Since making Mike Babcock the highest paid coach in NHL history, I’ve repeatedly been asked what lies in store for our boys in blue and white.
A coach is only as good as the players he’s given. A good coach can massage egos, spread ice time and maintain harmony amongst a talented group of players, but a great coach extracts the little extra a player was unaware he had to give. Babcock exhibits both these characteristics.
Mike Babcock’s role with the Leafs will obviously be his biggest challenge to date with the team in need of a major overhaul. But what the hockey world will be watching from afar is how he sets the foundation for the future of the Maple Leaf hockey club. Besides having the players “buy-in,” the criteria to represent the Maple Leafs will be very clear; from the player’s level of compete, to how they carry themselves off the ice. There can be no tolerance because he gets one chance to set the standard that can always be eased but never risen.
Brendan Shanahan’s role will be to steer the ship as planned, regardless of short term successes or failures. If per chance the team is hovering around five-hundred come late December and Joffrey Lupul is having an exceptional year to date as an example, a team short on scoring makes a pitch, for the talented but oft-injured left-winger. The correct answer is, he moves the player and accumulates assets in the form of young players or draft picks, no matter what the immediate impact has on the team. Sound simple? Well trying blocking out the fans and media who now think the Leafs have a playoff shot, so let’s be buyers, not sellers, so why are you trading our best scorer?
Mark Hunter may have the toughest job of the three because he’ll be leading the mandate selecting the picks, scouring the Junior and college rinks around the world. To build a strong contending team, it has to be done through the draft; period. A Stanley Cup winner is built from goal out and must consist of an all-star goaltender, defenseman and center. You can not trade for these players. The ideal situation is building your system up with a number of prospects and hoping a few work out.
In light of the wonderful season the Toronto Blue Jays are having, I would be remiss by not offering some insights for the Leafs to follow. When Alex Anthopoulos took control of baseball operations Oct 3, 2009, the first order of business was to revamp the entire scouting system. It didn’t take long because the jays had 3 professional scouts on the payroll. The mandate was quite simple, strengthen the scouting system and cover the baseball playing countries, counties and cities including high school, college and minor pros. Accumulate draft picks, hunt down waiver wire assets and seldom used players. Young players while skilled but maybe tough to handle, became Anthopoulos specialties. Before setting foot in the locker room the said player was subject to a ‘one on one’ with the boss for the “talk.”
The talk consisted of what was expected of the player to wear a Blue Jay uniform. The past is the past and now you have a chance, live up to our standards, you will enjoy success, you don’t? You will be released and we will find a player who will. Accountability.
The recent trades that has the baseball world humming and the Jays World Series contenders can solely be attributed to the brilliance of Anthopoulos. The significance of the moves is lost in the star power of the names involved because if Alex doesn’t position himself the way he did, those trades for central figures David Price and Troy Tulowitski, never occur. The reason the Jays were in a position to make those trades was the accumulation of assets the last number of years and stocking the minor system with solid prospects. They gave away 11 prospects to make those key acquisitions but because they have depth at every major league position, that allowed the team to take a chance. If they don’t win the World Series, they still have enough depth in the system to be contenders next year and years to follow and continue to replenish the minors with assets.
The Leafs appear to be using the Blue Jay model by stock piling bottom six players, giving them a chance to play and come trade time, moved for draft picks. Last year moving Santorelli, Winnik and Franson at the trade deadline allowed just that.
The process will be slow and the roller coaster ride of emotions will be unbearable at times, but the end reward will be worth the effort. Babcock is surrounded by smart people and bringing Jacques Lemaire on board gives Mike another voice of reason to lean on. Lou Lamoriello will play that role and much more for Shanahan also guiding the direction of the plan as laid out even when things seem they can’t get any worse. And they will.
There are no guarantees in life and sports is no exception, however the one common denominator between the athlete and the fan is an old cliché, “gives us a chance to win every night.”
In summary all we can ask from the Leafs are smart decisions, patience and luck, hopeful that the end result will mirror that of our other team a few blocks away from the ACC.