It is clear now that Mike Babcock, the most famous and infamous retread on the NHL coaching market, will be the next man to stand behind the Blue Jackets’ bench. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen wants a disciplinarian, and in Babcock he has found a man who does not fear being feared. Old school!
There is much talk about Babcock, 60, being a winner, and it is true that he has won many, many, many things, mostly when he was in his 40s.
Babcock has won 700 NHL games and owns one of the highest winning percentages in league history. He has won one Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, one World Junior Championship, one World Championship and one World Cup of Hockey title. He has been blessed.
Babcock made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003 with a goalie who played out of his mind for the then-Mighty Ducks. Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a 15-6 playoff record with a .945 save percentage and a 1.62 goals-against average, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Babcock won in Detroit with some all-time great Red Wings – Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen, not to mention Chris Chelios and Marian Hossa. To name a few.
Babcock won internationally with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Corey Perry, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Drew Doughty, Patrice Bergeron, Alex Pietrangelo, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, not to mention Rick Nash. To name a few.
Babcock won a World Cup of Hockey with a Brad Marchand-Crosby-Bergeron line combining for 25 points in six games, and with Carey Price lounging in net.
Some might say that anyone can win with these teams – all in all, one of the greatest collections of stars and/or future Hall-of-Famers that any hockey coach has ever been blessed with – but Babcock and his curriculum vitae should be acknowledged.
Certainly, he knows how to train a thoroughbred for a stretch run. The problem here is the Blue Jackets are not of such grand stock, not yet, and in terms of their race for the Cup, they’re barely out of the starting gate. They’re not a Babcock team. No Lidstrom.
Babcock hasn’t made it out of the first round since 2013. He has neither the reputation of a builder nor the cache of an up-and-coming hotshot. And he hasn’t coached since November 2019, when the Maple Leafs decided he was not the man to complete their rebuild. In 44 months since, he hasn’t been highly sought, despite being a man who “wins wherever he goes.”
He has become radioactive because some harrowing stories of verbal and mental abuse against players have come to light.
Is this the right guy to oversee the next stage of the Columbus rebuild?
Kekalainen and John Davidson crave discipline; it’s their default mode. They went to it when they hired John Tortorella in 2015, and it worked. Jackets fans will also recall that something similar worked when Ken Hitchcock was hired, under a previous administration, in 2006. Torts and Hitch are the two best coaches in franchise history.
Discipline, or lack thereof, is why the Jackets’ brain trust fired Brad Larsen. It is why they’re turning to another no-nonsense guy. Management is convinced that Babcock is a victim of the Toronto media and that he deserves a chance to whip another locker room into shape. But how do the fans feel about this? Just as importantly, how do the players feel about it?
Tortorella, Hitchcock and Babcock have all worn out multiple locker rooms. The difference is Tortorella and Hitchcock were never accused of verbal and/or mental abuse on a Babcock scale. They did not leave a trail of ex-players who used the phrase “hate that guy” with the gusto and alacrity of many of Babcock’s ex-charges. And they possessed, behind their bombast, caches of humility and self-awareness that are not readily apparent in Babcock.
To my knowledge, no players called Tortorella or Hitchcock a “bully.”
The Jackets are being rebuilt on the stardom of Johnny Gaudreau and Zach Werenski, to name two; and the promise of Kent Johnson, David Jiricek and the No. 3 overall pick in the upcoming draft, to name a few. Maybe Babcock is exactly the right guy for this job. Maybe he comes in, batteries recharged, with a new sense of personal responsibility and an impetus to put a proper epilogue on his career. Maybe he finds professional redemption in Columbus and wins like it’s 2009.
Yet in this, the third decade of the 21st century, the prospect of Babcock isn’t exactly inspirational. Put it this way: The last pro coach to be hired in this town, Wilfried Nancy of the Crew, is 46 years old, worldly and intelligent, progressive in his thinking, mystical in his love for soccer, innate in his ability to teach and motivate, and inclusive to all who wish to participate in his process – especially his players.
In a modern sense, he is duly diligent.