On May 20th, 2015, every single Leafs fan’s dream became true and the most highly-regarded head coach in the league joined their still-laughing stock of a team.
Since then, there have been some wiggle room and excuses for some of his shortcomings. Whether it’s having some certain favourite players and playing them shockingly more than some more talented players, or certain line decisions, Babcock has been mostly praised.
Until now, there has been no real public criticism or even discussion about what he specifically needs to do.
In Chris Johnston’s Beyond Headlines published on Sunday, he specifically mentions that the Head Coach needs to gather the group and pay more attention to the mentality of the team, rather than the on-ice aspects. It’s a different resonance than we’re used to coming from a major news outlet.
The problem with that is Babcock has always had some of the greatest leaders in hockey history, in his locker room.
The obvious example is his 10 years with the Detroit Red Wings. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Chelios – these names just bring some assumption of how they are in the locker room.
In his first year with the Red Wings in 2005-06, he was coming into a team that had 44-year-old Chelios, a 37-year-old Brendan Shanahan, a 40-year-old Steve Yzerman and the rest of the famous group that made the franchise so popular and successful.
Even after those players retired, a new group led by Lidstrom and Zetterberg were right there to take over.
All of his focus was on the on-ice product. There is no doubt that even the most disconnected hockey fan could see that the leadership or any intangibles characteristic would already be present and cemented.
Babcock did not have to put in the effort to mentally prepare any of his Red Wings teams for the playoffs. If the team did come into some struggles, there were super-experienced players right there to gather their peers. This is smothered in assumption, but compared to his current team, Babcock had a much easier time with the accomplished Wings.
It’s more than half his job, but he has never really done it.
For the Leafs, they don’t really have any of those legendary leaders on their team right now. There is obviously time for the big stars to develop into that, but as of right now, Babcock has not been handed a favourable hand in that sense.
This is new territory for the Leafs head coach and understandably, it has become an issue late in the season. Players calling for more emotion after this recent slump in performance has led to the personal locker room situation much more open.
Handling this type of situation is part of any head coaching job, but Babcock has obviously not had to deal with this, compared to others. Some players like Patrick Marleau can be seen as the experienced veteran to lead this team out of the slump, but him alone cannot pull the morale out of the metaphorical quicksand.
This team has never had more expectations than this year. Internal improvements among young players and acquiring the best free agent in modern hockey history, there was heaps of pressure to perform all year.
But at times like these and just before they start their third consecutive year in the playoffs with a massive “first round exit” sign over their head, all of those intangibles come into play. Team morale might seem like bullshit sometimes, but it matters right now for this team.
Usually relying on the older members to bring his team together, Babcock might just not be the perfect coach for this situation.