This preseason game is kind of epic. Tonight, Mike Babcock is taking on his old team, currently coached by his Griffins mentee, Jeff Blashill. I had a lot of questions about this storyline, and two hockey writers were kind enough to answer them. Fielding my questions for the Red Wings is Slapshotg0al from Winging it in Motown, and for the Leafs, Gunnar Carlsson.
Toronto Maple Leafs at Detroit Red Wings
7:30 PM - TSN4 - WGR550
SBN: Winging It In Motown
PPP: A quote from your Three Questions yesterday was, "The success of the Detroit Red Wings this season depends more on the growth of the youth." The Leafs are in a similar situation. What other similarities do you see between these two teams?
Slapshotg0al: Not very much. The Wings success this season will rely heavily on the growth of the youth because 1) we have so many young players on the team (Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco, Sheahan, DeKeyser, Mrazek, Pulkkinen, plus rookies we may see called up this year) that we need them to grow and contribute in a significant way and 2) because we're at the point where our veterans have reached, or will quickly reach the point in their careers where they'll start to decline. I see the Leafs as dependant more on their youth because they're essentially on the ground level of a rebuild, where the Wings are working to transition from the vets to the youth on the fly.
PPP: A quote from our Three Questions yesterday was, "Who will be the next to go during the Maple Leafs' rebuild?" There is also a transition going on with the Red Wings, from the old guard to the new guard that's been kept with the Griffins (perhaps too long). Do you see any other similarities between the two teams?
Gunnar: I don't know if they're that similar, beyond both teams having a group of promising young players. The Red Wings are in the process of transitioning from a successful, aging core to a younger group of players, most of whom were drafted and developed by the team. The Leafs should really be in tear down mode this season, jettisoning as much of their unsuccessful old core (Bozak, Lupul, Phaneuf) for either picks or prospects.
The Leafs' prospect pool is very deep, with a lot of exciting, high upside players but most of them likely won't reach their ceilings. The Red Wings group of players, as a whole, are older. Many of them are already NHLers and ready to contribute, so their group of young players are a few years ahead of the Leafs, development wise.
PPP: What do you think Babcock will miss most about seeing his old team?
Slapshotg0al: I think he'll miss the people. Ten years is a long time to spend with the same people every single day, at home, on road trips, they become friends and part of your life. That being said, Mike Babcock also loves challenges and I think this new venture is exciting for him and that the excitement of a new adventure is what he'll be more focused on.
Gunnar: Datsyuk and Zetterberg. After trading Kessel, the Leafs don't have much high end talent, especially not up front and they certainly don't have a player of Datsyuk or Zetterberg's calibre. This is going to be a hard year for everyone. There will be pain, indeed. As for this game, the Leafs generally haven't looked very good despite playing against a lot of sub-par competition, something that Babcock has been pretty vocal about. Preseason games don't matter very much but it would be nice to see them executing Babcock's system better.
PPP: What do you expect from this preseason game?
Slapshotg0al: I expect the fans and media to make WAY more out of this game than either Babcock or Blashill do, or the situation warrants. Maybe there's a little extra desire deep down for both Babcock and Blashill to win this game, but I honestly believe both coaches will be focused on getting their regular season rosters and lines worked out, and tweaking systems and whatnot.
Blashill will have close to his final lines in the final two preseason games, and I expect Babcock to do the same, so we should see both teams big boys going head to head for a more regular season look and feel. Watching the two coaching styles and systems go head to head should be fun. I do find myself looking foward to the Toronto media's reaction to the game, just to see how extreme (in either direction) they swing.
PPP: From your Three Questions, I noticed this difference in Blashill's system: "defense would get involved in the offense more," and especially this part, "Blashill isn't intentionally giving up more scoring opportunities against, but it's the natural consequence of striving to take more opportunities at the opponent's net." Have you observed any other differences between Blashill's system and Babcock's?
Slapshotg0al: Blash's utilization of defensemen has a big impact on every area of the team, even strength play, special teams, offense, and defense, so it's a significant difference. Blashill also utilizes his 4th line a little differently than Babcock did.
With Blash the 4th line is a somewhat grinding line, but he also expects more offense from them than Babcock did. It's not enough for the 4th line to be only a shut down line, they need to contribute offensively as well, and that philosophy is a breath of fresh air. Blash also uses the net front guy on the power play a little differently, where that person is more mobile and isn't so locked into just "go stand in front of the goalie".
There are a lot of little differences that add up to what I think is a significant improvement in the utilization of Wings personnel. Blash has always been good at putting players in a position to succeed, and putting them in roles and situations that work with their strengths, rather than trying to take a player and change them to fit into a different mold.
When you have an offensive defenseman, use his offense, don't try to make him a shut down defenseman, and then bench him when he doesn't succeed. If you take a young offensive forward, put him on the 4th line and tell him to play with not offensive players and instead be a shut down/grinder, don't be surprised when his offense dries up and his confidence goes down the crapper. Blashill knows how to use players strengths and put them in roles that utilize those strengths and he's less stubborn in that department than Babcock.
Watching the two coaching styles and systems go head to head should be fun.
PPP: One of our site's Three Questions was "Who will benefit the most from playing under Mike Babcock?" Aside from "everything," what do you like most about the difference between Babcock's system and the previous one?
Gunnar: So I can't say everything? The team was completely dysfunctional under Carlyle. I won't get into it too much (and readers here are all too familiar with Carlyle's style of hockey), but Babcock actually knows how to be an effective coach. I think we'll see a pretty huge swing in possession numbers as the team plays much less passively.
The Leafs under Carlyle would always needlessly give up the puck (shooting it off the glass and out to relieve pressure in the defensive zone, dumping the puck in, and making long passes through the defensive and neutral zone on the breakout because of how far the forwards were up-ice) and we'll be seeing a lot less of that this year.
PPP: Have the veterans bought into Blashill's coaching yet? What difficulties do you forsee for the new regime?
Slapshotg0al: The overwhelming response is absolutely. Everyone has heaped praise on the change in atmosphere, communication, and working environment that Blashill has brought. In Training Camp I saw the players having more fun and enjoying themselves more than I've ever seen from the team. Player after player has said how much of a breath of fresh air Blashill has been, how much fun they're having, and how much they love and respect their new coach.
That's the kind of person and coach Blash is, he gets players to buy in so much that they'll do anything for him and their teammates. We saw it in Grand Rapids and we're already seeing it in Detroit, and especially coming from the veterans, that's huge. Henrik Zetterberg said in Training Camp that the mix of work and fun was "new to them" and that it's a breath of fresh air for the players, coming from the Captain, and a consummate professional like Hank, that's a huge stamp of approval.
Blashill was an assistant coach in Detroit for a season, so I think that eliminates a lot of the typical challenges. He's coached every player on the team already expect Mike Green and Brad Richards, and he's worked with all the coaching staff, Ken Holland, and the the front office staff as well. Everyone knows each other already, and while the role is a little different now, I don't think it's possible to have much more of a smooth transition.
If there's one thing I think may be difficult for Blashill in Detroit, it will be him wanting to bring up some of the kids from Grand Rapids who belong in the NHL, and Ken Holland staunchly refusing to call them up until they're 50 years old, or out of waiver exemption. This is the area I forsee Blashill and Holland butting heads on the most, and I don't see Holland giving an inch.
PPP: Have the veterans bought into Babcock's coaching yet? What difficulties do you forsee for the new regime?
Gunnar: The veterans have been called out by Babcock this week but I think their poor performance is more likely to be because of some combination of lack of familiarity with the style he wants them to play and "it's preseason" than those players not buying in. I think the biggest difficulty this season (on the ice, at least) will be their lack of high-end talent up front.
Even with Kessel last year, the Leafs were still in the bottom third of the league by goals scored and it's only going to get worse this season. The good depth additions and the big upgrade behind the bench make me hopeful that the team will at least be watchable this season, if a little boring. Off the ice, the front office is going to have to try and trade as many bad contracts as possible, something that's always a difficult task.