Mike Babcock is a coaching contradiction, but that isn’t a bad thing

It’s probably impossible to firmly declare who the “best coach in all of hockey” is, but I think you can make a strong argument for Mike Babcock. 

To say he’s clearly ahead of guys like Quenneville and Trotz, for example, is disrespectful to those guys, and essentially indemonstrable when they’re all so close. Regardless, even Babcock’s biggest critic wouldn’t have him outside the top five. He’s great, and we can all agree on that.

But he isn’t all-knowing, even within the confines of the game. None of us are. I think he’s a coach who’s constantly trying to figure it out, which is maybe his most valuable feature. And now I believe he’s at a bit of a crossroads, of which there will likely be many in the next seven years.

One thing that seems more and more puzzling to me about hockey as I keep watching is the constant overthinking of the game within an outdated framework. It’s rooted in an older view of how players fit very specific roles in the NHL. For the same reasons why many folks have reservations about buying completely into “analytics” in hockey – because the game is free-flowing, chaotic, full of lucky (or unlucky) bounces – I’d argue there’s too much effort being put into making it a situational game. It seems as though coaches and analysts want to believe decisions need to be based around having specialists for a variety of scenarios, sort of like football.

Instead of driving the game forward, this has actually bogged it down. 

Hockey isn’t like football, and doesn’t present a lot of specific situations that need different approaches from players adept at one facet of the game. We just want to believe it does.

There are some simple truths about hockey: Driving play toward the opposing net and keeping the puck away from your own is how you win games. Getting the players that can do that the best on to the ice as much as you can is how you win games. Just having better skilled players (and more of them) than the other team is how you win games. 

But then there’s still a lot of hockey people out there who believe when you’re defending a lead, it’s better to hunker down in your own zone and take shots off the shin pads over and over while praying for that final horn to sound. That’s how you get Babcock sending two veterans like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick to get their teeth kicked in against the Blackhawks last Saturday while the Leafs tried (and failed) to hold on for dear life. Coincidentally, it’s also how a 4-1 lead gets erased in a seventh game in the 2013 playoffs. Managers and coaches continue to put a premium on guys who can win two more faceoffs than average over a sample of one-hundred, which has shown to be essentially meaningless. They still dress fighters.

Mike Babcock seems to know all of the former and still practices some of the latter, which is a bit perplexing to someone who follows this team closely.

He seems to be bogged down in some traditional thinking, but then does stuff like this, which pushes the game forward:

There’s nothing too radical about those plays on their own. Covering for a pinching defenceman is something you should learn by about Pee-Wee level minor hockey. But turning this into a system of play with NHL players is something else. Taking that risk over and over and over instead of just when it seems safe for a pinch is not a common approach. Toronto is actually pushing a new way of playing hockey, in a sense. 

As Han notes in the video, it’s a step toward “total hockey” or, put another way, the start of tossing labeled positions out the window (which will eventually happen). The Leafs are looking to see if the trade-off in taking those risks consistently ends up translating to more goals for than against, and that’s bold in a relatively stagnant hockey world. This is a development season for the organization, and the coaching staff is using it to try things and see how this new core will play for the next 5-10 years. They want to see what the young guys are capable of, and also what hockey itself is capable of. 

But then again, we don’t want to hand these coaches some kind of god status, because this is a staff that has also continued to insist on feeding minutes to vets like Hunwick or Polak and sitting a more skilled and better play-driving player in Frank Corrado, which would seem to hinder this style they want to play. Gardiner’s minutes have also been cut this season, and this approach should be his calling. 

It seems like the team almost wants to be everything to everyone. Tough guys like Martin, stay-at-home “gritty” defencemen like Hunwick and Polak are mixed in with a team that wants to fly and be ultra-aggressive. It’s as though they want to try things to see if they work, but want to make sure the old ways don’t work before making too big of a leap.

Maybe the Leafs can’t decide what they want to do, or perhaps their approach is to have sort of a full toolbox of options on the roster. Whatever their thinking is, as outsiders it gives us lots to think about. But I guess we’ll keep learning as we go, just as Babcock will.

  • Stan Smith

    In the Hawk game you were talking about, the reasons for “throwing” players like Polak and Hunwick out there to get their teeth kicked in, which I am sure you are referring to the 4th goal, is because a player like Rielly was totally out to lunch on the 2nd and 3rd goals. Things like that get completely ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative.

    Plus you also don’t mention that in the overtime, when the Leafs were shorthanded, he threw them out there again a number of times and they handled the situation just fine.

    There are situations in a game where you know the other team is going to be going all out to score. You need to stop them, either by blocking a puck, getting your stick in front of it, knocking someone down, or any other way you can. While I understand your point that if they can get the puck into the offensive zone and keep it there, the better off they are, but you have to get the puck. This is not something that an “offensive” dman, especially a smaller one, is great at doing. In a perfect world you would have players that can do it all, but there just aren’t many Zdeno Chara’s in their prime. Just as you don’t worry about the goalie not helping with the offence, there are times in a game when you need guys that know what they are doing defensively, and you equally don’t care if they can put the puck in the net.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Using analytics the best thing to do would be to play your best 5 players for the whole 60 minutes, Last year the Leafs were 13th overall in Corsi… What happened?

      • Stan Smith

        Lets put it this way, the Leafs have as good as analytical department as any team. They still sign players like Polak and Hunwick, and Babcock still puts them out in defensive situations. Doesn’t that tell you that advanced stats are but just one factor in determining a line up and who to put on the ice when?

  • Jmo

    The thing I’d note about Gardiner is… it is still tbd if he can play this positionless hockey. In reality, this positionless hockey could also be referred to as 200 ft hockey. The challenge with Gardiner continues to be that, on corsi he is most certainly a positive player, but we still have no way of evaluating chances. So Gardiner is on average creating more “average chances” but he also dilutes this with stellar giveaways/defensive lapses. If you simplify the game to each player or unt scoring more than they are scored on, you realize why Gardiner is such a paradigm. His lapses result in him being a negative player (something we aren’t supposed to talk about because it such a dull tool and measuring performance) but a positive possession player (something we don’t acknowledge as also a dull tool nearly enough, although it is still among the best kpi’s we have).

    Anyway, the real point of this post was to highlight that a positionless game is one where 200 ft hockey players become the expectation. This might explain why almost every player thenleafs have drafter to date has been described as having a great hockey mind.

    • Stan Smith

      I have always found Gardiner a frustrating player to watch. At times he looks like an all-star, at others it looks like he hasn’t a clue. He has always had great advanced numbers, which I truly believe reflects more on why you can’t depend solely on the numbers. Yesterday I commented maybe it was time to take advantage of his great stats and package him in a deal for a better all around dman. Oh boy, did I get roasted for it. I got called everything from an idiot, to someone that has no clue about hockey. lol

  • tealeaves

    The one small knock with babcock is he has fewer cups then I would expect for a coach with such a loaded wings team with lidstrom, pavel, zetter etc. That said, I love his blend of new age and old school hockey

    • Stan Smith

      I don’t know if you can rate a coach simply on cups. There are so many factors that play into having to to play possibly 28 games over 60 days, and winning 16 of them. Injuries, wear and tear on the player’s bodies, good breaks, bad breaks, referees missed calls etc. A .610 regular season record and .569 in playoffs speaks pretty good in itself.

  • STAN

    The addition of Seth Griffin and Ben Smith really helps the teams overall speed, deftness with the puck and great positioning. I agree that Corrado needs to be in that lineup. Polak was OK against the Habs tonight, but Corrado fits this new style, while Polak and Hunwick don’t.