The Blackhawks steamrolled the Western Conference over the course of this shortened-season, and heading into their series with the Wings it was thought that Detroit would not have enough to overcome the skill and depth of Chicago.
However, one area where the Red Wings have a distinct advantage is behind the bench. Mike Babcock is a better coach than Joel Quenneville, and if the Wings can make this a competitive series it will likely be due in large part to Babcock's moves.
Babcock's detractors have always pointed out that he inherited a team with a lot of superstars and simply had to manage them en route to a Stanley Cup. "Anyone could win with that lineup" those people would say, and to some degree it's probably true because as Quenneville has shown, having a lot of very good players on the team does tend to lead to success.
But in the past couple of years that talent pool has diluted thanks to retirements and departures. Gone from the 2008 Cup team are Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Dallas Drake, and Chris Osgood. Not only did the Wings lose a lot of talent, they losses of these players left a hole in the dressing room in terms of leadership.
Henrik Zetterberg and company have done a good job of filling that void, but this is a much different team than it was 5 years ago. It's a team in transition, and that's a word that was thrown around a lot this season by the Wings' braintrust. The Red Wings signed veterans like Carlo Colaiacovo, Mikael Sameulsson and Jordin Tootoo to round out the roster this past summer, but injuries forced the team's hand and rookies had to be inserted into the lineup. Damien Brunner started the season on the top line, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar spent significant time with the team, and Joakim Andersson is a fixture on the penalty kill.
At the beginning of their series with Anaheim, the Red Wings had a defense group where half of the players (Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl and Danny DeKeyser) were making their playoff debuts. After DeKeyser got hurt, Brian Lashoff stepped in to the lineup and made his first ever playoff appearance. Up front, the Wings had 4 forwards that were either playing their first playoff game or had played less than 10 playoff games in their career. It's the most inexperienced the Wings have been in the playoffs since the start of their 22-year playoff streak.
That's where Babcock comes in. He's had to do far more "coaching" this year than in years past, where he could call out a superstar's name and tell that player to get on the ice and do his thing. He's had to mix and match lines, deal with inconsistent performances from players who were supposed to play much better, watch as injuries forced the team to bring up players from Grand Rapids, and be more of a coach and less of a talent manager. That the Wings not only made the playoffs but are in the second round is a testament to the job he's done this season.
Because it's important to remember what the expectations were at the beginning of the season. Over and over we heard how this was a team in transition, as we moved from the Lidstrom era into whatever this new era will be called. This year was always going to be a rough one, so expectations were lowered to the point that some people were actually resigned to the playoff streak ending and looked forward to the inevitable rebuild.
What Babcock was able to achieve with a less-talented group in a hyper-competitive Western Conference should not be overlooked. He took a team with the 10th-youngest defense corps and turned them into the 5th-best team by GA/G in the NHL. He found a way to incorporate young players into the lineup, putting them in roles that would allow them to develop experience while contributing to the team, but without overwhelming them with too many responsibilities.
In the first round against Anaheim, Bruce Boudreau remarked "when you’re trying to match wits with Mike (Babcock), who has been in every pressure situation in the world, it’s not the easiest thing." Babcock earned a lot of praise for knowing which buttons to press on his team, whether it was motivating them to play better, softening enough to praise what they had accomplished, and making the right moves on the ice that would lead to wins. Case in point: heading into Game 7, Babcock split up Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in an effort to spread their talent through the lineup. Boudreau had no answer and Zetterberg had a goal and an assist to lead the Wings to the second round.
Against the Blackhawks, Babcock is going to have to be even better. While the talent levels of the Wings and Ducks were relatively even, the Blackhawks own a clear edge in every major aspect except goaltending. Detroit is going to have to maximize the advantage they have in coaching and he is going to have to out-coach Quenneville by a lot if the Wings are going to win this series.That starts with making the right adjustments after being dominated over the final 40 minutes last night, but carries over to how he gets his team ready for Game 2.
No good coach succeeds without the help of his players, and Mike Babcock is no exception. However, even if the Red Wings fall to a superior Blackhawk team, the job that Babcock has done this season should provide hope for the future. Despite a team with less talent than in years past, youth and injuries, he was able to guide the Wings not only to a playoff spot but to the second round. Maybe this year's coaching performance will earn him the recognition outside of Detroit that he's always deserved but never received.