By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
There is no control freak like the head coach of any major sports team, "amateur" or professional.
That is why there is always great hilarity when the first statement from any U.S. college coach whose program is caught in any nefarious undertaking, such as slipping cash to officially unpaid athletes, is: "I had no idea anything untoward was happening."
At least Mike Babcock admits he suffers from the affliction. Control, that is. Slipping the players wads of cash - perfectly legal and absolutely required in the NHL's case - is the job of general manager Lou Lamoriello. The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach volunteered the information after Tuesday's practice when the subject of the team's five-day break came up.
Thanks to the NHL Players' Association, which landed the perk in the bargaining for the current collective agreement, every NHL team gets a five-day break during the 82-game season, separate from the all-star break. The Olympic break, at least for now, is out of the picture.
Once the Leafs are finished playing the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night, they are free from Babcock's scrutiny until 4 p.m. next Monday, the earliest time the coach can schedule a practice to prepare for Tuesday's game against the St. Louis Blues. The Sens also embark on a five-day hiatus after the game, although any number of wiseacres would say they have been on hiatus all season.
The standard answer from the players about their plans was flying somewhere warm as soon as possible after taking care of the Senators. Thanks to today's salaries, that could involve a limo from the dressing-room door to a private jet to maximize time in the sun.
Naturally, Babcock was asked what he would prefer his charges do with their time off. That's when he admitted he does not have much say, although he did get his fingerprints on their mini-vacations, in part.
"The first message we try to do is make sure everyone has their trip organized today [Tuesday]," Babcock said, "so that when the game is on tomorrow, you're focused on getting the points. We need the points.
"The second thing is, as a young coach, I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate. You and I both know that's not happening. You pick the battles you can."
None of the players mentioned a search for a rink among the tiki bars and beaches. A more popular topic was gaining some down time from the hectic cycle of practices and 82 NHL games.
"Of course," Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said when asked if he welcomed the pause, looking at his questioner as if he had just asked if Kadri liked beach volleyball. "Breaks are breaks."
So what do you plan to do? "Hopefully go away, enjoy some positive energy and end on a positive note," Kadri said. "Hopefully win [on Wednesday night] and catch some sun, because there hasn't been too much here in Toronto. You can really feel energized when your season comes back."
Babcock, of course, is not as convinced his players will be energized when they return from three or four days of lounging on the beach. Teams that get just two days off during the season, with one of them spent practising, can look rusty the next time out. So the players are being sent off with a list of instructions from the medical and training staff.
"We have a good sports science team, they have good information on how [the players] can help themselves and we go from there," Babcock said. "Any time you take time off, getting the motor running and get skating again is not as easy as you might think.
"The good thing about it is the teams you're playing coming off that break are teams that were doing the same thing you were."
While that is not true in every case, the league does try to match up teams coming off the break with others in the same situation. The Blues were off the clock after Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers, which gives them one more day of rest than the Leafs.
In the meantime, the Senators may be having a horrendous season after making the Eastern Conference final last spring, but they have yet to find any trouble with the Leafs. In their only meeting this season, the Sens dispatched the Leafs 6-3 back in October.
"It's a team that's given us a lot of trouble," Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. "They beat you going to the open area and they just kind of close in on you."
Getting careless, as the Leafs did in blowing Monday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the last four minutes of the third period, will be deadly, given the Senators' excellent transition game in their own end.
"We have to be careful turning pucks over," Matthews said. "They've got a lot of speed, a lot of skill and they jump in the rush as well. It's going to be a big thing for us in taking care of the puck."