"Could you double-check the envelope?"
That was Martin Scorsese in 2007, winning the Academy Award for best director in honor of “The Departed,” which was a film worthy of its accolades if not quite in the pantheon where “Taxi Driver”, “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” reside. But the Academy saw it as a justifiable rationale for bestowing a de facto lifetime achievement Oscar on a legend that was bafflingly overlooked in previous awards seasons.
Maybe they thought with Scorsese’s incredible casts and screenplays, the movies directed themselves. The same thinking applies in sports, to coaches who have a blessing of riches. Like Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, for example: “He had Lidstrom! He had Zetterberg! He had Datsyuk! How can he be the coach of the year?!”
Well, this season, Zetterberg’s played 45 games. Datsyuk’s played 39. Lidstrom’s played one, and it doesn’t count in the standings. His goaltending has been inconsistent. His lineup has been ever-evolving.
Yet the Detroit Red Wings are in a playoff spot; and if they maintain it, Mike Babcock is finally going to get his “Scorsese moment.”
Mike Babcock will win the Jack Adams. And it’s going to be a blast to see the look on Patrick Roy’s face when he loses to a Red Wing.
It’s a criminally overdue honor, and not just because Babcock is considered the best coach in the League without the hardware to show for it. He’s had seasons that were worthy of the award, only to see it handed to another coach.
Leading the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to a 95-point season in 2002-03, their highest point total in franchise history and their first playoff appearance in four years? Jacques Lemaire won the Jack.
That 124-point season in 2005-06, the second-highest point total in franchise history? Lindy Ruff got the Jack.
That Presidents’ Trophy season in 2007-08? Bruce Boudreau got the Jack.
That 2010-11 season when they had 104 points and a division title? That was Dan Bylsma’s Jack.
Getting Detroit in the playoffs, post-Nicklas Lidstrom? Ken Hitchcock win the Jack.
In two of the last three times Babcock could have justifiably won the award, a coach hired in-season was given the Jack Adams. In Bylsma’s case, it was because the Penguins thrived without their top two offensive players (sound familiar?).
The coach of the year award has the most simplistic and transparent standards of any major award in the NHL. It’s context rather than accomplishment, exposition instead of X’s and O’s. It’s fitting that the NHL’s broadcast media handles the duties: They’re trained to see the big picture.
Jack Adams winners typically fall into a few distinct categories, or share a few distinct traits:
* The Guy Who Gets Hired In The Off-Season And Turns A Crappy Team Into A Really Great Team, Defying Our Expectations.
* The Guy Who Gets Hired In-Season And Turns What We Thought Would Be A Good Team That Started Crappy Into That Good Team We Thought It Would Be, Thus Reaffirming Our Analytical Prowess
* The Guy Who Coaches Through Incredible Adversity To Produce A Playoff Team
* The Guy Who Dramatically Improves Some Facet Of The Team By Doing Something Obvious That Voters Can Point To And Say, “SEE, LOOK, AWESOME COACH, RIGHT?”
The competition for the Jack Adams this season includes coaches that fit these categories.
Patrick Roy transformed a Colorado Avalanche team many had out of the playoffs into an early season juggernaut and sure-thing playoff contender. Jon Cooper coached the Tampa Bay Lightning into the playoffs without Steven Stamkos and with the Marty St. Louis drama unfolding. Dan Bylsma coached through massive injuries to his blue line and to Pascal Dupuis. Craig Berube resurrected the Philadelphia Flyers. Claude Julien and Ken Hitchcock orchestrate the two best defenses in the NHL with the Bruins and the Blues.
For the majority of the season, Roy appeared to be a lock for the Jack, with Cooper occupying the coveted “guy who coached team through injury hell” slot.
But Babcock’s candidacy is a perfect storm of Jack Adams criteria, and it might be enough to overcome Roy’s admittedly significant lead.
Again, Jack Adams voters are like your high school calculus teacher: They want to see the work.
The Red Wings’ injury situation reached absurd levels this season, and by that we mean Brendan Smith playing forward. Babcock used 33 skaters, with just 13 forwards and defensemen having played over 50 games. (The Avalanche, for comparison’s sake, have used 27 skaters with 18 having played over 50 games.)
I know Cooper deserves huge marks for keeping the Lightning in the playoffs without Stamkos. But again, timing is everything: Stamkos is back now while Babcock is still working with a patchwork lineup.
He lost his top three scorers, a top four defenseman and various other parts during the campaign. To have moved the puzzle pieces around to create a playoff picture this season is an accomplishment, and has earned Mike Babcock his notice. But so did …
The “24/7 Effect” is a very real thing. Dan Bylsma was seen as the smartest guy in the room after his season, in contrast with Bruce Boudreau. John Tortorella came off compassionate and likeable. And Babcock, standing next to that giant whiteboard in his office, was professorial and in control, even when the Red Wings couldn’t buy a victory. (We made Babs a “24/7” loser because his usual charm was lost in translation, not because he was made to look incompetent.)
HBO captured Babcock in moments that stood in contrast with the “auto pilot” assumptions about the Big Red Wings Machine. And if you think we’re overrating this aspect of Babcock’s candidacy, keep in mind TV people have the vote.
Ask Ryan Miller if the Olympics can have an effect on postseason awards voting.
Seriously, though: If Yzerman was the architect of that Canadian gold medal juggernaut, then Babcock was the lead foreman. His slow reprogramming of elite offensive talent into the ’95 Devils was masterful. (Then again, if voters aren’t willing to give him credit for winning with a blessing of riches in Detroit …)
The fact is that the Olympic break put the focus on Babcock and only Babcock. And then we returned from Sochi to see him doing some really heavy lifting …
OK, so the case for Babcock is clear. As it is for Patrick Roy. As it is for Jon Cooper. So why will Mike Babcock win?
Timing is everything.
Awards voting will commence shortly. The Red Wings are pushing for a playoff spot without their two best players. Babcock’s work in perpetuating Detroit’s playoff streak, in arguably its most challenge season on his watch, is getting notoriety.
In essence, the expectations for the Red Wings were readjusted. Many thought they were screwed after Zetterberg and Datsyuk went down. Instead, they’ve gone 7-4-2 since Sochi, with Datsyuk playing twice in that stretch.
Roy had this award in the bag earlier in the season. But that was before the Red Wings’ injuries. Before Sochi. Before the hockey world’s attention began shifting to Detroit. To put it in Oscar terms: Roy is a prestige film released in the summer, while Babcock’s a Christmas Day Oscar-bait debut.
Why hasn’t Mike Babcock won the Jack Adams? Because he never really fit the criteria.
He wasn’t hired mid-season. The expectations were always too high for his teams. The Red Wings were too polished to really bear the mark of his handiwork – it was always the personnel and not the coach. Babcock had the nerve to lead a first-place team rather than one that surged to the bubble. It looked too easy.
But not this year. This was a Red Wings team decimated by injuries. This was a Red Wings team that needed a late surge to get over the bubble. And should they make the postseason, this is a Red Wings team that owes the continuation of its playoff streak to 23 seasons to Mike Babcock.
“The Departed” was a good excuse to give Martin Scorsese an award he deserved for a film that fit their criteria. This Red Wings season might be the first time voters feel the same about Mike Babcock.
Topping Roy won’t be easy; but what has been for Babcock this season?