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Maple Leafs need Babcock the 'school teacher' before Babcock the winner

05/22/2015 01:07 EDT | Updated 05/22/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Mike Babcock's shiny accomplishments, his Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medals, made him a $50-million man. His teaching skills made him coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At some point over the next eight years, the Leafs hope to go deep in the playoffs and contend for a championship. Until then they'll set a foundation under Babcock, who calls himself a "school teacher."

Babcock's experience coaching junior and minor-league hockey and even the injury ravaged Detroit Red Wings of 2013-14 will be more useful to him in Toronto than recalling his greatest career triumphs. His task is taking over a team that finished 27th in the NHL and improving it.

"He has the ability to coach stars," team president Brendan Shanahan said Thursday. "But I've seen him also coach third- and fourth-liners and make them better.

"I've seen him coach guys that were playing in the East Coast League and suddenly they're very good NHL players. He has the ability to reach all people."

Babcock doesn't know yet which people he'll have to reach in Toronto with an off-season of roster decisions ahead for Shanahan, Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas and whomever — if anyone — is brought in from the outside. Babcock doesn't have personnel-control stipulations in his contract, but this kind of long-term commitment means he'll have some input.

He deferred comments on players he has only evaluated from afar, like star winger Phil Kessel. After the Red Wings discussed acquiring defenceman Dion Phaneuf at the trade deadline, Babcock has some knowledge of the Leafs' captain but will need more.

"I'm going to get to know Dion, and he's going to get to know me," Babcock said. "I'm a fan of Dion. I think he's a good kid, and I think he works hard and he tries hard."

And yet, one of the criticisms of Leafs players after their season fell apart was that it appeared they weren't trying hard. Players insisted they were, but the mid-season collapse tarnished the team's reputation.

Babcock doesn't anticipate that will happen on his watch.

"We're going to be men," the 52-year-old from Saskatoon said. "We're going to be straight up and honest. We're going to take responsibility for how hard we play. That does not mean it guarantees you success every night. But we're going to be responsible for what we do."

Babcock preached patience for the long-term rebuild in Toronto, yet he isn't a patient coach. He boasted of taking a Spokane Chiefs team that won 19 games to a Western Hockey League title the next season.

Babcock, who has never won the NHL's coach of the year award, had arguably his most impressive showing two seasons ago in Detroit, when the Red Wings overcame a barrage of key injuries to make the playoffs. Babcock can thank Gustav Nyquist and his scorching scoring pace for part of that, but he also put young players like Justin Abdelkader, Riley Sheahan and Darren Helm in positions to succeed.

Detroit was a perennial playoff team; the Leafs don't expect to be quite yet. Shanahan believes Babcock is the right coach to develop Toronto's young players through the rough times.

"It was more important for me that the Morgan Riellys of the world, the Nazem Kadris, the William Nylanders of the world, our whole organization from the Leafs to the Marlies to even the players that we have in Orlando, that they just start building the foundation with a good coach who is going to demand the right things," Shanahan said.

Babcock-coached teams rarely go into a game unprepared. Red Wings defenceman Brendan Smith recently praised Babcock's X's and O's, and last year at the Sochi Olympics Niklas Kronwall praised his motivational skills.

Babcock won't have Olympic-level talent in this job and knew that before he agreed to sign with the Leafs. His first goal is to "create an environment that's safe for players."

That he means getting the Leafs through the pain of losing that can colour a locker-room when things are going poorly. Assuring "there's pain coming," Babcock wants to be part of the long-term solution.

"As a coach, you are in the day-to-day winning business," Babcock said. "I have been in it a long time. On game day I will be short-sighted, for sure. But I have a big picture in mind."

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