The common sentiment around the Toronto Maple Leafs’ hiring of Mike Babcock is, “good coach, bad team”—and it is tough to argue against that.
This is not the first time Mike Babcock has been in charge of a team in transition, though. We can look back to see what he did in Detroit in order to get a better understanding of how he might structure the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs.
The veteran Detroit Red Wings team that Babcock initially inherited, and eventually became Cup champions, was incredible. In the first five years possession numbers were recorded on stats.hockeyanalysis.com, they were either first or second in the league in possession.
To put those teams in layman’s terms, they were the NHL version of eight experienced 40+ year old beer leaguers playing a full roster of early-20s kids and dominating them because they know how to move the puck and position themselves so they barely ever have to skate hard. Those Wings teams had players like Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski effortlessly controlling the blue line and dominating the puck, while Pavel Datsyuk was arguably the best two-way forward in the league at that time, to say nothing of Henrik Zetterbeg.
But as the team got older and lost key players year-after-year, Babcock had to transform, and he knew it. Here is Babcock discussing the change between his star studded team, to his still-pretty-good-but-not-great team:
“We’ve got to be tight, tight, tight. I’ve always wanted it, but we could get away with it before. We don’t move the puck as well, so it’s real simple. When you’ve got Lidstrom, Rafalski, Stewie (Brad Stuart) and Kronner (Niklas Kronwall), they go back, they turn the corner and they fire it to someone who hasn’t had to work quite as hard to be quite as close, to be in the exact position. We can’t play like that anymore. We have to be closer and tighter and more available, and better defensively. Sometimes it’s not very pretty, but that’s just the way it is.”
Here is an example of a tight breakout:
Smith wheels around the net and Henrik Zetterberg cuts low around the top of the circle to provide a safety net. By the time Smith goes to play the puck, all three forwards are on the same side of the ice in a triangle, with Zetterberg at the top of the circle. Nyquist is in the middle of the ice cutting at the blue line and Abdelkader at center ice on the boards. There are options galore for Smith, and even though it’s a bit of a broken play by him off the boards, the puck support is so strong the Wings are still able to gain the zone with the puck.
Now let’s look at the Leafs.
This play is slightly different, but extremely telling:
On a static breakout where the Leafs are able to set up and survey the ice, neither Franson or Rielly know which one is even going to play the puck or what is happening. You see Franson leave the puck and Rielly looks confused. By the time they do break up the ice, Leo Komarov is the one skating it up while Kadri and Santorelli are camping out around center ice; in other words, the player you’d least want to skate the puck up the ice is doing so while the two stronger puck carriers spectate. The Wings easily angled him off, forced a dump-in, and just after I cut the video they broke out and turned it up ice.
Due to lacking a strong defense core, Babcock has pushed the players to tighten up throughout the rink in order to provide support and protection. “We keep the D short, not much distance between the defense and the forwards,” Nik Kronwall said in this article.
[Coach Mike Babcock] talks about it a lot, playing as a five-man unit in the offensive and defensive zones. When you do that and you play with speed, it ultimately takes away chances,” notes Luke Glendening.
It’s not entirely different than what Peter Horachek was preaching, which I went over in detail at the beginning of his tenure.
Ultimately, the team’s record was awful with him as they pulled chute down the stretch, but in the early stages of his hiring they were beginning to play some solid hockey. Their 5-2 win against Columbus in Horachek’s second game was one of their strongest of the season, and while they lost the next game against Los Angeles 2-0, possession wise they were strong and showed signs of turning things around.
The difference now: Where Horachek was a lame duck coach overseeing a team that essentially quit once they were out of shouting distance of a playoff spot, Babcock has about as impressive a pedigree as you can find and has the massive contract and the credibility to be able to see that change through.
When they don’t have the puck, he’s going to primarily change the responsibilities of wingers in the defensive zone.
Last year, Justin Bourne spoke with Babcock about wingers’ roles:
I want them involved. When you think about it, when I played the neutral zone used to be bigger, and the end zones were smaller so you could just stand next to your guy. Today what you gotta do is find your D-man and cut off the top. And from a low sagged position, otherwise there’s too much room. So they made it way harder, wingers used to be able to sleep, they could pick up their guy coming out of the offensive zone and take the guy back, they didn’t have to do anything. Now, you gotta compress the zone, you gotta make it smaller, you gotta give the offense no time and yet, you gotta find a way to cut off the top, and if you don’t, you gotta find a way to get in the shooting lane, so the job of the winger is way harder than it was… When I say “cut off the top,” there can be no direct passes from the puck to the top man, you have to be in a lane to cut off the top. So I say, find the D, make the zone small, cut off the top.
Compare that to what Joffrey Lupul used to say about the Leafs defensive zone coverage:
“We didn’t seem to be able to break the cycle, and they were using the points. We play with a lot of people down low in our zone so the points are going to be open. And yet they seemed to be getting the point shots through and a lot of tips and rebounds. Obviously something… Something was wrong there.” – Joffrey Lupul
When Bobby Ryan joined the Ottawa Senators, he noted that one of the main systemic differences was learning to be higher in the defensive zone, where he can make a play on defensemen when necessary. He said that Carlyle believes if the goalie can’t make the stop from the outside the problem lies with the goalie, and therefore Carlyle had the wingers sag towards the danger zone.
On the forecheck, Babcock has active defensemen, and tries to have his forwards force the play into certain areas to create turnovers. Here is an example against the Chicago Blackhawks this year:
First and foremost, note the soft chip into the corner. It’s not a ring around or cross-ice dump, in an ideal world. Darren Helm, as the first forward in, is pushing for the D-to-D because he knows Tomas Tatar is going there, while Pavel Datsyuk watches Marian Hossa on the quick, short pass to give Keith little choice but to go D-to-D. When the puck swings across the boards, Datsyuk cuts across the offensive zone and peels high to cover for the pinching defenseman, Nik Kronwall. The press format works, Detroit gets a turnover and a scoring opportunity.
It’s a little dated, but here is an article by Gus Katsaros outlining the Leafs “aggressively passive forecheck.” The first forward goes in hard while the top two sag back. Carlyle tweaked this going into the year, but defensemen were rarely active on the forecheck, not to mention two forecheckers below the goal line was rare.
Once they have the puck in the offensive zone, the Red Wings are extremely creative. Babcock, as you can watch in this feature video from a few years ago, is a huge proponent of “passing off the goalie.” While a lot of teams cycle to the points for shots, the Wings crash the net in tight. Detroit had one defenseman in their team in the top 10 in shots on goal last season, and it was Nik Kronwall, who was ninth. You can, however, partly blame that on their defense group being so poor.
Where the Wings real offense came from was the counterattack. This goal is a perfect against Nashville: A 2v2 rush, a turnover, the forwards taking off and a stretch pass followed by an easy goal.
It’s a different counterattack than the Leafs version of getting cycled on for 30 seconds before long bombing the puck up ice.
Babcock will try to convert the Leafs into winning the blue lines, creating turnovers and getting clean entries. When it comes to dump-ins, Babcock has a strong opinion:
“We’d like not to dump the puck at all. The bottom line is the game’s real simple, the more time you spend in your zone, the less time you spend in their zone, the more time you dump the puck because you got no speed on the rush. If you’re efficient coming out and move the puck and you do it right once, you’re coming with speed, you don’t have to dump the puck, you probably get some sort of entry, or at least you give up possession and get it right back.” – Mike Babcock
Note the emphasis on offense stemming from defense via breaking out properly in order to gain the zone properly.
“Dumping the puck is awful when you’re just dumping it in and changing,” Babcock continued. “Just dump and change, dump and change, you spend the whole game in your own zone wearing yourself out. Our focus is try not to do that and yet there’s parts of the game every night you’re in a bit of a survival mode and you do that.”
In tracking roughly half the season on entries, I found Nazem Kadri rated very highly, along with Phil Kessel (of course). With a tighter system and more of an emphasis on moving in five man units and scoring off of turnovers, those are two easy candidates to bounce back under Babcock, along with the rapidly developing Morgan Rielly getting more forward support (provided all three return).
It’s in isolating, protecting and nurturing the youth that Babcock will have to make his biggest impact on the organization. After a tough game last season, Babcock had this to say about how he was helping his young players:
“A tough night for us, to say the least, very humbling, to say the least. Anytime you’re in your own building and things go like that for you, it’s not a very good feeling. Obviously, we’ve got a bunch of kids here right now. We need to provide better leadership and insulate them better than we did tonight.”
I was unable to find the clip from HBO 24/7, but there is a part where Babcock goes over this when making lines on camera, saying he needs to pair kids with veterans in order to support them.
Compare that to the Leafs, who kept the top line together through hell or high water (which hurts the roster balance) and have had Kadri primarily centering a second line of defensively-weak veterans. Stuart Percy started the season with Roman Polak playing in a primary shutdown role with heavy defensive zone starts. Josh Leivo’s most common linemates were Richard Panik and Trevor Smith this season. Sam Carrick’s were Richard Panik and Joakim Lindstrom. Tim Erixon’s most common partner was Andrew MacWilliam. Needless to say, the Leafs haven’t exactly been insulating the youth there.
I previously mentioned how Babcock is used to pairing forwards up in twos and rotating the third player on each line. One thing that rarely gets noticed with Babcock and his line combinations is that he likes his muckers and grinders. Justin Abdelkader has been regularly deployed on the top line the last few years; before him it was Todd Bertuzzi, and before him it was Tomas Holmstrom.
As of right now, the only Leafs forwards that really fit that mould are Leo Komarov and Sam Carrick. Some more Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli-type signings will have to be in order.
While conventional wisdom was that the Leafs would hire a coach to develop some youth (a place holder, a fall guy, whatever you want to call it) before hiring a big name, Shanahan pounced on an opportunity to bring in a great coach immediately. Babcock spoke a lot about the pain and grind of the build, and it will take him time to install his systems detailed above, but that process will be fascinating to watch.
It is one thing to talk about “loving the grind” when you are making the playoffs every year in Detroit, and an entirely different story when you’re losing for 18 months in the Toronto market.
Fans won’t mind losing again next season, but they expect the team to at least go down with a fight, unlike last year. All eyes will be on Babcock to begin turning around the atmosphere of gracious losing in Toronto.
Over one of the walls in Joe Louis arena there is a sign that says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” For the long-time Red Wing now entering the Toronto fishbowl armed with a $50 million contract, it couldn’t be more appropriate.