Sportsnet did an intermission interview with Maple Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock at the Memorial Cup this past weekend. Babcock is there as part of his spring tour of hockey watching. He went to Cologne, Paris, and Nashville, and now he’s in Windsor.
Sportsnet wanted to talk CHL and junior hockey, of course, but they started out asking about coaches at that level and how a successful Memorial Cup helps a coach get noticed.
Babcock immediately turned the conversation first to his own assistants.
I know my guys are going to get opportunities to move on and do other things, at least you’re hoping they’re going to get those opportunities, so you’re always looking for the next guy.
What I’m always looking for is a serial winner: a guy who, it doesn’t matter where he goes, it doesn’t matter who he coaches, he finds away to make them better and make them win. A guy who does that you’re going to hire.
The name that was brought up was D.J. Smith, former assistant and head coach in the OHL for Windsor and Oshawa. He became Babcock’s assistant in Toronto in 2015-2016, and after two years, it’s not going to be a surprise if other teams start looking at him as someone they might want in a head coaching role.
One rung down in the Leafs organization is Sheldon Keefe. The Toronto Star did an interview with him before the Marlies were eliminated, and he wasn’t too keen on talking off-season plans yet.
Is the coach of the Toronto Marlies ready for the NHL?
“I try to think about that as little as possible,” said Keefe. “I have my own career, certainly. That’s off-season type stuff for me, to think about what’s coming, or where I’m going, or how I’m developing. I try to keep my head down and work. It’s all about the players and our team.”
The Star article goes on to propose this idea about how coaches move up a level:
It’s only a matter of time before Keefe’s and Groulx’s names come up in the rumour mill for NHL coaching opportunities. It’s not that they need more time to build an AHL resume; it’s more about creating the connections that play a large part in coach movement.
Neither have a great deal of experience — read rapport — with executives outside their parent club. But if Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas, for example, should leave for another NHL team, Keefe could become a coaching candidate with that club because of their connection going back to their days together with the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds.
The old boys’ club. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s not have you been seen to be good, it’s have you got the right connections.
Which way is the NHL run? Is it the serial winner who gets hired, no matter who he knows, because in today’s world, teams can scout coaches as easily as they scout players. Or is the league a club of friends and former teammates who hire each other and try to keep the good old days alive?
Maybe it depends on which team is doing the hiring.
The Leafs are always looking for the next guy, and they will be prepared when any of their recent hires (most of whom are right out of the OHL) move on.
Developing players is what Babcock spends a lot of time doing lately, and he has opinions on how you decide when to promote a player up a level and why you don’t need to be in such a hurry.
What’s the matter with being the best player and having the puck all the time and getting better and being confident? That to me is what makes sense. We’re in such a hurry to rush these kids. They’re not ready. They’re not strong enough and they’re not mature enough.
Arrive when you’re ready; be good right away.
There’s so many players on the Leafs and in the system this applies to. Adam Brooks has been lighting up the WHL as an overage junior, which many fans feared was some sort of roadblock to his career. Kasperi Kapanen played nearly a full year in the AHL developing his game. William Nylander is taking the long road to the centre position instead of spending his first full year in the NHL failing all the time.
The alternative, the thing that happens when you aren’t Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner and you aren’t ready when you’ve been put in the lineup, is a good reminder on what does ruin careers:
When you get to the National Hockey League and you don’t score for a few years, you check for the rest of your career.
How close did Leon Draisaitl come to that fate? The Oilers sent him back to junior at the last possible second after his 2 goals in 37 games debut season where they were trying to solve their centre depth problem with a teenager. What if they had kept him? How miserable would that year have been for him?
One of the players whose development is Babcock’s concern is Jeremy Bracco. Babcock described him as one of the few players who is faster with the puck than without. But he cautions that Bracco has to get stronger and that Toronto has a lot of talent up front already. “It’s going to be tough for everybody.”
No one is getting a red carpet stroll to the Leafs’ top nine this fall. On the other hand, that means no one needs to be rushed onto the ice and set up to fail either.