Canada's head coach Babcock directs his team during their men's team ice hockey practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

In praise of Mike Babcock, who doesn’t want you to be confused

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SOCHI, Russia — “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”

And with that, Mike Babcock stood up and exited the press conference, once again the head coach of the Olympic champs.

Sure, it would’ve been cooler if he’d dropped the mic before leaving, but it was still a pretty great exit, so far as exits from press conferences go.

The only performance more impressive might have been the one his Team Canada gave here in Sochi. Six games. Six wins. The first team to go undefeated at the Olympics since the 1984 Soviets in Sarajevo.

And while Canada, with all that great offensive talent on its roster, only scored 17 times, it only allowed three. All. Tournament. Long.

On top of that, in the two games that mattered most, against the toughest competition, Canada didn’t surrender a single goal. It was a 1-0 win over the United States in Friday’s semifinals, and a 3-0 suffocation of Sweden in Sunday’s final.

Just don’t tell Babcock he played a “defensive” system. Because he doesn’t like that.

“When you talk about great defense, sometimes we get confused,” he said. “Great defense means you play defense fast and you have the puck all the time. We’re always on offense.

“Don’t get confused. We out-chanced these teams big time; we didn’t score. We were a great offensive team. That’s how we coached. That’s what we expected. That’s what we got. We didn’t ask guys to back up.”

Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman concurred.

“It wasn’t strictly playing defense,” he said. “We weren’t sitting in a shell. Part of our defense was being aggressive. Forechecking. Pressuring. Closing gaps. Not letting them get the red line, or get our blue line.”

You may recall a short time ago when Canada’s scoring ability was being called into question. Like after it only managed three goals versus minnow Norway. Or, after it escaped Finland with a 2-1 overtime win. Or, after another one-goal game versus Latvia in the quarterfinals, a 2-1 win that required a late tally from defenseman Shea Weber.

“No matter how hard people were on us that we weren’t scoring goals, we wanted to stick to our game and play hard defensively,” said Weber, crediting Babcock for maintaining the team’s belief in what it was doing.

“He just portrayed the message that it’s going to come. Defense wins championships. You’ve got to shut the other team’s top guys down and get timely scoring and you’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, forward Patrick Sharp praised Babcock for, not only a great game plan, but also infusing some timely good humor.

“He was one of the guys who was loose in the locker room, kept guys on their toes,” said Sharp.

Forward Jonathan Toews, who scored the game-winner versus Sweden, saw that too, and thought Babcock’s demeanor was an important contributor to the team’s success.

“I think that’s a big part of playing well is being loose and confident,” he said. “He wants that and I don’t think he ever overreacts to any situation. He’s always pretty calm on the bench. If you do something wrong, he lets you know right away, and he’s very detailed and to the point.”

Toews also lauded the coaching staff for getting buy-in from all the players, even the superstar offensive types who may have been prone to veering from the plan, if they weren’t convinced otherwise.

“As soon as we didn’t have possession (of the puck), we were working so hard to get it back,” he said. “We had some skilled, skilled forwards and d-men, but everyone was committed to playing a defensive game, and we created offense off it.”

Of course, according to forward Chris Kunitz, there wasn’t much choice but to obey the coaching staff’s rule. Not on a team as deep as Canada.

“They came here, gave you the information, expected you to understand it, and go on the ice and duplicate it,” he said. “And if you weren’t doing that, there was someone else going to be able to take your job.”

Now, let’s face it, Babcock had more great players to deploy than any coach at these Games, and he was more than willing to admit that.

“We had a good team,” he said, slightly understating the fact.

If Dan Bylsma and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov had the roster of Team Canada, maybe it would be one of them who made all the right moves, instead of all the wrong ones, apparently.

Still, coaching Canada has its own challenges. Gold as the only option. A cadre of stars, many of whom need to be used like role players, and need to accept that.

Two Olympics in a row now, Babcock has gotten the job done.

“It started in the summer when we went in there and we played ball hockey,” said Weber. “Everyone laughed at us. We went over systems.

“I think there might be a lot of teams that are going to try ball hockey now.”

PS – Phil Kessel won the scoring race.

Pre-game reading: NHLers sound off on poor ice conditions

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— Up top, Danny Briere recalls that famous line brawl between the Flyers and Penguins in the 2012 playoffs. The two Pennsylvania rivals meet again Saturday, outdoors at Heinz Field.

— It has not been a good year for NHL ice, and a number of players are starting to get fed up. For example, Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who said, “It’s been awful. I don’t know what it is. Even in our building this year. I thought it was really good [when we came] back for World Cup and right after that for the first little bit. But the last little bit, it’s been so bad. The puck’s all over the place.” Guess we know how he’ll be filling out his survey. (ESPN)

— The days leading up to the trade deadline can be pretty stressful for players who may get moved. And if they do get moved, the days after can be pretty tough, too. “I saw my daughters four days out of three months when I went to Pittsburgh,” said Hurricanes forward Lee Stempniak, who’s been dealt three straight years at the deadline. “When I was traded to Winnipeg, I didn’t see my daughters for the two months or more I was there because of the schedule.” (The News & Observer)

— On the 2017 NHL draft, which may not have the star power of the last two drafts, but will still have some pretty good players available. Especially centers. (USA Today)

— San Jose’s Brent Burns is trying to become only the second defenseman in NHL history to win a scoring title. With 64 points, Burns is only three points back of Connor McDavid for the league lead, with Sidney Crosby in the mix as well. Bobby Orr won the Art Ross Trophy twice, the last time in 1974-75 when he piled up 135 points in 80 games for the Boston Bruins.  (Canadian Press)

— Another Shark, Joe Thornton, is just two assists from 1,000 in the NHL. Only 12 players have accomplished that, with Wayne Gretzky’s 1,963 helpers leading the way. Joe Sakic’s 1,016 are the closest to Thornton’s 998. (The Mercury News)

Enjoy the games!

Bolts rule out Callahan indefinitely following second hip surgery

Ryan Callahan
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Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan, who’s only played 18 games this year while recovering from offseason hip surgery, has undergone a follow-up procedure and will be sidelined indefinitely.

The Bolts made the announcement on Wednesday, just hours after a big 4-1 win over Edmonton. Callahan wasn’t in the lineup to face the Oilers — he hasn’t played since early January, when he skated just under 15 minutes in a loss to Philly.

The nature of this ailment has to be concerning.

Callahan, who turns 32 next month, is in the third of a six-year, $34.8 million deal with a $5.8M average annual cap hit. And this lingering hip problem comes on the heels of a disappointing ’15-16 campaign, in which Callahan scored just 10 goals and 28 points — the lowest marks since his rookie campaign.

As such, Tampa Bay is now bracing for an immediate future without a huge part of its leadership group. Captain Steve Stamkos has resumed skating, but there’s no set date for his return from major knee surgery.

Callahan, who’s been an alternate captain in each of the last three seasons, won’t be playing anytime soon either.

 

Kadri ‘not worried’ after Chiarot predicts revenge for big hit (Video)

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Toronto forward Nazem Kadri drew the ire of Jets d-man Ben Chiarot on Tuesday night for a big — albeit questionable — hit in the Leafs’ OT win.

Chiarot was visibly displeased following the game and alluded to getting even.

“It’s not the right time or place to chase him down, but there will be a time down the line,” he said, per Sportsnet. “Might not be this year, might not be next year.

“But there will be a time where the shoe will be on the other foot.”

Today, Kadri responded.

“I’m not worried at all,” Kadri said, per TSN. “I’ll be here for hopefully a few years. But like I said, if that was one of my teammates getting hit like that, I probably wouldn’t be too happy, so I expect that kind of reaction.”

Kadri’s hit, which went unpenalized, drew the ire of Chiarot’s head coach as well. Jets bench boss Paul Maurice was also visibly displeased following the game.

“He’s six inches in the air when he makes contact,” Maurice said, per Sportsnet. “In my mind, from the rear view, the first thing that moves on Benny is the helmet. Didn’t like it.”

Kadri’s been involved in a few high-profile collisions this season. He pasted Sabres captain Brian Gionta in a game earlier this month, and avoided suspension for a controversial hit on Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin back in November.

Have the Blackhawks finally found their first-line LW?

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A three-point night for Nick Schmaltz, which included a nifty pass to Jonathan Toews for the game-winner, must have Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wondering how to approach the trade deadline.

The way the 20-year-old rookie has been playing, does Bowman really need to add a first-line left winger before next Wednesday?

It’s a valid question. Only a month ago, Bowman was reportedly sniffing around the likes of Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

But Schmaltz has since caught fire, with two goals and five assists in his last six games. The rookie from Wisconsin had one goal and two assists in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota.

“He’s been really good,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Tuesday] was the most we’ve ever seen him with the puck. I don’t know how many times he evaded coverage, and all of a sudden he loses the guy on him and a play develops. That play against the grain to [Toews] was spectacular.”

Toews, of course, has been through a whole host of linemates this season, and only in the last month has the captain really started to produce offensively. Richard Panik and Marian Hossa are two veteran options to skate on his right side, but the left side has been a running audition.

Schmaltz, a first-round draft pick in 2014, only got called back up to the NHL in mid-January.

One month later, Toews is liking the chemistry that’s developed between himself, Schmaltz and Panik.

“We’ve been given the chance to spend a few games together, get some consistency, get some feel and some confidence,” said Toews. “The biggest thing for the three of us is if we go through a game without scoring, we’re given a chance to go out in the next game and try and redeem ourselves and contribute offensively.

“It’s a lot of fun, because I think we’re feeling it. [Schmaltz and Panik] are playing so well at both ends of the rink. They’re playing with a ton of confidence with the puck.”

The ‘Hawks have two games left before the March 1 deadline. They host Arizona tomorrow and St. Louis Sunday.