Coach Mike Babcock in Columbus Blue Jackets locker room

Mike Babcock, one of the most accomplished coaches in hockey history, is taking over the Columbus Blue Jackets this season in his first NHL job since the Toronto Maple Leafs fired him Nov. 20, 2019. visited him at his home in suburban Detroit to talk about why he decided to coach in Columbus, how he plans to communicate better with players this time, and what he thinks of the Blue Jackets.

This is the third story in a three-part series. (Part 1 | Part 2)

BRIGHTON, Mich. -- When Mike Babcock looks at the Columbus Blue Jackets, the coach doesn't see the team that finished 31st in the NHL last season and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row.

He sees young players like defenseman Adam Boqvist and forwards Kent Johnson and Kirill Marchenko. He sees difference-makers like defenseman Zach Werenski and forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine. He sees a leader in forward Boone Jenner, the captain.

And he sees a team that improved in the offseason by selecting forward Adam Fantilli with the No. 3 pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and trading for veteran defensemen Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson.

"They have, in my opinion, lots of kids," Babcock says, "and they have lots of things that I think you can fix quickly."

How does Babcock plan to fix the Blue Jackets?

He decided against studying last season after he took the job July 1. Injuries were a big reason the Blue Jackets didn't play up to their potential. Better to have fresh eyes and give the players a fresh start in training camp.

"It was going to be no good to anybody," he says. "Why would I catch them doing it wrong? Let's catch them doing it right. We're going to camp, we're going to get to know each other, and we're going to work."

The Blue Jackets have been doing R&D to prepare for camp, except Babcock doesn't call it "research and development." He calls it "rob and do."

"Take the best from the best teams," he says. "What are they doing? What leads to winning? Take it. Make it your own."

Babcock is realistic. He knows the Blue Jackets can't, say, mimic the Edmonton Oilers power play that set an NHL record by clicking at 32.4 percent last season. They don't have forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

That said, they have studied the top four teams in each category tracked by the analytics firm Sportlogiq, and they've studied the final four teams in the playoffs.

"I've gone to our analytics people, and I've said, 'What's the No. 1 indicator of being in the playoffs?'" Babcock says. "They tell me. I look at it. That's our No. 1 priority for our team."

Of course, that's classified.

"You can guess anything you want," Babcock says with a smile, "but I ain't telling ya."

But Babcock will tell you this:

"Our ability to play with structure is going to be real important for us, so the way we backcheck, the way we stop on defense, the way we compete there," he says. "But we've got to be way heavier in the offensive zone. We've got to spend way more time in the offensive zone. And so, I have a plan in every area, obviously. I've spent a lot of time."

The players sound primed to buy in.

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Babcock ranks 12th in regular-season wins (700) and eighth in Stanley Cup Playoff wins (90) in NHL history. He has won the Stanley Cup (2008 with the Detroit Red Wings) and been to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final twice (2003 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and 2009 with the Red Wings).

He coached the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2015-16 until he was fired 23 games into the 2019-20 season. His first season, they finished last in the NHL, but had pieces in place and selected center Auston Matthews No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft. By 2017-18, they had 49 wins and 105 points, team records at the time.

He also has won the IIHF World Junior Championship (1997), the IIHF World Championship (2004) and the Olympics twice (2010 and 2014) with Canada, and he has won the World Cup of Hockey (2016) with Team Canada too.

"You know his pedigree and what he has done in this league and through a number of years of coaching," Jenner says. "He brings that experience to us. He's obviously very intense and knows exactly how he wants to play, how he wants us to play and what we're going to get out of each guy, so very exciting for us players."

Werenski grew up in the Detroit area watching Babcock win with players like defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

"He was a big reason for their success," Werenski says. "Just excited to get it going and see what he's all about. I think he's going to get this team moving in the right direction quickly, and I'm excited for that."

* * * * *

Let's start with defense and goaltending.

The Blue Jackets ranked 31st in goals against per game (4.01) and 30th in 5-on-5 shot-attempts percentage (44.9) last season, and tied for 30th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.901). They were 25th in penalty-kill percentage (75.1).

But, again, injuries were a big reason, and now they're healthy and have added Provorov and Severson. Babcock wants to add structure and more puck possession, and he wants goaltending coach Niklas Backstrom in each meeting for defensive-zone coverage and the penalty kill.

That should help goalie Elvis Merzlikins, who went 7-18-2 with a 4.23 goals-against average and an .876 save percentage last season.

"Suddenly, he's a way better goalie because he knows where [the shots are] coming from," Babcock says. "Then the other thing that happens to him is confidence.

"Confidence and mental health, they're not the same thing. But once your confidence is shaken, how are you feeling? So now, how do you get your confidence back? It's interesting. When you look at the teams that play with good structure in their own zone, how come their goalie's save percentage is where it's at?"

The Boston Bruins, who set NHL records for wins (65) and points (135) last season, led the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage (.939). Linus Ullmark won the Vezina Trophy, voted as the NHL's best goalie, after going 40-6-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .938 save percentage.

The Vegas Golden Knights, who won the Stanley Cup, had a 5-on-5 save percentage of .940 in the playoffs. Adin Hill, their third- or fourth-string goalie at the time, depending on how you look at it, played 16 games (14 starts) and went 11-4 with a 2.17 GAA and a .932 save percentage.

"Know where the shots are coming from," Babcock says. "There's a reason guys go someplace and suddenly they're a way better goalie. That's just the way it is. I think that in itself gives us all hope."

Having Werenski back does too. The 26-year-old played 13 games last season before having shoulder surgery. He has trained hard with the goal of being among the best defensemen in the NHL.

"You can't be one of the best guys if your engine doesn't allow you to," Babcock says. "You can have all the skill in the world, but your engine's got to allow you to. He's put in the work to have the engine ready to go. And so, to me, he now has to be a driver, a leader. … He's at that age too. It's time, and he knows it."

Columbus Blue Jackets 2023-2024 Season Preview

The Blue Jackets ranked 30th in goals per game (2.60) and 26th in power play percentage (18.3) last season.

But they have weapons, starting with Gaudreau, who shocked the hockey world by signing with Columbus as a free agent before last season, and led the Blue Jackets with 74 points (21 goals, 53 assists). He had 115 points (40 goals, 75 assists) with the Calgary Flames in 2021-22 playing for a structured coach in Darryl Sutter. Not bad for 5-foot-9, 165 pounds.

"He's freak of nature at that size to be as good as he's been, and he's competitive on the ice," Babcock says. "He knows how to play. He's a one-man entry machine on the power play. He can flat-out find you. And he wants to be good. He's not going to have any trouble."

Laine had 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists) in 55 games last season. His NHL career high is 70 points (44 goals, 26 assists) in 82 games with the Winnipeg Jets in 2017-18, his second season in the League. A big question entering camp is whether Laine will move to center from the wing, but it might be moot.

Babcock says he wants two 200-foot players on each line. Ideally, he'd like a right- and a left-handed face-off guy on each line.

When he coached Canada in the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey, he had eight centers on four lines, because they were the best players. When he coached the Red Wings, Datsyuk wanted to play with a center like Zetterberg or Valtteri Filppula so they could create offensively and be responsible defensively.

Laine was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and is a right-handed shot. Fantilli shoots left.

"It would be really good for me -- really good for me -- if Laine and Fantilli could play together," Babcock says. "That would be really good for me. Two, big talented guys, high picks that can push each other. Right-, left-hand shots.

"I don't know if that's going to work. I have no idea. But the idea is that. And because we have so many guys who have played in the middle … Great. I love it. I want two on every line, so it works out perfect. It's an easy, easy thing."

How Babcock handles Fantilli is going to be fascinating. Matthews won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2016-17 with 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) in 82 games, and Babcock helped develop him into a two-way player by showing him video of centers like Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

Babcock coached center Patrice Bergeron on four gold-medal teams (2004, 2010, 2014 and 2016). Bergeron set an NHL record by winning the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward six times with the Bruins before he announced his retirement July 25. Fantilli told Babcock that Bergeron is his favorite player.

"That was a home run for me, because if you're thinking like that, you like the things he did," Babcock says. "[Bergeron is] as good a two-way player as there ever was. So guess what I got? Bergeron clips coming out the wazoo. Why wouldn't you?"

It won't necessarily be easy, though. Fantilli led NCAA men's hockey with 65 points (30 goals, 35 assists) in 36 games as a freshman at the University of Michigan last season and won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player, but he didn't have to face McDavid or Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon or Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby.

"You've had the puck your whole career," Babcock says. "Why? You're better than everybody else. But now some nights they're putting this guy out against you called McDavid or MacKinnon or Crosby, and you know what they're going do to you? They're not going to let you have the puck. They're just going to take it personal. They'll show you who's boss here."

From Michigan to NHL: Adam Fantilli's Draft Journey

How will Babcock start off with Fantilli?

"I'm going to put him on a line, and I'm going to watch him," Babcock says. "I'm going to watch him in training camp, and I'm going to do everything I can to set him up for success. This kid is ultracompetitive -- like, ultracompetitive -- so I don't have any concerns about that part at all.

"Now, some nights in the National Hockey League, you get your lunch fed to you, even when you're a good player. But if you're fortunate to have confidence, just breathe. You come back the next day."

Babcock brings up Steve Yzerman, who played his final NHL season for Babcock with the Red Wings in 2005-06 and worked with him as an executive with the Red Wings from 2006-09 and as the general manger of Canada in 2010 and 2014.

"He'd say to me, 'All you got to do in this game is get ready for one shift. Take a deep breath, go for one shift, come back, take a drink of water, take a deep breath. If you have one bad shift, you can stop it right now. Get it fixed,'" Babcock says. "Well, that's the process for this guy, is we've just got to keep helping him, keep helping him, keep helping him."

* * * * *

Werenski notices something when he sees Babcock at the rink.

"He's full of energy," Werenski says. "I think that goes a long way throughout a long season, in the cold months, when games might not be as exciting, when you still have half the season left. … I have appreciated that part so far, just the energy he comes to the rink with."

Babcock is full of energy even when relaxing at what he calls his "tiki bar" on the lake down the hill from his house, wearing flip-flips, shorts and a Blue Jackets hoodie. The 60-year-old who promised his wife he'd retire at 60 will talk hockey for hours when he could be doing anything else. 

He makes no promises or predictions. He gives no timelines for turning around the Blue Jackets. But he's back in the NHL, he has a new challenge and he's as fired up as always.

"We're going to be ultra-prepared, ultra-organized, and we are coming to work, so if it doesn't go our way on the scoreboard when we walk out of the rink each night, we're going to be proud," Babcock says. "And that's everybody, and it's going to be led by Werenski and Gaudreau and Laine, and they're going to do it right. We know Jenner's doing it right. The big boys are pulling, we've discussed that, and that's going to be our approach.

"And then we'll see what happens."