If there was anything to take from Mike Babcock’s introductory presser in Toronto on Thursday, it’s that the newly minted head coach really, really gets the challenge at hand.
“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” Babcock said, one day after agreeing to become the 30th head coach in team history. “I’m looking forward to the process, the battle, the pain, the fun and the journey.
“It’s gonna be a long one, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
Babcock, who yesterday stunned the hockey world by inking a mega eight-year, $50 million contract to join the Leafs after 10 seasons in Detroit, didn’t get into specifics about a pending rebuild (he deferred questions about Dion Phaneuf’s future, for example, saying he still needed to speak with players.) Babcock was, however, brutally honest and blunt about tough times ahead, suggesting things will get worse in Toronto before they get better.
“This is going to be a long process,” Babcock said. “This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”
Babcock then presented an interesting juxtaposition with regards to Toronto itself. He was effusive in his praise for the city and market — “I’m thrilled, excited and proud to be [here]”– but also acknowledged it’s been a difficult place for players.
At no time was this more evident than last season. Phil Kessel constantly feuded with the media, Nazem Kadri was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, players were ripped for an ill-fated decision to stop saluting fans, and Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul threatened to sue TSN after an unseemly tweet about them went to air.
So, how to solve such a toxic situation?
Victories, said Babcock.
“We need to create a safe environment for the players — right now, it’s a hard place,” he explained. “Winning creates a safe place for players.”
There doesn’t promise to be much winning in the immediate future, though. While Babcock was relatively mum on which players could or might be moved, the writing’s been on the wall since team president Brendan Shanahan and assistant GM Kyle Dubas conducted their rip-it-back-to-the-studs renovation of the front office and coaching staff in April. It was a clear indication of a wholesale remodel, which means players will eventually be on the move — Kessel and Phaneuf topping the list — and, in speaking with Sportsnet after the presser, Babcock did hint that part of the long-term plan included stockpiling draft picks, so that director of player personnel Mark Hunter could “go get some good players.”
It’s why Babcock was keen to sign a contract with lengthy term (heck, the Leafs were willing to go even longer than the eight years). He knows this isn’t a one- or two-year plan. For him to see it fully through, he needs to be in Toronto for the long haul.
“I never came here to make the playoffs, I came here for the Cup process,” Babcock said. “I don’t just want to get there.
“I want to win the Cup.”