The latest chapter in the Detroit-Colorado rivalry is being written in video sessions, practice rinks and dressing rooms. In place of blood, there’s chalk; instead of punching, there’s planning.
This showdown isn’t even face-to-face. It’s the virtual battle between Patrick Roy and Mike Babcock for the Jack Adams Award.
Naturally, if you try to talk to either man about the coach-of-the-year honor, they’ll deflect. It’s not a fight. For them, it’s about team success, one game, one period, one shift at a time. You know the clichés.
But to those of us either in fandom, or paid to observe, the matchup is intriguing.
In Babcock, we have one of the most successful bench bosses of any generation. He actually surpassed in franchise wins yesterday the man for whom the trophy is named, the legendary Red Wings coach and GM. And Babcock accomplished the feat in 164 fewer games.
Depending on your perspective, it’s either a farce or symptomatic of voting tendencies that Babcock has never been officially anointed the league’s best coach. For most of his tenure in Detroit, he guided teams that were expertly crafted, buttressed by Nicklas Lidstrom, supported by casts that featured Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Dominik Hasek and even, briefly, Steve Yzerman. He won, but he had the requisite talent.
Babcock’s best chance at the Jack Adams, prior to this season, may have been in 2002-03, before he even got to Detroit, when he guided an Anaheim team that had missed the playoffs the prior year to within one victory of the Stanley Cup. Members of the NHL Broadcasters Association gave it to Minnesota’s Jacques Lemaire instead. Lemaire had performed a similar resuscitation to a Wild club that was off the radar screen entering the campaign.
And that’s the typical template for the coach-of-the-year recipient: do something unexpected, unpredicted. Be a surprise. Babcock has accomplished that the unorthodox way in 2013-14, masterfully steadying a Detroit ship that took more direct hits to its roster than any playoff-bound team should endure. For having his club in position to vie for the Cup again after losing cornerstones Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for long stretches, along with key veterans Stephen Weiss, Darren Helm, Just Abdelkader, Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi, Babcock will earn significant attention from voters.
His primary (only?) competitor is Patrick Roy, who has followed the more conventional route to Jack Adams consideration. He parachuted into Denver to help pick up the pieces of the 2012-13 wreck, a year that saw them finish 29th overall, just three points out of dead-last. Sure, the young talent was in place, but it would take more than just a few dabs of Krazy Glue to put things back together.
But Roy quickly galvanized the Avs, got them believing in themselves and each other with his innate leadership abilities – and fiery glass-banging techniques.
His hiring wasn’t without risk; his temper has been known to work against him and superstars-turned-coaches fail more than they succeed. But Roy has been the king of Colorado, proving once again that strong leadership at the top can have a meaningful impact.
As a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, I don’t get a vote on the Adams and at this point, I’m undecided. I’d lean towards Babcock for his body of career work, even though by definition it’s all supposed to be about this season. Still, it’s neck-and-neck for me.
At The Hockey News, we choose our coach and executive of the year after the playoffs are over; in the post-season, strategy and leadership behind the bench come to the fore more than ever. Ask me again in June which guy I’d vote for and I’m sure I’ll have a more definitive answer.