Conference finals coaches -- Mike Babcock
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: No wonder rumor-meisters have targeted Babcock as the man who would be coveted by any of the half dozen or so teams that are, or will be, looking for a coach before next season. All Babcock has done is win since making the jump from the AHL to the NHL in 2002-03. The Western Canadian native took an underwhelming Anaheim team to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, extending the eventual champion New Jersey Devils to a seventh game in the process.
"He just came across as a very strong, confident type of guy," Senators GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com this week. "I knew [when Murray was GM in Anaheim] he had great ambition. He's a driven guy."
After the lockout, when new GM Brian Burke and Babcock couldn't agree on whether the coach was the right man for Anaheim over the long haul, the Red Wings snapped Babcock up after the Dave Lewis experiment failed in Detroit following Scotty Bowman's retirement.
BIGGEST HURDLE: It didn't start all that well for Babcock in Detroit, as the Red Wings captured the Presidents' Trophy in 2005-06 only to get ousted in the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers. Babcock admitted in a conference call this week that he was ill-prepared for the playoff experience in Detroit.
"Without any question, I had no idea when I got to playoff time how things were going to be different [in Detroit]," Babcock said. "What I mean by that is, I've been in the playoffs in the NHL, but I didn't know the expectations of the past were going to haunt us. And I couldn't believe how we were paralyzed. I had no idea. I didn't understand that."
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED: It might seem simplistic, but Babcock has learned not only to coach his talent but also to trust it. GM Ken Holland said this week Babcock has learned to include his players in the decision-making process. "He understands his players care as much as he does," Holland said.
When he first arrived, Babcock understandably felt the need to impose himself on a veteran squad that had suffered a string of unhappy playoff experiences and had just seen a nice-guy coach fired. But if he's trusted his players more, they've also provided more of what Babcock has demanded -- more grit, harder to knock off the puck, more determined in retrieving loose pucks.
Last season, Babcock handled the enigmatic Dominik Hasek masterfully, and the Wings advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning the Cup in 2002. This season, Babcock again guided his talented Wings to the top of the regular-season standings. When the Red Wings stumbled in the first round, allowing the Nashville Predators to sneak in two wins in the middle of the series, Babcock moved decisively, yanking Hasek and replacing him with veteran Chris Osgood, who has won six straight starts heading into the series against Dallas.
Babcock has integrated new parts to the Wings' puzzle this season, most notably unleashing the scoring frenzy that is Johan Franzen and developing players like Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Niklas Kronwall into front-line players.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: So, is this a kinder, gentler Babcock? Not really, forward Henrik Zetterberg told reporters this week. "He's tough on us. You know, maybe when we're playing good, he knows that we can play good. But if we're playing bad, he really lets us know. It's been some tough skating this year in the practices when we've been playing bad. And, you know, the expectation's really high here. I think that's the way it's supposed to be. We got a good team and I think Babcock is a good fit for our club."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.