Mike Babcock gets most of the attention but the Maple Leafs assistant coaches are a diverse group with decades of experience between them, and each individual is as driven to win as anyone.
And the players with whom they work are thrilled to have them on their side.
“Babs, he’s running the whole team, he does a lot here, so I think the assistant coaches are great at being that support,” Leafs forward Shawn Matthias said. “They come up and talk to you one-on-one more, if you’ve got a question, they’re always there to ask and help you out. They’re busy, and I don’t think people understand how busy they are:They’re constantly working, they do a lot for us, and they help in many ways.”
The Leafs’ primary assistant coaches – the men who are out on the bench during games and on the ice regularly during practice – are veteran Jim Hiller and first-year NHL assistant D.J. Smith. Hiller is the man in charge of Toronto’s power play and works mainly with Buds forwards, and Smith runs the Buds’ penalty kill and looks after the team’s defense corps. Both are former NHL players, but each has his own approach to day-to-day work: where Hiller is a laid-back man who tries to get to know each roster member as best he can, Smith is appreciated for his sense of humor.
“He’s a people person,” Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said of Smith, who coached the OHL’s Oshawa Generals to a Memorial Cup championship in 2014-15 before joining Babcock’s staff this summer. “He’s got a great personality, he likes keeping things light, and he really knows how to get a message across without coming down on you. He’s coached junior for a long time, so I think he’s good with the young guys and I think he’s done a really good job with us. I really like playing for him, and every day he comes in with a good attitude and tries to make his players better.”
“I really enjoy working with Jimmy,” winger Joffrey Lupul said of Hiller, who served as a head coach with Tri-City of the WHL prior to working as an assistant to Babcock in Detroit in the 2014-15 campaign. “He’s been the guy who’s run the power play, and I think our power play is working a lot more efficiently now. At the start of the year we had trouble scoring goals, but he’s given us some good direction.
“He’s a guy that’s certainly going to tell you when you did things right. Babs will be there more for the coaching and correcting mistakes. When you do things well, that’s when you hear from Jimmy. He’s been great at explaining how we want our power play to work, and he’s very approachable.”
Toronto has a slew of other important coaching figures, including goalie coach Steve Briere and assistant coach Andrew Brewer, who focuses on faceoffs and video analysis. And thus far, Babcock has been more than satisfied with what he’s seen from his staff.
“Jim Hiller has done a real nice job,” Babcock said. “He thinks about offense all the time, he’s always thinking about how we’re going to generate. I think he’s done a nice job with our power play. Our power play, even when we don’t score, looks dangerous most nights. I thought it was good early last night, and then I thought we got a little carried away and got away from it. D.J. Smith is running our penalty kill and our D and I think he’s done a real nice job with our D. Our penalty kill, I didn’t think it was good early, I thought it was really good, and then we got away from it, so we’re trying to get that back right now. But I thought it was excellent (Tuesday) night (against Tampa Bay) particularly in the 5-on-3, it gave us a chance.
“Steve Briere, he’s a worker, that guy. (goalie James) Reims is playing as good as he’s played. Obviously, (goalie Garret) Sparks has done a real nice job. (Brewer) is the coaching concierge. He looks after us and makes sure everything is done right. We try to provide a lot of information to the coaches so we can get the best stuff to the guys and not wear them out at the same time. Guys are doing a good job and working hard.”
While Toronto’s coaching staff isn’t in the spotlight the way Babcock and his players are, without them, the Leafs’ future wouldn’t be as promising as it is. Players know this full well, and they’re thankful to be able to draw on their experience and the insight they provide.
“You need all types of personalities to be a successful team, and I think with our coaching staff, we definitely have some unique personalities,” said Leafs forward Shawn Matthias. “You have Babs, who has lots of energy, very straightforward and a straight-shooter. Then you have D.J., who’s a pretty funny guy that brings a lot of life; and you’ve got Jimmy, who you can kind of go to for anything. He’s real laid-back and easy to talk to. But all of them are very knowledgeable about hockey and give very valuable advice.”