It really is no secret. Bias aside, Mike Babcock is regarded as one of the top coaches in today's National Hockey League. While Red Wings fans would have already validated this claim with a multitude of reasons, there are plenty of opinions and reasons as to why Babcock was voted as the top boss behind the bench according to ten different NHL writers.
Michael "Mike" Babcock, Jr. was born April 29, 1963, grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and attended McGill University in Montréal, Québec. There, he captained the school's ice hockey team while earning a degree in physical education. Babcock did some post graduate work before heading off to England to play professional hockey. However, other than this stint across the pond and some junior experience before college, Babcock really does not have any type of "higher level" professional hockey under his belt.
So why is he such an effective bench boss?
Mike Babcock knows how to get the most out of his players. If you have ever caught yourself watching a game where the Red Wings were very out of it, you might catch the prototypical "disappointed Babcock" look. Any coach is upset at a goals against, but while John Tortorella might have his outbursts and Peter DeBoer has his puzzled emoticon on full display, Babcock has a look of disappointment on every goal against, the kind of look that a disappointed father gives his child when he fails to meet expectations.
Babcock preaches personal responsibility. It is his M.O. So when Jakub Kindl, a relatively young defenseman who is still trying to find his groove on the blue line, puts the puck into his own net, you can bet that Babcock will call him into his office.
"Paul MacLean loves the [Senators'] players, Mike Babcock loves the players. Sometimes, you're pushing people who don't want to be pushed, sometimes they don't like it - I'm here to tell you that when you look at the group of coaches that are still playing right now, they're pushing their people. That's just reality. And in my world, that's positive," Babcock told the National Post in an interview.
The fact of the matter is, Mike Babcock expects his players to bring their A game every night, as any sane coach would. Babcock knows he has probably two of the top fifty players in the world in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but ask anyone what Babcock thinks of them and they will almost certainly come back with a response such as, "They're two of the hardest working players in the league."
Mike Babcock does not expect his two hardest working players to make mistakes, nor act like petty superstars. Mike Babcock expects perfection from everyone. All the time.
Holding the Puck
The one thing that Mike Babcock preaches is that possession matters. Mike Babcock does not care where his players are on the ice if they have the puck, nor does he seem to care about the fact that Don Cherry dislikes the Red Wings breaking the puck out in front of their own net.
The general consensus, regardless of how some organizations dismiss hockey analytics, is the team that wins the most puck battles and holds onto the puck the longest tends to win. Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and New Jersey, teams that have not only made the playoffs but have succeeded in the playoffs over the last decade, all have been in the top ten when it comes to Corsi percentages. Corsi percentages are defined as a general plus-minus statistic that takes shots attempted into account.
It's simple math. A team that has more possession time tends to create more scoring chances and generate more shots, and therefore tends to score more goals. There's one small difference in that the necessary part of the equation is skilled players. New Jersey was second overall in Corsi ranking last year overall with a 55.9 Corsi 5 on 5 percentage and an overall ranking of +417 (remember, this is taking shots into account; the Devils were fairly awful on D). That's all fine and dandy, but a marquee player like Ilya Kovalchuk was injured, and the team's star left winger found himself putting points on the board in Minnesota. Combine that with Travis Zajac's (and pretty much every other highly acclaimed player) off year and the league's third worst goals for per game average, and you have a team that missed the playoffs.
In other words, there's always somebody holding onto the puck, the question is who is going to step up and put it in the net.
With all of that being said, Detroit ranked sixth in Corsi last year during 5 on 5 play and had an overall ranking of +278, only finishing behind LA, New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, and Ottawa (in that order).
While jokes can be made about no cups for Ottawa or how they (stupidly) lost Alfredsson, they have been consistently contending if their first four years are dropped from the equation. LA has won a cup (2012), New Jersey won 3 (with the trap and without it) in the last 18 years in five appearances and has missed the playoffs only 4 times since the early nineties, Boston won a cup in 2011 and made an injury filled appearance in 2013, and Chicago was Chicago.
It goes without saying that Kenny Holland and Babcock work very closely to pick up players who can both hold onto the puck and put it into the net.
When watching any Red Wings game on TV, it is very noticeable that the Red Wings, whether fumbling the puck like they did in 2013 or playing keep-away like they did the twenty-two years prior, are almost always on the puck. Rarely do they go through slip-ups and have high turnover ratios. Blown coverages? Sure. The Brendan Smith Fan Club will invite guests to a dinner party and talk solely about his absent mindedness when guarding a particularly important spot in front of the net.
However, there are bad periods here and there. The Wings almost always come out flying the period after and return to normalcy. It's a testament to how Babcock handles the locker room, but the only time that the Red Wings falter on possession is when they get too comfortable like they did in Game 6 of round two from this year against Chicago. They arguably lost [the series] because of a brutal third period.
Babcock recycles his breakouts, trusts his defensemen to move the puck out of the back end from any location.
The Red Wings of 2011-12 managed an average of about seven turnovers per game, a number that (understandably) increased in 2013. That should change soon with DeKeyser coming back into the fold.
Are the Red Wings perfect with the puck? Absolutely not, but Babcock expects perfection.
Adaptability and Dynamics
There's an old adage that states that the hand plays the cards given. The entire hockey world cited the regression of talent on this year's squad. Red Wings fans had grown doubtful at the team's continuation of the longest running postseason streak in all of sports.
Babcock did not care.
Babcock had a job to do and he went out and did it: coach a team into the playoffs.
When a team and its coaching staff are on the same page, it is a well oiled machine. While that is quantifying the obvious to an extent (sociology, anyone?), Babcock did indeed cite the fact that his team had to be even better now without the likes of Lidstrom.
Even beyond that, however, Babcock has adapted his game as time went on. For example, Babcock now employs the swarm, something that confused Kyle Quincey when he arrived back in Detroit the second time.
Babcock has coached in several different eras of hockey, among them pre-lockout and the speed era. He has had success in every single one of them, much to nobody's surprise.
From game 22 on, according to Babcock (speaking to 105.1 FM Detroit), the team really found its groove. The first half of the season was rough, but it indeed became more clear that the youthful Red Wings had found their new identity during the second half of the year. Yes, Babcock has that observation right down right to the exact game.
Babcock took a team of children as a 7 seed (after having to win out the last four games just to make it in) and led them past the 2 seeded Anaheim Ducks before finally losing out to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks in seven games. There were plenty of other young inexperienced teams that were on the cusp of making the playoffs, and two of them did in the Wild and the Red Wings. However, only one made it out of the first round and didn't lose in five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Make no mistake, Mike Babcock knows his place. When talking about accountability, the biggest thing in Babcock's bag of tricks is how he reacts to gaffes on the ice. The death stare, the stone face, the evil eyes, whatever fans call it, is one aspect of his personality.
While that is one facet of Babcock's persona that he tends to get public attention for, he has an unbelievable hockey IQ. Anyone can be trained to have a good hockey IQ, but to be a coach, a person has to have an unbelievable amount of patience, dignity, and motivational skills.
Mike Babcock tends to treat his players the right way. While Red Wings fans loved Scotty Bowman, a legend in his own right, Mike Babcock might be in the same conversation in a few decades. It might not be because of a similar amount of Stanley Cups, but more along the lines of how he treats his players.
Scotty Bowman loved his players, but understood that there was indeed something to be said about making sure they were not only pushed, but that they indeed pushed and motivated themselves.
Babcock echoed this while talking to the McGill Tribune:
Motivation, in my mind, is 'what's in it for me' Now, how do you get 23 people to find what's in it for them and be on a team? You give up some individual rights for team rights, but the reality is, they all still want to be important. That's what I do; I manage people.
He lives on the idea that "good enough" is not good enough. When a person strives to be better, settling for something less is never an option.
"When you don't make people accountable, it leads to a superstar mentality where not everyone on the team is important." -- Babcock
The team is one unit on Babcock's watch, always.
Ever notice that Babcock is seemingly the only coach in the NHL who does not get overly impatient when Pierre McGuire is interviewing in the middle of the period? That takes intense skill!
Seriously. He is always one step ahead of the game when it comes to McGuire's pesky interviews and does a fairly decent job of hiding his dissatisfaction of said exchanges.
There is something about Mike Babcock that makes even puck bunnies wiggle around a little bit, but it is indescribable.
The best way to phrase it is the fact that Babcock carries himself in such a way that is suited for show business. He's cheeky, yet not afraid to speak his mind. He's reserved, but he'll go at it if he is encouraged.
Babcock even wrote a book (or at least had his friend write a biography).
However, he has no shortage of fun doing what he does. "I'm fortunate to coach the Red Wings, got a good group of people who've been coachable and worked hard, we've tried to help them, we're all in it together and we're all having fun," he told Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun. This past season was "the most fun I've had coaching in a couple of years, by far." He's had quite the task and it has been probably his busiest season since he took over the team.
Besides, look at that outfit.
The Bottom Line
If there were one coach that could be painted in a similar light to Babcock in hockey, it would be Scotty Bowman, hands down.
However, there is one coach in the recent history of North American sports that paints a more vivid picture of what Babcock is truly like: Bill Parcells.
Bill Parcells, for those who are not familiar with the National Football League, was the only coach to take four different bottom feeder franchises to the playoffs, winning two Super Bowls with the New York Football Giants. Parcells by many standards was considered not only an amazingly versed football coach, but a master at motivating. If he were not a football coach, chances are he would have been an army general.
Parcells is chock full of notable quotes, but there is one that is very notable and it comes from this year's hall of fame induction ceremony:
"Losers assemble in little groups and complain about the coaches and the players in other little groups, but winners assemble as a team."
Mike Babcock is a winner, and his teams have a history of winning. He has only won one Stanley Cup championship in three appearances, has won a gold medal with a stacked Olympic team, has done very well at the World Championships, has not yet won the Jack Adams Award, and has only been around for the better part of eleven years. However, with the notable exception of Mike Commodore referring to his days with the Ducks, very few players have openly complained about playing for Mike Babcock.
Babcock knows he has a job to do, but he relies on his values, his adaptability, and his instinct to coach competitive teams. He is passionate about the game of hockey.
The best comparison between Babcock and Parcells? Their teams always have a chance to win.
Parcells stated during his speech that he always had one quote stick with him from his days coaching college football; "The players deserve a chance to win, and you as an organization, a university and a head coach have an obligatory responsibility to give it to them." Babcock always gives his players the chance to succeed and grow, something that no other coach in the NHL right now has down to a science like himself.
Babcock is the best at what he does on an entire continent.
It does not hurt that he has quite the flow and wardrobe either.