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

42 Comments

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.

Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski

Getty
1 Comment

Last summer, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter stressed that some of the club’s young prospects needed to make an impact at the NHL level.

And now it’s happening.

Following the recalls and NHL debuts of Adrian Kempe and Paul LaDue, the Kings have brought up Jonny Brodzinski from AHL Ontario, the club announced on Thursday.

Brodzinski, 23, made the AHL All-Star team this year and leads the Reign in goals, with 25 through 56 games. The former St. Could State sniper left school early two years ago to join the Kings organization, after L.A. took him in the fifth round of the ’13 draft.

As mentioned above, this recall is in lockstep with what’s developed throughout the year. Kempe, 20, was the club’s first-round pick (29th overall) in ’14 and has fared well since joining the big club, with six points in 16 games.

LaDue, 24, was a sixth-round pick in ’12 that — like Kempe and Brodzinski — fared well in the American League before getting recalled in February. LaDue has appeared in 15 games for the Kings, scoring five points while averaging 16:25 TOI per night.

Los Angeles is still technically in the playoff race, but sits eight points back of Nashville for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference — with just 10 games to play. As such, the focus might now shift to giving some youngsters NHL experience.

Brodzinski will have to wait for his, however. Per LA Kings Insider, it doesn’t look like he’ll play tonight, when the Kings host the Jets at Staples.

 

 

Polak gets two games for boarding Bjorkstrand

3 Comments

Roman Polak‘s hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand has drawn more than the ire of Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella.

Today, the NHL announced that Polak, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been suspended two games for boarding Bjorkstrand Wednesday in Columbus.

In making the ruling, the league’s Department of Player Safety determined that Polak sent Bjorkstrand “violently” into the boards from behind, causing an injury. The DoPS also noted that the hit was avoidable, with the onus on Polak to “ensure that he avoids this hit entirely, or at the very least, minimizes the force of the impact.”

You can watch the full ruling below:

Wild prospect Kunin leaves Wisconsin, turns pro

Getty
1 Comment

Minnesota is getting one of its prized youngsters in the mix.

Luke Kunin, the club’s first-round pick (15th overall) at last year’s draft, is leaving the University of Wisconsin following his sophomore campaign, per the Star-Tribune. Kunin will reportedly join Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Iowa on an amateur tryout.

Kunin, 19, is coming off a pretty successful campaign. He was the first soph to captain the Badgers in over 40 years, and led the team in goals (22) and points (38). That came after he captained the U.S. to gold at the world juniors, scoring four points in seven games.

Per TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Kunin will play out this year in the minors, and his entry-level deal will kick in next season. That means he won’t be with the Wild at all this year — regular season or playoffs.

As mentioned, Kunin is just one of the many talented prospects Minnesota has in the fold. Russian Kirill Kaprizov, Sweden’s Joel Eriksson-Ek and Kunin’s U.S. junior teammate, Jordan Greenway, all showed extremely well at the worlds.

Hurricanes sign Finnish prospect Kuokkanen

Getty
Leave a comment

The Carolina Hurricanes have another talented, young Finn under contract.

The ‘Canes announced this morning that they’ve signed forward Janne Kuokkanen to a three-year, entry-level contract.

Kuokkanen was drafted in the second round, 43rd overall, in 2016. The 18-year-old is currently with the OHL’s London Knights. He finished the regular season with 26 goals and 36 assists in 60 games.

“Janne was outstanding in our rookie tournament in Traverse City in September, and stayed in North America to continue his development in the Ontario Hockey League,” said ‘Canes GM Ron Francis in a release. “He’s a smart, skilled forward and we look forward to the start of his professional career.”

The ‘Canes already have two Finnish forwards in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Aho and Kuokkanen were teammates in the Karpat (Liiga) development system in Finland.