Detroit — Earlier in his career, before Mike Babcock left the Red Wings to coach the Maple Leafs, Nazem Kadri was dubbed a disappointment by many Leafs fans.
Kadri was highly touted in his minor and junior hockey careers before showing up in Toronto where the local NHL franchise has now gone 50 years without a Stanley Cup.
Much was expected, including that he would quickly emerge as a No. 1 center, a cornerstone around which a winner finally could be built.
Progress was haltingly, occasionally chaotic.
Three seasons ago, Kadri posted his only 20-goal season, with 20 in 78 games.
When Babcock arrived at the beginning of last season, Kadri was one of the first of the Maple Leafs he challenged, calling him almost immediately.
Babcock challenged Kadri to improve his work habits and become a model younger player could copy.
With his two goals Monday against the Flames, Kadri has 20 goals in 45 games, and he is playing what seemed utterly impossible for the 26-year-old in his first few seasons, a complete game, offensively and defensively.
He is not only one of Babcock’s guys, he is one of Babcock’s essential leaders.
In Babcock’s second season in Toronto, where he hopes to add a Stanley Cup with the franchise that represents the apex of Anglophone athletic achievement in Canada to a sterling, in some ways unparalleled resume, Babcock is doing what Babcock does.
Toronto was at Detroit on Wednesday.
Individual players are suddenly playing some of the best hockey of their careers for a demanding taskmaster who provides them with the enormous advantage of preparation in almost every possible way for every situation they are likely to see, against any opponent in any game.
Learning a new method
What is different in Toronto than in his decade with the Red Wings is that Babcock is doing it with mostly younger players.
In Detroit, he left with the reputation of having a clear preference for seniority.
But with a Leafs’ roster that averages 25.6 years old (the Red Wings, even with their influx of youth, average 28.1 years old), and 10 of 23 players on the roster 23 years old or younger, Babcock has proven himself as capable of adjustment as he is demanding on the details of the way he wants the game played.
And, as usual, for Babcock, who has maintained a residence in Metro Detroit while also living in Toronto, a good part of his intention proceeds from family.
It is not just adjusting to coaching younger guys, it is the life experience of a 53-year-old man.
“Well, I think since my kids got older and I saw what they went through in sport when they left my house, I think it changes you big time. I really do,” Babcock said, standing in the street level concourse of Joe Louis Arena, before the game Wednesday.
“Because, when they haven’t been talked to in eight weeks, they tell you. And so you go in and you talk to your players a little bit more
“You know, I think young guys in particular need more time than older guys,” he said. “Older guys, you talk to lots just about their family. These guys don’t have any family.
“They want to be talked to, and you want to have an understanding of what they need and how to help them. So, sure you’re different.”
What Kadri needed, in part, was some space to make changes. And when the Toronto media challenged Blashill on Kadri’s lagging performance earlier this season, Babcock knew how to help Kadri.
He dispatched the questioners with an advisory.
“See, I think he’s looking a lot better,” Babcock said. “His game is way more complete.”
In 15 games entering play Wednesday, Kadri had 10 goals and five assists.
He says he is achieving more consistently now because he is absorbing the Babcock method.
“It was just a learning process right off the bat, I think, trying to get familiar with what he wanted to do systematically and role-playing wise and who I was playing against,” Kadri said.
“That was a little bit different for me. Obviously, it was nice having that communication with your coach.
“But now, he kind of let’s me do my own thing.
“Obviously, once in a while we get a little tune-up,” Kadri said, with a knowing smile. “But that relationship has been great so far.”
'He’s going to help you'
The Babcock “tune-up.”
If you have not had one, you have not played for Babcock.
“Yeah, he’s and intense guy and he loves what he does,” said Mitch Marner, 19, a young Leafs’ center.
“He’s always going to help you.
“And when he needs to criticize you, he’s there for that, too.”
One of the Leafs showing considerable growth in what is likely to be his first full NHL season is the former Michigan standout, Zach Hyman.
“He expects a lot out of his players,” said Hyman, 24, a Toronto native who has seven goals and 14 assists and has played in all 46 Maple Leafs games this year, after appearing in his first 16 NHL games last season.
“I mean, you want to play hard for him. So, it’s a lot of fun, and he always has you prepared and you’re always ready to play.”
Matt Hunwick, a 31-year-old veteran defenseman from Warren, is, like many veterans over the years, impressed with the attention to detail and preparation Babcock and his assistants brings to the task.
“With the amount of preparation they put in and the amount of film they watch, there’s really no stone unturned,” said Hunwich, who also played at Michigan.
“And, with his philosophy, he’s got a game plan every night and we’re expected to execute it to the fullest, and I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been so successful this year.”
Indeed, Babcock’s new club is a surprise of the season, just as his old club is. The Maple Leafs are surprisingly good, and the Red Wings are surprisingly bad.
But the coach with a bird-of-prey scowl looking out from under a full helmet of auburn hair from behind the Toronto bench has an upbeat take on his former organization.
“You know, it’s interesting,” Babcock said. “They’ve been so good for long, but when you look at all their young players and how good they are, I mean they’ve done a heck of a job here.”
And he credited his old managing partner, GM Ken Holland, saying he is the singular reason for the 25-year run of consecutive playoff berths in Detroit.
“Ken Holland does it right each and every day,” he said.
As for the current success of his players, Babcock’s recipe was simple, precise and delivered with a staccato rhythm.
“Taking care of the puck, stopping on the right spots and getting good goaltending. When you add it all together it gives us a better chance.”
And so does their coach.