What Mike Babcock can actually do for Maple Leafs (Trending Topics)

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FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2014, file photo, Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock watches the action against the New Jersey Devils in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit. The Toronto Maple Leafs have hired Mike Babcock as their new head coach, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
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You can be 100 percent sure of two things with Mike Babcock going to Toronto: 

1) The amount of money he's being paid literally doesn't matter at all to the club.

2) The Leafs' management did more due diligence from a statistical point of view than most other teams would have.

So with the first issue in mind, let's stop fretting about how much money he's being paid — even if $50 million over eight seasons is, indeed, a lot — because they gave David Clarkson almost as much, and Babcock doesn't count against the cap.

But if you're paying your coach that much money, it doesn't matter how big your Scrooge McDuck vault is: He needs to produce.

And the Leafs have indeed had a production problem for a good long while now. The last time they were a positive possession team for the entirety of a season it was 2009-10. (And a fat lot of good that did them because they finished with 74 points that year, their second-worst total since 1998, eclipsed only by this past season's disaster.) 

Now, with Brendan Shanahan in charge, there seems to be a lot less ambling around trying to get better by doing... well, something or other, and a lot more going directly to the point. Randy Carlyle, gone. Dave Nonis, not long after. Carlyle was replaced by the biggest free agent coaching move in league history, and Nonis's replacement will be installed soon. The decisions both make on a daily basis will be buttressed by a newfound vision of maximizing assets through shrewd management and close examination of statistical data.

In short, the Maple Leafs are making good decisions these days, and seem ready to do that for a long time to come. But the question is simple: Was Babcock worth the investment. Not in terms of the money, because again, it doesn't matter too much to them whether it was $6.25 million or $10 million, but in terms of what he's going to do to help the team improve.

Of course, the perception is that Babcock is an amazing coach who is great at his job and all he does is win. In reality, the former is at least partly true, while the latter is very much not, at least lately. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests Babcock is good at getting All-Star teams to win titles. The 2008 Red Wings were, effectively, an All-Star team, with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and more getting major minutes down the stretch. He's also won two straight Olympic golds for Canada, plus a World Championship and World Juniors. Again, All-Star teams.

And so the question is what kind of impact a coach has on a team. His career .627 winning percentage in the regular season is a good indicator that the impact is overwhelmingly positive. His two trips out of the first round in the playoffs over the last six seasons not so much. But wins and losses are obviously not the best way to judge a team or coach, and so we have to look at what his systems do for the teams he coaches. Fortunately, his entire coaching career falls between 2002-03 and present, which we can refer to as the War On Ice era, since that site has possession numbers going back that far.

And using that data, we begin to see a picture of Babcock's coaching prowess emerge:


Clearly, Babcock spends a lot of his time well north of 50 percent, and his cumulative possession advantage is massive. For all 12 seasons as an NHL coach — and these numbers include playoff games as well — teams coached by Babcock carry a 54.6 percent possession advantage over nearly 1,100 games, with a corsi plus-minus of more than plus-7,100. These are, to say the least, obscene numbers.

But if you look at both of those little squiggly lines, you'll see an interesting pattern: A huge jump from what he did in Anaheim (before the green line) versus his performance in Detroit. Obviously, he took over an excellent Red Wing team after the 2004-05 season was eradicated by owner greed, and they soared under him. Full seasons in the 58 percent corsi area are unheard of before or since. 

But as time went on, Babcock's possession success in Detroit started hugging the break-even line a little more closely, which makes one wonder just how much of a positive impact he actually has in and of himself.

Let's first examine Anaheim, where Babcock began his NHL head coaching career.


As you can see, the Ducks immediately improved when Babcock left town, but it's not because they found a better coach. They, in fact, found a worse one in Randy Carlyle, but they also gave Carlyle a few toys that were a lot more fun to play with.

In his final year, Babcock coached a 34-year-old Sergei Fedorov as his best forward, and Ruslan Salei played nearly 24 minutes a night on the back end. No one is succeeding under those circumstances. Then the Ducks went out and got both Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin, and hey, they started winning a little more.

The year after that, they acquired Chris Pronger.

And that's why the numbers spike for the team's cumulative numbers around the middle of that chart. Pronger in particular carried that team to insane heights in possession even as they were sabotaged by other issues (Carlyle's coaching probably chief among them) every year following the Cup win.

Which brings us to Babcock's 10-season tenure with Detroit. Upon departing Anaheim, he stepped right into an unbelievable situation. Where he went from a top line of Fedorov centering Vinny Prospal and Petr Sykora, and a top pairing of Salei and Niclas Havelid — albeit with JS Giguere in net — he began his career with the Wings looking at a starting lineup  (in terms of TOI) of: Henrik Zetterberg - Pavel Datsyuk - Kris Draper, with Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider behind them, and Manny Legace in goal (because nobody's perfect). You certainly take that upgrade.

As you might imagine, this wasn't necessarily a team that needed the help figuring out how to hold onto the puck, but Babcock's numbers tell the story:


These are numbers which are basically impossible to argue with. Apart from a few rough stretches, the Red Wings were an elite possession team among elite possession teams for a period of more than a few years. It was remarkable. Look at all the games they spent north of 60 percent during that time, and then consider that the best teams in the league these days usually do about 55 percent, to the tune of one or two teams making it that high each season.

But again: All-Star teams. Lidstrom was joined by Brian Rafalski on the back end and formed a lethal tandem that basically had the puck from the time they stepped on the ice until they went off for a change. These were the prime years for Zetterberg and Datsyuk, two of the best two-way forwards of the past two decades and guaranteed Hall of Famers, as well. With guys that good at both ends of the ice on the roster, it's easy to look like a coaching genius.

And indeed, much of this was centered around just how good Lidstrom — the second-best defenseman to ever put on a pair of skates — really was at influencing the game. Not only did he drive possession, but he also played loads of minutes in every situation. Lidstrom averaged more than 26 minutes a night from the time Babcock took over until 2010, when he turned 40. After that, he played about 23:30 of near-elite hockey per game, because he was old and broken down, you see.

And so when viewed in that context, much the same way as Pronger made Carlyle look like a genius, you have to figure the same was true of Lidstrom and Babcock. And yup, here's a graph about it:

This is pretty convincing as to just how much Lidstrom's brilliance helped to build the Babcock legacy. If nothing else, he should get a cut of this big deal in Toronto. That's not to say he's anything like a bad coach, but he is perhaps not as good as The Idea Of Mike Babcock would have everyone believe.

(So too does Giguere and Co. PDOing their way to a Cup final, but that's beside the point.)

In all, the numbers break down like this:

Again, this doesn't mean this was a bad hire; far from it. The Leafs are lucky to be pulling Babcock aboard, even if his immediate presence isn't going to sort out any of the many things that are still currently wrong with this team. But this is a challenge unlike anything Babcock has really seen in his career, and it would have been just as difficult for anyone else, if not more so.

If nothing else, he's a proven developer of young talent, of which the Leafs have tons both on the NHL roster and in the pipeline. Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander, etc. will almost certainly all benefit from his teachings at the absolute very least. He might even be able to milk better performances out of guys like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, if they're still around come October. 

Babcock got paid what the market would bear, and he made sure the market bore every cent it could for him. Now it's up to him to prove that he can be worthy of the deal he signed. And for the first time in more than a decade, he's without any kind of superstar safety net.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.