|Mike Babcock has led the Red Wings to three conesecutive 50-win seasons since taking over as coach three years ago. Babcock's Red Wings in action|
But, not a full one. That’s because unless the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup, the season is considered a disappointment.
“We're going for the Cup,” said Henrik Zetterberg, a Red Wing since the 2002-03 season. “The same as every year. If you don't go all the way, we will not be happy. That's the expectations that are in this town.”
So, despite the glittery regular seasons, what sticks with most fans is losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round in 2006, and to the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals last season.
With a second-straight trip to the Western Conference Finals this season, Babcock feels he and his team are more prepared to take the next step.
“We're in a better situation this year than we were last year,” Babcock said. “That doesn't guarantee success. How much will and how much determination we have and how relentless we are is going to determine how long we play.”
Babcock also said that he, also, has come a long way from the coach who moved to “Hockeytown” after spending his first two NHL seasons in Anaheim.
“I think the first year, without any question, I had no idea when I got to playoff time how things were going to be different,” he said of the 2006 postseason. “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.”
That 2005-06 team, despite putting up League-bests of 58 wins and 124 points, lost in the opening round to an eighth-seeded Edmonton team that finished 29 points behind it in the standings, and ended with the Red Wings dropping a pair of one-goal games in Games 5 and 6.
“We weren't, in our opinion, hard enough and we weren't quick enough,” Babcock said. “We weren't good enough. We had more points than any team I coached since, but we weren't anywhere near as good as the next two years' teams. I think it was a real eye-opener. …
“And so I thought through the next year and even this year we've made adjustments as a team. We're much younger, we're much quicker, we're much harder. That gives us a chance to play at this time of year.”
For Babcock, part of that hardness comes from forcing his star players to play both ends of the ice and in all situations. Because of that, Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg, the team’s leading scorers, also are Selke Trophy finalists.
“It's just one of those things we believe in here,” Babcock said. “Your best player has to be good. You can't be hiding him. I'm not interested in that. I want my best players on the ice. So partway through last year, I made a point of making sure ‘Z’ had the matchup some nights, then Pavel had the matchups some nights and (Kris) Draper did. We said they all had to be responsible. They all had to be able to kill penalties 5-on-3 and they all had to take big faceoffs. We just think that's the way to go.
“We're going to do the same with (Valtteri) Filppula. You have to be able to play against the best people. The same with ‘The Mule’ (Johan Franzen). That's our philosophy here. Scotty (Bowman) had that philosophy when he came here with (Steve) Yzerman. That will continue to be our philosophy. … If you're playing against (Dallas’ Mike) Ribeiro all night long and he's not worried about your ability to score, he doesn't have to play defense. When you play against these guys, he's got to worry about playing both sides of the puck.”
It’s not an easy adjustment for a star player to make, but accepting that role has been key in the team’s journey to a second-straight conference final.
“He's tough on us,” Zetterberg said. “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 practice when we've been playing bad. And the expectations are 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.”
What also helps Babcock is embracing a culture in Detroit that was created long before he arrived.
“I've learned a ton since I've been here,” he said. “I've learned from Steve Yzerman, from Brendan Shanahan, from Nicklas Lidstrom, from all the players. But I learned a ton from Scotty, (Senior VP) Jimmy (Devellano) and (GM) Kenny (Holland). I think when you're around really good players and when you're around winning and what's right, you grow as a coach. And I believe, in life, to have success, you have to embrace lifelong learning. You have to get better in our business. If you don't get better, I think someone's got your job.
“I think Scotty Bowman has been the best example of that in the NHL. So, if you don't grow, you don't work. To me, I think we've all changed together and we've all gotten better.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.