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Babcock's goal to make Maple Leafs better every day

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Mike Babcock was asked a simple question: How much difference can a coach make on a hockey team?

"I have no idea," Babcock said. "What I would tell you is everywhere I have gone I have just tried to get better each and every day and be process-oriented, love the guys and try to make them as good a player as they possibly can be. I want to make the player accountable and make the organization proud of us. I like to be proud when I leave the rink."

Babcock signed an eight-year contract worth a reported $50 million to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 20. The belief is that in time he will bring a winning attitude and positive results.

He spent the previous 10 seasons coaching the Detroit Red Wings. They won the Stanley Cup in 2008, made the Cup Final in 2009, and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs all 10 seasons. Prior to his time in Detroit, Babcock coached the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003.

He also coached Canada to gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Babcock's challenges with the Maple Leafs are plenty. There isn't an abundance of offensive firepower and goaltending has been a concern the past few seasons.

The Maple Leafs were 24th in offense last season at 2.51 goals per game, and on July 1 traded last season's leading scorer, Phil Kessel, to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Their defense was tied for 27th, allowing an average of 3.13 goals per game.

That's the bad news. The good news is nobody on Toronto's management team is looking for a quick fix.

Babcock, 52, is the first to admit he has very high expectations for his players. He is a heavy-handed coach who prefers players that are skilled, disciplined and prepared. He also likes his team to play a puck-possession game.

"I say it all the time, nothing makes me more upset than lack of work ethic and lack of preparation," Babcock said. "We're going to look after those two areas and see where it takes us. I have been fortunate to coach lots of good players and have lots of good players. You never know going in what is going to happen. Let's see if we can maximize the group. We expect everybody to be the best they can be. I don't ask them to be anybody they're not; just be the best they can be."

When Babcock said upon being hired there was going to be pain moving forward, veteran left wing Daniel Winnik took that to mean the coach wants his players to play a specific style and will not excuse anyone who steps out of line.

"When you have a new coach and you are learning new systems, it's not always easy," Winnik said. "The pain aspects we haven't really experienced yet because Mike is talking about the regular season. We know it's going to be tough and a grind, but we'll see how the season progresses if what he said rings true."

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban played for Babcock at the 2014 Olympics. Although he did not play in all of Canada's games Subban has no axe to grind with Babcock. In fact, he admires the Maple Leafs' new coach.

"I had the pleasure the past few years of playing for two great coaches, Mike and [Montreal coach] Michel Therrien," Subban said. "The one thing about the two of them is they both have a tremendous amount of experience. I learned a lot from Mike. The one thing I appreciate about Mike is he always took the time to talk to me whenever he had the opportunity and it's always great when somebody like that speaks highly of you. He's so well-respected in the game of hockey. I respect him as a coach, but I respect him more as a person."

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