Babcock getting hang of things

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

DETROIT -- It's not just the fans who aren't sure what to expect from the National Hockey League this season. Coaches are in the same boat.

They have some ideas and some expectations. And each one hints that he has noticed something that may have escaped the attention of others -- which he's keeping quiet, of course.

But in Detroit, Mike Babcock has an added burden. As the new coach of the Detroit Red Wings, he not only has to adjust to an unfamiliar situation, he also has to adjust to an unfamiliar position -- players he doesn't know in a city he doesn't know in a franchise he doesn't know.

He had thought, for instance, that Sunday would be an ideal time to give his players a rest day after a rigorous week of training camp in Traverse City, Mich.

But the people at Little Caesar's Pizza, who also happen to be the people who own the Red Wings, had a different idea. They thought a promotional intrasquad game at the State Fairgrounds would be a better idea. Guess what the Wings did on Sunday?

As far as the season itself is concerned, Babcock admits to being as much in the dark as everyone else.

"As much as we've all got these theories," he said, "we're all going to have to figure out these theories. I've got a few things in that neutral zone. We're going to see if I'm telling the players the truth or if I'm just pulling their legs here."

The rule change that seems to be doing the most to spur the coaches' creativity is the removal of the red line as a factor in offside calls. Babcock has been contemplating that one as well.

"I think the teams that think they're going to pass from here to way down there are going to end up with no speed," Babcock said. "I think the teams that come back and turn it quickly and get it going are going to have a lot of speed."

His belief is that some teams will drop back to prevent long passes. If you try to make those passes, the defender has a good chance to close in on the puck as it nears its target.

But if you carry the puck and build speed, you'll be in a position to fly past those defenders who will be virtually standing still and, under the new rule interpretations, won't be allowed to use the usual means of restraint.

"The other effect I've seen is on the line changes," Babcock said. "It makes the line changes unbelievable. You'd better change your lines properly coming off the bench or they can get you caught all night long. I've really seen that.

"The other thing I've seen that will have a huge impact is when your guys ice the puck when they're dead tired."

Under the new rules, the team that ices the puck cannot make a personnel change. "You think about that," Babcock said. "That's not a bad deal. You can have anybody you want out there against those tired dogs."

PUZZLE

But as Babcock tries to come to terms with the puzzle of the new-look NHL, he can take solace in the fact he has one weapon no one else has -- the input of Scott Bowman, still the most creative mind in hockey.

"That's really nice," Babcock said. "Scotty has been around a lot, and I've talked to Scotty a lot.

"The best reputation, the best record, the best coach in our game is here and is a consultant for us. All I've got to do is phone him and ask. He's unbelievable.

"He's always asking you questions. He'll say, 'Tampa was doing this. What do you think?'

"His brain is always going, and the best thing about him is he's not going to tell you what to do, but he's going to fire things out and see what you like. I've been so impressed with him, it's not even funny. I know as a coach in this league I've got to get a lot better -- and what better guy to help you out?"

There's a simple answer to that question. There isn't one.


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