Mike Babcock, the Jack Adams and Young Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings appear likely to extend their professional sports best 23-season consecutive postseason appearance streak. During that period, the Red Wings have won four Stanley Cup championships, and have established themselves as one of the most well run organizations in professional North American sports.

Head coach Mike Babock has only been in Detroit for nine of those playoff appearances and for just one Stanley Cup. However, his achievements in the NHL’s salary cap era are arguably as great, if not greater, than some of the storied names that played a critical role in building the franchise’s formidable reputation in the 90s.

A major outcome from the lockout in 2004-05 was the introduction of a salary cap, the goal being to address the league’s competitive balance (as well as help small market teams to make some money). The evidence suggests that that effort has been successful. Of the 16 teams that made the postseason in 2013-14, only six have made the playoffs in five or more consecutive seasons. Three of those (Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh) endured extended runs of being mediocrity stocking up on high draft picks to build a new strong core. Only one other team, the San Jose Sharks, has reached the NHL playoffs in every season since the introduction of the cap.

Credit isn’t often given to it, but the salary cap has severely affected Detroit. This team has been built around a core of elite players most notably Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall for some time. However, the rosters constructed around those players have been carefully molded and their potential maximized by Babcock’s coaching. The likes of Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm have been developed the “Red Wing way”, which has become synonymous with the “Babcock way”.

Babcock has yet to win a Jack Adams award and has even come under fire at times during a five-year span in which Detroit has failed to advance past the second round in the playoffs. Of the coaches who have won the Jack Adams since 2006, only Claude Julien (2009 - Boston), Dave Tippett (2010 – Arizona), Ken Hitchcock (2012 – St Louis) and Patrick Roy (2014 – Colorado) are still in their current positions. Some credit should be attributed to the Red Wings’ organization and General Manager Ken Holland, but it’s also a vindication of Babcock’s abilities and longevity.

The lack of personal accolades won’t bother a man like Babcock and the team’s lack of postseason success since appearing in the 2008 and 2009 Finals (winning in 2008) will have frustrated him. The perception that just about anyone could coach the Red Wings into the playoffs is false. Babcock has excelled while navigating a challenging landscape.

Perhaps the 2014-15 season came along at just the right time. Injuries ravaged Detroit’s lineup in 2013-14 and they limped into the postseason missing key personnel. The Boston Bruins promptly dispatched them in five games to end their season. The difficulties of 13/14 combined with the age of leading forwards Zetterberg (34) and Datsyuk (36) led many writers and analysts to take the bold move of predicting an end to the Red Wings’ remarkable postseason run. Very few experts anticipated Detroit to be anything more than a borderline playoff team. In a league that loves the underdog, Babcock finally had the opportunity to play the “loveable” role.

For all of this roster’s perceived weaknesses, this is a team that Babcock has developed and it’s clear that he feels very comfortable coaching this group. The Red Wings have been on fire since the calendar turned to 2015 and are in legitimate contention to win the Atlantic division. Few teams have been more balanced this season. Detroit ranks seventh in the NHL in goals scored per game and fifth in fewest goals conceded per game. They have the top ranked power play clicking at an almost remarkable 25.5% and the ninth best penalty kill.

It has certainly helped that the team’s top players in Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall have mostly stayed healthy, but it’s not as if this team hasn’t faced adversity. Most recently the Red Wings have had to roll with third string goaltender Petr Mrazek with both Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson sidelined. They keep finding ways to win.

The secret to that success has been the development of the organization’s young players. In a league that has got used to prospects making an impact within two or three years of being drafted, Gustav Nyqvist and Tomas Tatar are rarities. They are now rarities that most teams in the NHL would dearly like to have.

After several seasons playing for the AHL’s Grand Rapids, Nyqvist, 25, and Tatar, 24, established themselves as full time NHL players last season. They were forced into top six roles by injuries last season. Both players excelled, but neither registered a point in the playoff series against Boston.

This season, playing on lines with Zetterberg and Datsyuk, there’s a clear maturity and well roundedness to their games that suggests that they won’t disappear in a playoff series again. The organization’s (and Babcock’s) belief in the duo has been rewarded.

Youth development has been the key to the fortification of the line-up in other places as well. Riley Sheahan may not get the same level of attention as Tatar and Nyqvist, but the former first round pick has played a valuable role centering a number of different lines. Even Babcock has had serious difficulties coaching the blue-line since Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement in 2012. The maturation of Dan DeKeyser has helped to balance the group out.

The cultivation of a young talent is crucial for any franchise hoping to compete consistently in the salary cap era. It isn’t an attribute often associated with Babcock, but that might just be one more thing that has gone unnoticed in Motown.

Babcock has been fortunate in one respect. He has had the opportunity to work for one of the game’s finest GMs in Ken Holland. The 59-year old’s patience and vision has been equally crucial to Detroit’s seemingly endless success. Negotiations over a new contract have apparently been set-aside until the end of the season. Reports suggesting that Babcock could be set to become the highest paid coach with a contract worth more than $3 million suggest that Holland is under no illusions about his coach’s importance to this team’s success.

Detroit’s head coach won’t be thinking about a new contract, and he won’t be thinking about the Jack Adams. He’ll be thinking about how to develop and construct this team to be a serious contender in the upcoming postseason. Even if Holland is able to add reinforcements at the deadline, this is a very young team that will be tested in April. You can be sure that Mike Babcock will be ready for that challenge, even if he doesn’t get too much credit for it.