It’s almost NHL awards season which could only mean one thing! For every award that is awarded, there are 30 fanbases who are simply aghast that a player on their favorite team was so unceremoniously passed over. Clear evidence that the league has a bias against them.
Along with the annual bit of trivia: “Did you know Mike Babcock has never won the Jack Adams Trophy?”
“Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches in the world” has long been accepted as a simple truism in hockey circles. He’s won it all. World Cup of Hockey, World Championships, Stanley Cups, Gold medals, and few other Canadian championships that no one else cares about.
But is he actually all that good?
Sounds crazy, right? But let’s take a deeper dive onto Babcock’s accomplishments.
Let’s start with the easy ones. He won Olympic gold with Canada. Sorry, am I meant to be impressed by that? Half the NHL is Canadian and any given season 2 of the top 4 players are always from the great white north. None of this is to say that it’s easy or automatic, but hardly becoming of the type of praise Babcock has had heaped upon him year after year. It’s not really praiseworthy, in my book, to be successful when John freaking Tavares is your 4th center. The same can be applied to his World Cup win in 2016.
But not everything is so stacked in Hockey Canada’s favor when they venture into international waters. Canada historically doesn’t send top notch talent to the World Championships every spring. Sometimes they do, others the team has a full line of AHL lifers. But if we examine the roster Babcock was employing, we see plenty of star power. Danny Briere, both of the Niedermayers, Dany Heatley, among other names. This was decisively more impressive than the rest of his international career, but perhaps still not quite as impressive as he’s made out to be.
“But Brian!” you exclaim, “how can you deny his NHL success!?” Worry not, dear reader. Babcock has similarly ridden stacked rosters to some success (but probably not as much as he should have had).
After joining the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002, Babcock guided the team to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, which was known for a slew of memorable moments. Brodeur dropping the stick, Scott Stevens effectively ending Paul Kariya’s career, and perhaps most of all, a player from the losing team taking home the Conn Smythe Award as the NHL’s playoff MVP. This has happened five times in NHL history, and not at all since 2003. How’s that old saying go? “Show me a good goalie, and I’ll show you a good coach?” The following season, the Ducks added Sergei Fedorov, but failed to qualify for the playoffs after a letdown year from J.S. Giguiere.
Following the NHL lockout of 2004-05, Babcock was hired by the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings who boasted a stellar roster including hall-of-fame defenseman Nick Lidstrom, winner of at least a half-dozen Norris Trophies.
In 2007, Babcock guided the Red Wings to the 2007 Conference Final where they were eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks, who looked nigh unbeatable again as J.S. Giguiere seemed to have reclaimed his form from 2003. The Ducks would ride Giguiere’s goaltending to a Stanley Cup under coach Randy Carlyle.
The Wings boasted Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Robert Lang, Dominik Hasek, and still were bested by Babcock’s old team now that the goalie was good again.
The following two year saw Detroit make consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final, winning once and losing in game 7 the next year. Detroit lost Lang and Bertuzzi, but added Rafalski and Brad Stuart.
Following 2009 (where Babcock’s Red Wings lost in game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins despite adding Marian Hossa in the off-season), Detroit under Babcock would keep a pattern of winning one playoff series before meekly exiting the post-season. This pattern held until 2012 when captain and generational defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom would announce his retirement.
The following year the Red Wings would sneak into the 7th playoff spot in the Western Conference by a single point and shock the favored Anaheim Ducks in seven games before being eliminated in a Game 7 overtime by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Mike Babcock has not won a playoff series since.
He lost in 5 games to Boston in 2014, dragged a series to 7 games in 2015 on the back of, you guessed it, stellar goaltending by Petr Mrazek, failed to qualify in 2016 with the clearly tanking Maple Leafs, and after two seasons with the top notch forwards, Mike Babcock has failed to win a playoff series.
I leave you with this: Mike Babcock has won a single playoff series in his entire career without either Nick Lidstrom or J.S. Giguiere. Maybe Babcock wasn’t the key to his teams’s success so much as he was a passenger, along for the ride with rosters carrying his fame, reputation, and most importantly ego all sky high. He’s been asked to build a team from scraps (and Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, etc.) into a championship contender for the first time in his career. He was unable to revitalize the Red Wings in the post-Lidstrom era, and he’s off to a rocky start in Toronto.