Mike Babcock
Babcock takes on biggest challenge yet
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Dan Di Sciullo - NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Although many folks experienced sticker shock when Mike Babcock's contract details leaked Wednesday afternoon, it's hardly surprising the coach ended up choosing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Babcock officially left the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday to sign the most lucrative coaching deal in NHL history, inking an eight-year deal reportedly worth $50 million.

The announcement ended a successful partnership with the Red Wings, who won a Stanley Cup title under Babcock in 2008 and nearly made it two straight before falling to Pittsburgh in seven games the following year. During his time in Detroit, Babcock also added to his reputation as a winner thanks to his work with Team Canada, which won the last two gold medals at the Winter Olympics.

Now, he'll be expected to get the same results in Toronto with a franchise that last won a championship in 1967 and hasn't even been back to the Cup Finals since then.

Between Babcock's championship pedigree and the record contract, the only way the coach can make his time with the Maple Leafs a success is by giving the city of Toronto its long overdue championship parade.

Theoretically, Babcock has eight seasons to pull off a task that seems impossible in light of Toronto's recent struggles at putting together a consistently competitive team. But the new coach will be expected to end the club's title drought at some point.

One obstacle facing any Maple Leafs head coach is dealing with the people who cover the team. The Toronto media glare is infamous and it has chewed up and spit up other coaches who haven't been able to get the struggling franchise back on track.

Babcock is an intense guy who demands respect. He isn't likely to cower because people are writing negative things about him, but he is from Ontario and can't be naive enough to think it won't happen. He may be better at dealing with the media pressure than some of his predecessors, but the only real way to turn it off is by winning a title.

As far as the money goes, of course Babcock is being accused of seeing dollar signs as the sole reason to join Toronto. But, according to reports, he could have received a similar haul from the Buffalo Sabres, who also courted the highly regarded coach. One would be foolish to think the money wasn't a big part of Babcock's decision to go to the Leafs, but it's not the whole story.

This also is a tremendous challenge and one which gives Babcock a chance at hockey immortality. If Babcock, a coach already on a Hall of Fame trajectory, succeeds in bringing a title to Toronto, he will be propelled into another stratosphere, legacy-wise.

"Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada's team, and we need to put Canada's team back on the map," Babcock said at his introductory press conference on Thursday.

While winning it all with the Leafs would make Babcock a certified coaching legend, the adverse risks aren't nearly as substantial. If his run in Toronto winds up being a flop, Babcock's legacy would take a hit, but my bet is people would use it as another example showing how the Leafs are a lost cause. After all, if Babcock can't change the culture in Toronto, can anyone?

Babcock isn't making any promises for next season and said the eight-season commitment is indicative of how many years it could take to make Toronto's title dreams a reality.

"This is going to be a long process," Babcock added. "This is going to be a massive, massive challenge."

The immediate future isn't bright for the Leafs, who held a fire sale at the trade deadline a few months back. They still have some talented veteran players like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Joffrey Lupul, but all of those guys could be on the block depending on how Babcock sees them fitting into his plan. Reports about Babcock's contract detail suggested he will have some say over personnel decisions, so the way he feels about certain players could be the difference between them staying in Toronto or getting shipped out of town.

Even if players like Kessel or Phaneuf thrive under Babcock, Toronto has tremendous depth issues which could take years to fix. The coach did not sugarcoat his feeling about the Maple Leafs as they are currently constructed and warned fans about the long, difficult road ahead.

"If you think there's no pain coming, there's pain coming," Babcock said. "I'm looking forward to the process, the battle, the pain, the fun and the journey."

Torontonians have grown accustomed to pain when it comes to their beloved team. However, if Babcock can't ease their suffering, then being a Leafs fan could hurt even more than usual.


So, it seems Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers' struggles containing the Tampa Bay offense were not over hyped.

The Lightning abused the Rangers in three regular-season meetings, scoring 15 goals in sweeping the series. However, before facing off in the ongoing Eastern Conference finals, the most recent encounter between the clubs was on Dec. 1, when Tampa notched a 6-3 win in New York City.

Game 1 of the East finals suggested the regular-season series was a mirage as Lundqvist was in fine form, stopping 23-of-24 shots to help New York earn a 2-1 victory. But, after getting shelled in the next two games, it may be time to worry.

Lundqvist has yielded six goals in each of the last two games and New York has fallen behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. Prior to the 6-2 loss in Game 2, the Rangers star goaltender hadn't yielded six goals since a setback to the New York Islanders way back on Oct. 14.

It would be completely unfair to lay the blame entirely at "The King's" feet considering how poor New York's defensive zone play has been against the high- powered Lightning. Still, Lundqvist, a guy who rarely gives up a bad goal, surrendered a brutal game-winner in Wednesday's 6-5 overtime loss.

Just 3:33 into the extra session, Nikita Kucherov, one-third of Tampa's dangerous line known better as "The Triplets," fluttered a seemingly innocuous shot at the goal and the puck somehow made its way into the net.

"For some reason, I couldn't pick it up," Lundqvist admitted. "It comes at me and looks like it's coming towards me, and then I'm just late reacting. I don't know why I didn't pick it up. It's a tough one, it really is. It's really challenging for me the way they move the puck."

For head coach Alain Vigneault, there is nothing that can be done. Sure, backup Cam Talbot played extremely well while Lundqvist was injured for over a month late in the regular season, but it would be unthinkable to start anybody other than Lundqvist. He is the backbone of the Rangers and the main reason the club is playing in the conference finals for the third time in four seasons.

Lundqvist has bounced back from rough stretches before and could very well do it again in this series. But if his resurgence doesn't begin Friday night in Game 4, the Rangers' chances of repeating as conference champions will be looking grim.