Back in the day, it used to be difficult for Mike Babcock to find anything wrong with his Red Wings.
How could there be, when the other team never had the puck?
Babcock’s players would throw the Winged Wheel onto the ice on the blood red sweaters, play tic-tac-toe with the puck, bury a few pretty ones behind the enemy net minder and skate off the ice with another two points in their back pockets.
Not that Babcock didn’t try to find something amiss. He’d stand before reporters after another night of toying with the opponent, set his rock jaw and nitpick. Nobody was buying it. The Red Wings were elite, and the other teams didn’t beat them so much as the Red Wings beat themselves, which wasn’t very often.
Babcock doesn’t have to pretend these days. It’s not a tough sell when he puts on his concerned coach face and rattles off reasons why his team isn’t very good.
“We’re facing some adversity here,” he said the other day.
And this: “If I saw our team play from the outside, I’d say that we don’t have a coach. And that hurts my feelings.”
Now, Mike Babcock is not a guy whose feelings you want to hurt, if you’re one of his players. It’s like waking up a bear, mid-hibernation.
Babcock has never sugar coated things since he arrived as Red Wings coach in 2005. He wasn’t always easy to believe, when his team was having its way with everyone every night, but when the Red Wings have stumbled in recent years, “Babs” tells it like it is, complete with odors.
He won’t throw a player under the team bus, but he doesn’t have to. Babcock just won’t play him, or he’ll demote the offending player. And if he’s asked about it, he’ll tell you why, and it won’t be a spin job.
Scotty Bowman, when he was in Detroit, had a reputation for playing mind games with his players. Babcock cuts to the chase. He doesn’t do the passive/aggressive thing.
So here we are, the Red Wings on a four-game losing streak, and about to play four games out west.
“A west coast trip is exactly what we need,” Babcock said after the Red Wings let another one slip through their hockey gloves, 3-2 in overtime at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.
Babcock says the Red Wings are in search of an identity. He said that the four-game winning streak of a couple weeks back was “fool’s gold,” with the way they were playing.
Mostly, he said the team isn’t playing with the puck enough. And it’s surrendering far too many shots on goal.
“I look at the stat sheet and I see 40 shots against,” Babcock said after the Rangers game. “That’s way too many shots. Twenty-eight is too many.”
It’s not difficult to see why the coach is aghast. It used to take the other teams two games to get 40 shots on the Red Wings, and half of those would be fired from near the blue line. Remember when we fretted that the Red Wings goalie du jour would get rusty or bored during a game?
Now, it’s all Jimmy Howard can do to swat pucks away as if they’re being fired from a batting cage machine.
The Red Wings are still a talented group—they’ve been talented since Reagan was president—but the talent and skill isn’t so much that it separates the Red Wings from the rest of the NHL like it used to. You could drive a Mack truck through the gap between the Red Wings’ skill and their brethren’s. Now, you can barely slip a credit card in there.
So what do you do in hockey when you can’t just show up and grab two points? You work hard and you are hard to work against. Neither has happened too much in this young season, and that’s why Babcock’s jaw is set even firmer these days. That’s why the post-game comments are dripping more with disdain.
Babcock never did look happy behind the bench, even when the Red Wings were waltzing through their schedule. But back then, he looked concerned just to be polite to the other team.
Then again, what hockey coach does look happy, mad or sad? Bowman’s expression changed as much as Mona Lisa’s.
These are tough times for Babcock’s bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can’t be, due to injury—like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.
Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven’t been yet—Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.
Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.
And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn’t need to give us a hard sell on it.
“Right now, with the way we’re playing, we have no chance,” he said after the Rangers game.
No eye rolling from anyone this time.