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Analysis: Babcock clear-cut choice for Team Canada

by Chris Stevenson /

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey might last a couple of weeks, but it will occupy the hearts and minds of Team Canada's fans for the better part of the next year.

Canadians will passionately debate who should be the seventh defenseman, down to whether he should be a left-handed or right-handed shot.

It's often said Canada could assemble two competitive teams for a best-on-best international tournament. The same goes for Canada's coaching staff.

Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong has a deep and talented pool of candidates who could guide Canada when it attempts to continue its run of excellence on the international stage, which includes gold at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, as well as the 2015 IIHF World Championship.

There are reports Team Canada could name its coach later this month.

Any discussion for that position has to start with Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He coached Canada to Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010 and in Sochi in 2014.

With that resume, if he wants the job, it should be his.

But the list of candidates behind Babcock is strong and offers great possibilities.

Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks has won the Stanley Cup three times in the past six seasons. Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins was on the staff in Sochi, as was Ken Hitchcock, who has also been part of Olympic victories in Salt Lake City and Vancouver.

Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars was with Canada for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers and Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings also belong in the conversation.

The first instinct might be to look behind the benches of the Stanley Cup champions for candidates, but a two-week tournament like the World Cup of Hockey is a much different beast than the two-month marathon that determines the Cup champion.

Organization and preparation are as important as decisions about tactics and strategy.

Babcock has shown the ability to bring together quickly a group of elite players and have them buy into and execute roles much different than those they fill on their NHL teams.

There were no standouts for Canada in Sochi. It was wave after wave of ruthless, relentless players bent on hounding the puck and suffocating opponents on the big ice.

Forwards Matt Duchene, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Marleau, each a front-line player on his NHL team, were out there as the third line.

Babcock gets the buy-in from the stars.

The question is whether Babcock is interested in coaching Canada at the World Cup after winning gold medals at two straight Olympics and just starting the rebuilding process with the Maple Leafs.

But he should be the choice if he wants the job.

It would be interesting to see Quenneville in the mix this time around.

The question is whether that many alpha males can co-exist in a stressful environment? One of Babcock's great strengths as a coach through the years has been his willingness to share knowledge.

Babcock had former New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire on his staff in Vancouver in 2010 partly because he idolized Lemaire and wanted to pick his brain. Lemaire is a special assignment coach with the Maple Leafs.

Babcock has the ability to do with his coaching staff what he can do with his players: get them to step back from the front row and embrace a role.

That's the reason Babcock has to be the man to lead Team Canada when the federation makes its decision on a leader for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

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