Tonight marks the first chapter in a story we're bound to hear a lot about in the coming months and years. Mike Babcock will be coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs when the puck drops in Detroit tonight.
It's no surprise that this will be a regular storyline to follow. Being employed for a very successful 10 years with a club warrants discussion in and of itself. Returning behind the bench of a longtime rival tends to shine a bigger spotlight on things.
The Leafs' coach isn't quite sure what to expect emotionally when he returns to Joe Louis Arena. He's focused on the task at hand for his club as they continue their pre-season process.
"I'll find out when I'll get there. There hasn't been anything like that. I had a lot when I was making my decision but there hasn't been anything like that," said Babcock. "The bottom line is you go there and they've got a coach, Jeff Blashill, they've got a good team and we're going in there to find out where we're at."
Babcock's first couple of weeks in Toronto have been heavy on teaching and trying to get the Leafs playing his brand of hockey. With a heavy focus on structure, speed and tenacity on the puck, there has been a definite learning curve for old and new faces alike.
After a first period that reflected the traits valued by the coach in Buffalo this past Tuesday, the Leafs came unglued during the second period, playing with a slower pace and turning over an unhealthy number of pucks. Sloppy play sealed an undesirable result against the Sabres. They'll look to get back to what works tonight in Detroit.
"We weren't very pleased with our second period the other night, we turned the puck over and took longer shifts — we're going to fix that for sure," said Babcock. "Then we'll go from there."
The adjustment from the systems of yesteryear have been noticeable in stretches of pre-season. At times the Leafs have played with a high tempo and pressure and challenged their exhibition opponents. At others, old habits have crept to the forefront. Minimal offensive zone time has made the team vulnerable through the neutral and defensive zones as a result.
With 15 days of work under their belt, the team is sure to see more tangible progress in the coming weeks.
Leafs defender Stéphane Robidas has played under a number of coaches during his career. He thinks that the Babcock style of play is a definite departure from what he has been exposed to. The system itself isn't a complicated one according to Robidas, but it requires an especially high work rate from all five skaters.
"I think it's a little bit different from what we've been used to. Everything has to go fast, it's a high speed game and you look at how Detroit played and how they had success over all those years. It's pretty remarkable," said Robidas. "It needs a lot of work from everyone. Even though you don't have the puck, you've got to be moving, you've got to be skating, you never stand still, you're always in movement."
"You've got to defend well and the bottom line is you've got to spend the least time in your own zone as possible. That's the key to the whole system."
Another early departure from years past has a more balanced four lines throughout the lineup. While recent Leafs teams have been broken into traditional top-six and bottom-six roles, early indications from training camp are the team will look to keep the lineup as balanced as possible throughout.
Leafs centreman Peter Holland — who is also getting the added responsibility of power play work in the exhibition season — has seen different sets of linemates from what he has been used to in the past. The chemistry building process is still in its infancy, but it has been a change nonetheless.
"It's still very early, especially in training camp and exhibition, guys get opportunities to play in different roles, maybe roles they're not accustomed to." said Holland. "You never know what's going to happen a month from now or two months from now or three months from now, we've just got to take it in stride and put your best foot forward, whoever you're playing with."
The Leafs and Red Wings drop the puck at 7:30 pm in Detroit.
Here is tonight's projected lineup...
21 van Riemsdyk - 43 Kadri - 26 Winnik
23 Matthias - 42 Bozak - 19 Lupul
47 Komarov - 24 Holland - 11 Hyman
18 Panik - 33 Arcobello - 71 Kapanen
3 Phaneuf - 12 Robidas
44 Rielly - 46 Polak
51 Gardiner - 52 Marincin