The Ghost in the Machine: Babcock’s Phantom Roster


We’ve already heard that Mike Babcock has been hard at work
and using the most of complimentary diner stationery to fill
out the Leafs lineup

“The Leafs head coach said he had been working on line
combinations with Matthias, and without Phil Kessel, and setting expectations
for the team as he prepares for this week’s prospects camp in Collingwood.
“You do (line combinations) all summer on a napkin, you
watch the first exhibition game and you don’t like what you had on the napkin
all summer, and you change it,” Babcock said.”

… but now we have a bit more insight into the logic that is
actually going onto those napkins via Ron

“Mike Babcock is a big believer in ghost rosters. He doesn’t
want too many of the same players. I’m not sure the Leafs had too many other
Kessels, to be honest. Toronto will assemble a team in Mike Babcock’s version
of teams.

“Mike didn’t want Marty St. Louis, who was the leading
scorer in the National Hockey League [in 2013] to go to the Sochi Olympics
because he had set out a roster of what he had in mind. He told Steve
[Yzerman]: ‘You can pick him, but I won’t be able to play him.’ And Yzerman
drafted according to Mike both at Sochi and Vancouver.

“In Vancouver at six in the morning, Yzerman called him and
said, ‘Are you up?’ Mike said, ‘I’m a coach. I’m always up.’ And he let him
make the final selection on forwards. Mike took Jonathan Toews and put him on
the checking line with Rick Nash and Mike Richards—very unconventional. That’s
what’s happening in Toronto: Mike’s doing the ghost roster as he sees fit.”

Now, the idea of ghost rosters aren’t anything new to
Toronto, they’ve just existed in a more outdated fashion. Brian Burke’s idea of
six skilled forwards at the top of the roster and six “plumbers” at the bottom
of the roster was essentially a ghost roster. Obviously, Burke’s ghost roster
was more complex than that too, but given the success that Babcock has had
recently and the fact that he’s so adamant in his system that he wanted to
leave Marty St. Louis off the Olympic team, it seems he has something special
in mind.


Looking at the Red Wings lineup combinations on Left Wing Lock from last
season it seems like Babcock was using the old EA Sports engine to establish
chemistry on each line. Each line seems to have a playmaker, a grinder, and a
sniper, but again this is very much a surface look at what he was doing. The
most obvious thing that sticks out from the line combinations is that all lines
include defensively responsible players, and this is easier to accomplish when
you join an organization with Datsyuk and Zetterberg in it, though it’s
interesting to note they don’t really get used as the defensive forward. They
are players in charge of moving the puck, they each have Helm or Abdelkader to
be the primary defensive forward on their lines. Tatar and Nyquist are the
players who are there to shoot the puck. They do a pretty good job of that too.

What you also there is a consistent line of
Miller-Andersson-Glendening, and the interesting thing about this group is that
they aren’t so much a traditional checking line as they are a collection of low
risk players. They aren’t going to contribute much in the way of offense, but
they are also unlikely to give up big opportunities in their own zone and they
seemingly exist to give the other lines the rest they require.

history-1415-DET-Center - PAVEL DATSYUK

Looking specifically at Datsyuk’s linemates from last season
Hockey Viz)
it’s doesn’t appear that Babcock goes away from his set lines
unless injuries force his hand, and it seems that as soon as he can return to
his ideal line combinations, he will. It’s also clear that when Datsyuk wasn’t
with Helm and Tatar, he’d likely have Abdelkader or Glendening to replace Helm’s
abilities, and Zetterberg to replace Tatar’s finishing ability. He was also
briefly a victim of the Stephen Weiss experiment, but that was quickly


The defensive pairings that Babcock used seems straight
forward to me, which probably means I’m missing a lot. Ericsson and Kronwall
are his top two defensemen, and thusly have been put together so that they can
head out against the oppositions best lines. Quincey and Dekeyser are easily
that second tier of defense, and like the top pairing you also seem to have a
more conservative player (Ericsson, and Quincey) playing with a partner who has
more of a green light to jump into the play. Finally there’s Brendan Smith and
his rotation of partners. Smith is easily the most conservative of the Wings
defensemen and often gets saddled with a high risk partner, though in the most
sheltered situations. Given that the Leafs defensive situation isn’t too
different from Detroit’s last season, it seems reasonable to expect something
similar in 2015-16.

The biggest take away from this is probably that the Leafs
will be looking at some drastically different line combinations that what were
used last season. Players like Winnik and Komarov might find their way to the
top of the lineup, and previous top six players who may be in need of
sheltering might slide down the roster. We can also likely expect that Marlies
call-ups will be dependent on filling a specific need in the roster rather than
being the best player on the team. None of this is anything new, and most
coaches do this to some extent, but the fact that Babcock is one of the best in
the business at this should be encouraging for the Leafs.

  • Gary Empey

    This is a big negative and makes Babcock appear as a better version of Carlyle with his playing not to lose system by not giving up big opportunities against but not generating much scoring opportunities either.

    And thank god, the potato got rid of Clarkson the grinder as Babock would have played him on the first line as a lunchpail type player.

    That said, I hope you are wrong about Babcock not liking skilled offense first players like Kessel. This makes me worry about the future of Nylander and marner (if he defense doesn’t translate) on the leaf with Babcock as coach. I mean I could see the big bodied grinder Holland getting lots of minutes while Babcock gives Kadri the Hudler treatment. I just don’t know where Bozo the clown ends up.

    At any rate, please I hope you are wrong about everything.

    • Gary Empey

      I thought Carlyle coached a score-on-the-rush team? Isn’t that what they were when they played well? I admit I had to close my eyes a lot the last 3 seasons so I could have missed this but I didn’t think Carlyle was a possession coach.

      Regardless, defense and goaltending win cups. I’m a-okay with have a defensive minded forward on every line.

    • Gary Empey

      The article seems to say Babcock prefers to have a playmaker, a two way forward, and a sniper on everyline. I don’t see any need for a lack of skill in those positions. To me this is a very balanced approach. It addresses the need to reduce the shots on goal. It should also stop the quality of those shots. It may weaken the offensive punch of your number one line a little but it will improve your 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines making them also a threat. It stops other teams from neutralizing your number one line then dominating the rest of the game. I am not worried about the “big bodied grinders”. Most of our draft picks are exceptional skaters. The new coach of the Marlies is known to ice a speed team.

  • Brooksterman

    What did we expect? The 80’s Oilers where we win or lose every game 5-4? This doesn’t surprise me at all. Consider that Babcock had all the offensive talent any coach could wish for at the Olympics and yet they still won every game 2-1/1-0. The only real area a coach can improve a team or a players skill is on the defensive side of the puck. Every team spent the entire playoffs not trying to score as many goals as possible but instead trying to do there best to keep the other team’s best offensive weapons off the score sheet. The two most offensively dangerous teams in the playoffs Tampa Bay and Chicago met in the Cup finals and it was one of the lowest scoring finals in league history.

    This also shows to me why Kessel was moved. If he was still here next year he would have had a bad offensive year again because Babcock would have had him playing on a line where the other winger was either Winnik or Komarov and not JVR or Lupul.

    • Gary Empey

      Re Kessel. Whereas he is a great offensive threat he maybe too one dimensional for the team’s rebuld.
      You are right Babcock likes all his players to be interested in both sides of the game.

      • Brooksterman

        I think what Babcock’s pattern shows for example using the current group of projected Leafs forwards (assuming Bozak is traded before the season)to predict the most common lineup mix:


        Carrick and Frattin as the extra forwards.