When you're the highest-paid coach in the league by a pretty decent margin, you're expected to be noticeably good at your job. Mike Babcock, however, isn't a guy who strikes the impartial viewer as too demonstrable.
But there's no doubting that he gets the job done in a lot of ways.
The results for the Maple Leafs are of course not there. This is a rebuilding team with a lot of youth and not necessarily a lot of talent. Not enough to make a difference, anyway. Heading into Thursday night's games, Toronto sits in a technical tie for last in the league, with 67 points (the Leafs and Canucks three games in hand on Edmonton, so congrats to the Oilers on another rotten season).
But you have to say that hiring Babcock to take over from interim coach Peter Horachek, and Randy Carlyle before him, has created a fairly positive environment in which the Leafs can operate moving forward as they continue to stockpile picks and prospects. That's because a rebuild with Carlyle in charge was going to involve a lot of tire-spinning, while one under Babcock clearly moves things forward.
Just as a jumping-off point, the Leafs are now rocking a positive score-adjusted possession number (50.8 percent corsi-for) for the first time since 2009-10. Now, you can say that doesn't much matter when the team is this bad, and that's probably true to an extent, but the on-boarding of so many young players should indicate that there's positive momentum building. About half of all 43 players that have gotten into at least a game for Toronto this season — and holy crap, that's a lot of players — are under the age of 25. You'd have to think that a pretty good chunk of those players probably aren't particularly NHL-ready, but the team as a whole is keeping its head above water after years of being one of the worst possession teams in the league.
In a rebuild such as this, that's not nothing.
Possession is a repeatable talent in individual players, but coaching has a major impact on it even at this level. There's no question that the farther away you get from the sport's biggest stage, the more of an impact systems have on overall team performance, but NHL coaches can still bear fruit in this regard. If they're good enough. Or bad enough.
Carlyle was an indefensibly bad coach who had few to no answers for why his team got badly out-possessed every night. Certainly, he had no idea whatever of how to fix that problem. Meanwhile, there are some coaches who manage talented players well and put them in a position to succeed, but who struggle when that talent goes away. One can have no doubt that Todd McLellan is a good coach, as the Oilers have improved (marginally) under his watch. But what his club is churning out now is obviously not too favorable in comparison with what the high-flying Sharks did when he was behind the bench and had a loaded roster at every position.
As far as the measurable impact Babcock has had on the Leafs, then, there are a number of ways to examine it. Again, the team is now worse in terms of wins and losses than it ever was under Carlyle, which is bad (depending on your point of view). But in nearly all other ways, it's holding steady or even improving. This despite having incrementally shipped out a decent amount of high-end talent from the summer to the trade deadline.
You'll note that the Leafs are a little above 50 percent in terms of shot attempts and high-danger chances, but only about 48 percent in terms of shot suppression. All are major improvements over what they did under Carlyle both on the whole, and in literally any of the more than 130 segments of 76 games seen during that time. Of course, that all stands to reason: Babcock is an excellent coach and Carlyle a bumbling one at best.
But you'll notice that despite those net improvements, the team's goals-for number has taken a huge hit under Babcock. That requires closer examination. The Leafs have improved their process in terms of boosting shot attempts, high-danger chances, and even shots on goal, both for and against per 60. There's basically nothing to criticize there, so why have they seen their goal differential take such a hit?
They are allowing very slightly fewer goals at 5-on-5 on a per-60 basis (a drop of 0.2), but the drop in goals-for is double that number (from 2.3 per 60 over a 212-game period to just 1.9). The former is fairly straightforward, but the latter totally counterintuitive. If you're spending more time in the attacking zone, getting more shots, more high-danger chances, etc., you should be scoring more goals. The difference, though, is that while the Leafs are getting basically the exact same level of goaltending at 5-on-5 (.922, right around league average) their shooting percentage has taken a huge hit, falling to 6.5 percent from the previous 8.8 percent.
You can attribute that to bad luck, but the loss of talented scorers like Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk (out for half the year after missing just two games the previous three seasons) weighs heavily as well. Kessel is a career 10.1 percent shooter, with van Riemsdyk at 9 percent. Their loss is significantly going to be felt in attack, especially because they are shot-volume drivers in addition to high-percentage shooters.
Regarding bad luck this year as opposed to last, that was certainly true of a few guys.
There are 12 players who were on last year's Leafs team and this one, and scored a goal in both seasons. Half of them had their shooting percentages drop.
Nazem Kadri, for instance, has seen his fall by more than half, Peter Holland's has dropped from 11.8 percent to 3.9, Joffrey Lupul's is down a point and a half, Daniel Winnik's dropped almost six points, and so on. Other guys saw improvements in their numbers, but they tended to be lower-volume shooters. This issue has undoubtedly cost the Leafs plenty of goals this year, but not enough to move the needle back above 50 percent in and of itself. If you're blaming Roman Polak's sizable shooting percentage decline for your offensive struggles, then you have bigger problems.
This is something that will theoretically sort itself out as a) time goes on, and b) the Leafs continue to bring more talented players into their lineup. Your William Nylanders, for example. Nothing to be done about this year but one assumes that the Leafs are actually pretty happy to have dramatically improved the process and still not-gotten results. After all, the better the chance to get Auston Matthews, the more likely you are to have that shooting percentage rise through the sheer force of his talent, going forward.
Over a long enough time period, goals-for percentages follow those of shot attempts and so on. And if a Leafs team that is acknowledged to be this low-talent is carrying things out to this extent under Babcock, then when it gets more talented for an entire season, there's no reason to believe that won't happen. But the thing we've learned at this point is that talent drives possession and high-quality chances. As the Leafs continue to add that to the lineup, not only will goalscoring improve, but so too will the share of attempts, shots on goal, and so on Babcock's teams enjoy.
I don't see too many Nick Lidstroms, Henrik Zetterbergs, or Pavel Datsyuks on the Leafs roster. Those guys were the jet engine that brought Babcock's Detroit teams to such great heights. But Babcock remains the league's premier engineer, and we've seen he can get just about anything airborne. Adding some more high-quality parts should get them off the ground in earnest pretty quickly. And make no mistake, those parts are in transit already.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.