fair coach in that respect.
His Work with the Players
It’s no secret that the Maple leafs don’t have the most talented roster this season. Despite that, the former Red Wings bench boss has all the players on the same page, young guys and veterans alike. Babcock is protecting his players. No more unprovoked attacks in the media. Everything is now much more closely guarded and that is to give the players some security so they know that their coach has their back.
He may be yelling at them behind closed doors, but if he has his way that story will never get out and will remain in the organization. He has already had a positive impact on so many of the Leaf players. He talks with Morgan Reilly everyday, which has done wonders for the young defenseman. Reilly is playing some of his best hockey under Babcock and has started to make the transition into a top pairing player.
Nazem Kadri was told that he could be elite this season. While his goal totals don’t reflect this yet, he has been one of the better Leaf players most nights. He’s still drawing penalties, generating chances, and being his pesky and hard-hitting self. It’s not just the young guys who are benefitting from the coaching however. Matt Hunwick, the veteran defenseman, has looked solid when paired with Rielly.
Veterans like Leo Komarov, P.A. Parenteau, and Shawn Matthias have all elevated their play and have become dependable whenever they take the ice. Babcock is a reasonable coach. He gives you chances when you are playing well and have earned them.
Peter Holland was recently in the doghouse for his play. He responded by getting back to the basics and began to put up points again; including three assists in his last game and a goal in the one before that. The shootout winner against Nashville was all his. Babcock knows how to light a fire under his players. These Leafs are very different from the ones fans have seen in the last few years.
They may not be the most talented group, but they play a tough style of hockey. They don’t give up and fold like in years past. They, for the most part, leave fans with a positive impression, even in the case of a loss. Babcock is responsible for many of these changes. If there is one thing that has impressed most people, it is clearly his leadership in action under the bright and hot lights of Toronto, the centre of the hockey universe.