New staff, new goalie, but same winning Wings
It's a good thing Mike Babcock doesn't have commitment issues.
Having two former head coaches still in the mix, less financial freedom and a new league to contend with, it might not be the dynamic every new coach would want. But Babcock has embraced the situation as new coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
And while many prognosticators figured the Wings would be one of those formerly big-spending NHL teams to become a casualty of the new economic system, the team and Babcock haven't missed a beat.
The Wings are off to a 10-1 start and their 20 points topped the NHL heading into Saturday's clash with division rival Chicago.
Despite the loss of top defensive prospect Niklas Kronwall, who broke his leg during training camp, and without venerable captain Steve Yzerman, who has been limited to just two games with a groin injury, the Wings are the top defensive team in the NHL, having given up just 21 goals in 11 games. Their 47 goals also ranks tops in the league.
Just the winning remains.
"The face of our team hasn't changed, the nucleus is still the same," netminder Manny Legace said. "Yeah, we're two years older, but it's still the same talent."
The fact that many people believed this season would start to show the decline of the Red Wings as a perennial Cup contender has definitely been a motivator, said Legace, who has known his share of doubters since arriving in Detroit in 2000.
"That sort of lit a fire under some guys," Legace said.
Much of the credit for the team's early success goes to the coaching staff, the veteran goalie said.
"It's a tough team to coach because we have a lot of older players that are set in their ways," Legace said.
Yet the enthusiasm and attention to detail displayed by Babcock and assistants Paul MacLean and Todd McLellan has won over a team that hasn't advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons.
"They're probably the most well-prepared coaching staff I've ever seen," Legace said.
The team's rocket start to the current campaign came as Babcock was forging a strong relationship with the team's previous two coaches. Scotty Bowman retired from the bench following the team's last Cup win in 2002, but remains on staff as a consultant, and Dave Lewis, Bowman's longtime assistant who couldn't replicate the team's success during a two-year stint as head coach, remains with the team as a pro scout.
"Dave Lewis is such a great guy," Legace said. "It was a big gesture that he came up to training camp. He didn't complain. He wasn't bitter. He was the same old Dave. Just a total professional. It helped make the whole coaching staff feel comfortable."
Babcock has spoken at length with Lewis about the existing cast of players. And he's been helped immeasurably by the legendary Bowman, with whom Babcock speaks at least three times a week.
"We have lots of resources to try and get better," Babcock said. "It wasn't uncomfortable for me at all."
Babcock also has a level of familiarity with some of the Wings' younger players, like Jason Williams, Jiri Fischer and Jamie Rivers, having coached in Cincinnati, where the Mighty Ducks and Red Wings shared an AHL affiliate.
Perhaps Babcock's greatest asset has been his sense of what is expected of him in Detroit. In Anaheim, Babcock's mandate was to re-establish a young program that had fallen off the rails. He did so with a trip to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals.
In Detroit, he's trying to maintain a highly successful franchise that has won three championships between 1997 and 2002 and help nudge it back into Cup contention.
"They know how to do things," Babcock said. "They've won three more Cups than I have."
The challenge is in finding the balance between blowing up the existing framework and not doing enough to effect positive change.
"Obviously they wanted some things to change," Babcock said.
Former NHL coach and now widely respected analyst Pierre McGuire, a longtime friend of Babcock, said the passionate coach is just the tonic for a team that had sagged the past two playoff years.
"This team needed a little life injection," McGuire said. "It's a go-go league now, you need that."
As for Babcock stepping into the shadows cast by Bowman and Lewis, McGuire said he's not surprised it's been accomplished without a ripple.
"When he was in Anaheim, he wasn't afraid to ask questions. He wasn't afraid to learn," McGuire said. "I think it's been very, very smart keeping Dave Lewis in the mix."
In taking the Mighty Ducks to the 2003 finals, Babcock often described his hard-working, defense-first squad as "playing greasy," denoting a blue-collar work ethic that allowed them to beat teams with more talent.
Some wondered whether he would be able to adapt to moving from the hockey equivalent of a Volkswagen microbus to the NHL equivalent of a Ferrari.
The early answer, it would seem, is a resounding yes.
"All of us are trying to change and get better all the time," Babcock said of his evolution as a coach. "I still have the same philosophies. It's just that the execution is greater.
"We have real good players here and they know how to win."
The Wings aren't known as a speed team in the same way San Jose, Minnesota or Tampa Bay enjoy speed throughout their lineups. But smart and highly skilled from top to bottom, the Wings have turned the new open game to their advantage with a quick-strike offense and a kind of defense that has become Babcock's trademark.
Whether it's the new generation of Wings stars (Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk) or holdovers from the Cup years (Brendan Shanahan, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby) or relative unknowns like Mikael Samuelsson, whose six goals are second on the team, or Williams, who shares the team lead in scoring with 13 points, Babcock has his team playing with jump and discipline.
Goaltending, considered a soft spot in the Wings' armor, has been stellar with Legace playing in all 11 games, setting a club record and tying the NHL mark for wins in the month of October with 10.
The happy-go-lucky Legace, who has played in the shadows Chris Osgood, Hasek and Joseph, has posted a 1.79 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Only Florida's Roberto Luongo has seen as much action as Legace.
"Obviously, Manny's had the label 'good backup.' He'd like to have the label 'good starter,'" Babcock said.
He's getting that chance now.
"I've got to give the kid a lot of credit. He's played very well," the Wings coach said.
It's painfully early and there's a lifetime of hockey yet to be played. The Wings haven't faced the most arduous of schedules early on, having played St. Louis twice, Columbus twice, Anaheim, Phoenix and a struggling San Jose team. Thursday, the Wings began a three-game set with underachieving Chicago. The best team they've faced, Vancouver, is the only team to beat them.
"Obviously the measure of a coach and team in this town is at playoff time," Babcock said.
Come springtime, things might go a whole lot smoother with a couple of exes in the house.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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