If there is a hockey god, one of these years, Mike Babcock is going to get recognized as the NHL’s top coach. It didn’t happen for him last year, when he dragged the league’s second-most injured team to its 23rd consecutive playoff appearance; Colorado’s Patrick Roy won it then, and there was a good case to be made as to why he should’ve. Babcock also didn’t win it the season he led Detroit to a Stanley Cup championship; then-Caps coach Bruce Boudreau won it that year. Year-in and year-out, Babcock works with whatever lineup he’s been given – more recently, an injury-riddled roster with star players in their twilight, as well as youngsters developing their game – and wrenches the most out of it.
Despite leading the Wings to at least the second round of the playoffs in six of his nine seasons behind their bench, Babcock has never garnered enough votes among the NHL Broadcasters Association to win the Jack Adams. You understand why it’s happened – voters often look at the “which coach has reversed his team’s fortunes to the most shocking degree” formula (that’s the one Roy won on in 2013-14) – but sooner or later, we need to recognize the value of Babcock’s consistency as at least equal to the one-hit wonder coaches who may or may not have been the beneficiaries of extraordinary, unsustainable goaltending or another factor beyond their control.
If you look at the last 10 Adams winners, three (John Tortorella, Dan Bylsma and Paul MacLean) are currently looking to get back into the league after the expiration of their contracts with the teams that fired them; another three (Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault and Bruce Boudreau) were fired by the teams with which they received the honor; and another two (Dave Tippett and Ken Hitchcock) could feel the heat at the end of the current campaign. This isn’t to say any and all of them aren’t deserving. There are great arguments for different coaches every season. It is to say it’s wholly unfair to punish Babcock in the balloting because the Wings organization does an exemplary job of assimilating young talent into the NHL level.
This season is no different. Babcock is coaching a team without its No. 1 goaltender (Jimmy Howard, out two-to-four weeks with a groin injury), No. 2 goalie (Jonas Gustavsson, sidelined since November with a separated shoulder), and that didn’t have superstar Pavel Datsyuk in the lineup for 11 games. They suck in shootouts (1-7). Their defense corps will never be mistaken for the 1970s Montreal Canadiens’ blueline. They’re not a menace on the road (11-7-3). In short, his Red Wings are no longer the league’s deepest, most dangerous team, as they were in 2005 when he first took over.
But what they are is on course for another playoff berth, and just three points out of first place in their division with two games in hand on the Atlantic-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. That is astonishing. Numerous management members have departed in Babcock’s tenure, but he has been the on-ice constant. That shouldn’t be overshadowed every season by some other coach’s good fortune in being at the right place at the right time.
Will Babcock win this year? Very probably not, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. Peter Laviolette in Nashville, Jack Capuano on Long Island, Willie Desjardins in Vancouver and Paul Maurice in Winnipeg will all get deserved support from their fan bases, and the winner will come out of that group. But if you take any of what I’ve written to be a slight on the work done by any of these four coaches, go back to the start of the piece and read harder this time.
I’m not saying Babcock’s work this season has been head-and-shoulders above any of his colleagues. I’m saying we’ve too easily shunted aside his work over the years because of the ooh-and-ahh fireworks of the moment. If we’re really judging who the best coach is – the guy who knows the game inside and out; the guy who can strategize with anyone, and who hasn’t lost his room in nearly a decade on duty – we can’t keep ignoring the man even his own peers recognize as a force. Don’t believe me? Wait until this summer, when the Red Wings, Maple Leafs or some other team makes Babcock the highest-paid coach in league history. They won’t be giving him that money because he’s charming with the press, or because he tells great stories of winning it all in 2008. He’ll get it because he delivers, regardless of what is delivered to him.
Babock probably doesn’t care if he ever wins the Adams, but that doesn’t mean he’s not long overdue in winning the damn thing. And the longer the award is given to the flavor-of-the-moment, the greater an insult it is to a legend with a lot of years left.