We associate Mike Babcock with big games. He has coached Canada to two Olympic gold medals. He guided them to a World Cup title before this season. He frequents the biggest stages in hockey.
But in a conversation we had this past July, he revealed that he was really starting to miss the learning opportunities that come as a coach when you coach in the biggest games of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“You get to know the great players in the game when you coach the great teams,” Babcock said.
From the outside at the time, he looked just about as far from those big NHL games as you could possibly be. The Toronto Maple Leafs had just grabbed Auston Matthews with the No. 1 overall pick, a reward for finishing at the bottom of the standings. An offseason power ranking had them last going into the 2016-17 season.
“We’re dead last,” he said. “I love it.”
It was almost like he knew something the rest of us didn’t about his team, about the kid center on the way to join him in Toronto. He exudes confidence anyway, like telling everyone in Washington that he’d see them again in Game 7, but his quiet optimism about the season ahead wasn’t shared too frequently outside of Toronto.
He said he wanted to make a long run in the playoffs, get current again with the greatest players in the game on the NHL’s biggest stage.
How long did he think he needed before his Leafs would be ready to go on an extended playoff run?
“Two more years,” he said.
Two years for the team that finished dead last in the league?
“Yeah,” he said.
Even in the world of Babcock’s relentless optimism, that seemed pretty ambitious. Not anymore.