DETROIT – Respected hockey analyst Pierre McGuire calls him the most creative coach in the National Hockey League today.
Faced with unimaginable adversity, Mike Babcock had no other choice but to be imaginative behind the Red Wings’ bench during the 2013-14 season.
The 51-year-old Babcock managed to convince a young team decimated by injuries to dig deeper and find a way to keep the organization’s Stanley Cup playoff streak alive for a 23rd straight year.
“He was very clear in his message – obviously that the wins where important – but we were going to get in,” forward Gustav Nyquist said. “That was the message and as a team we didn’t care about all of the injuries that we had. We were going to find a way to get in, and that was the message that he was preaching the whole time.”
The message worked, and it wasn’t lost on the NHL broadcasters, either. The group announced Tuesday that Babcock is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, given annually by the broadcasters to the league’s top coach.
The nomination is the second of Babcock’s tenure in Detroit. He was a finalist in 2008 after coaching the Red Wings to a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season.
This year’s other finalists are Colorado’s Patrick Roy and Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper. Both coaches finished their first full seasons as NHL head coaches after getting their teams back to the playoffs this year.
The winner will be announced at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 24.
It’s fitting that Babcock’s nomination comes in the same year that he passed legendary Red Wings coach Jack Adams – for whom the coach of the year award is named – to take over the franchise’s all-time coaching wins title. In his ninth season in Detroit, Babcock has compiled a 415-198-91 record.
Babcock began to pick up wide-spread support for coach of the year following the Olympic break. He was often credited for doing a masterful job with a roster that he knew little about as Detroit continued to stockpile injured players. The Red Wings finished the regular season with 421 man games lost – which was 108 fewer than the Pittsburgh Penguins – though it was the quality of player Detroit lost that stung more.
There was a time when more than $37 million of the Wings’ salary cap was on the injury list instead of the ice, including Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard, who all missed long stretches of time
During two weeks in March the Wings were without the four centermen – Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Darren Helm and Joakim Andersson – that were originally penciled in to begin the NHL season. In their absence, Babcock deployed David Legwand, who was a trade deadline acquisition, in the role as the team’s No. 1 center, while Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Cory Emmerton filled in the other middle roles.
The Red Wings got plenty out of the young players, nine of whom made their NHL debuts in 2013-14, the franchise’s highest total since 14 rookies debuted in 1990-91.
Glendening was one of those rookies. An undrafted center, the Michigan native was a pleasant surprise, gaining Babcock’s trust as the coach challenged the gritty center by playing him against top-line players like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos in must-win games in the final month of the season.
Structure and preparedness are hallmarks of Babcock teams, and it was no different with a younger, more impressionable brunch that scored nearly half of the team’s goals in the final 24 games.
“When you come to the game you know you’re going to be prepared because he’s done all of the work along with all of his coaches,” Nyquist said. “They really took care of you for the game and made sure that you knew all of the tendencies of the other team. He’s a great teacher out there. With the young guys he’s had to do a little bit more. He’s done that for me and a lot of the other young guys by teaching us a little bit more individually and kind of explained what it was going to be like out there.
“One thing that he really preaches is for us to be everyday players, although everyone knows that you can’t play your best game every day but the effort has to be there. That’s how you learn to be a Red Wing, you have to be an everyday player, bring it every day.”
Nyquist excited Red Wings’ fans and showed tremendous growth, going on a hot streak after Babcock and the coaching staff persuaded the 24-year-old Swede to increase his offensive role.
“I credit a lot of my coaches, obviously starting in college and Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids taught me a lot,” said Nyquist, who scored a team-high 28 goals. “Babs taught me a lot and I think together they talked a lot together about what I need to work on. I think both coaches have been on me about some of the same things and up here they really want me shooting the puck more and I’ve tried to do that and had some success with it. So that’s been nice and I sure have learned a lot from being here.”
After leading Canada to an Olympic gold medal-win in Sochi, Babcock set his sights on getting the Red Wings back on track. In late February, they trailed Toronto by six points in the Atlantic Division standings, and the slightest hiccup of a losing streak could have been devastating to Detroit’s playoff hopes.
On March 18, the Wings defeated the Maple Leafs, setting off a 7-2-1 record that included four wins over playoff-bound teams, giving Detroit a three-point cushion over Columbus for the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We have a good group of kids, we have good veteran leadership, but our kids have played really well,” Babcock said. “They’ve come here and they’ve replaced people and they’ve earned jobs. It’s not like they’re going back to the minors, they’re not. They’re here, they took jobs and they’re going to keep jobs.”
Bobby Kromm, Jacques Demers (twice) and Scotty Bowman are former Red Wings’ coaches who received the Jack Adams Award after leading Detroit to first- or second-place divisional finishes.
The Red Wings finished fourth in the newly formed Atlantic Division this year, but Nyquist believes his coach should be honored for holding the team together in the face of adversity.
“If you look at our injuries, and just not the amount of guys that we lost, but who we lost, we were without either Hank or Pav or both for a lot of the time,” he said. “Not a lot of teams can say they were without their two best players for most of the year. I think the way that he and his coaching staff brought up new guys and taught the young guys on the fly how to be a Red Wing; I think he did an amazing job for sure.”
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