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cathal kelly

While he's being squired across the continent like a visiting monarch, everyone dropping to their knees as he enters the rink, we've all decided Mike Babcock is the best coach in hockey. Not "one of" or "arguably." Just the best, full-stop.

Why is that?

His NHL record is impressive, though no more impressive than several others. He's taken about 63 per cent of available regular-season points through his career – a little south of Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau and the off-season's 1A option, Todd McLellan. Babcock hasn't gotten the Detroit Red Wings through the second round of the playoffs in the past six seasons.

He's won a single Stanley Cup – a mark matched or bettered by six other current coaches. He works for Ken Holland, the NHL's best spotter of undervalued and/or unrecognized talent. Wherever he ends up, it's going to be a lot harder to look just as good.

It's a great résumé, but it doesn't scream "Scotty Bowman 2.0."

Instead, Babcock's imaginative appeal relies on two things – his Olympic record and his essential Babcockness.

We take it as an article of faith that whoever coaches Canada is the best there is, in much the same way we assume the Pope is the keenest Catholic. If an American or Russian asked to put this idea to the test, they'd be waved off as if they'd asked to carbon date the martyrs' bones. Canada is hockey. The guy in charge of Canada is the hockey-est.

Babcock's universally acknowledged professional superlative boils down to four weeks and two gold medals, in Vancouver and Sochi. There's nothing wrong with that. Considering there are no opportunities outside a Winter Games to stitch a team together, the job of Canada's Olympic hockey coach may be the most arbitrarily pressurized in all of international sport. All you can really do is throw the guys out on the ice and pray.

Managing it once is impressive. Attempting it the second time is what separates calculated risk-takers from truly ambitious gamblers.

Had it collapsed underneath him in either instance, no one would suggest Babcock stands peerless on top of the NHL coaching roster. We'd be back to "one of" or "arguably." We'd have killed him if he failed, so it's only right to lionize him after he succeeded.

Married to that golden shine is the way Babcock has about him. He just looks like an NHL head coach – scarred and square-jawed. Never underestimate what resembling the part has to do with filling the role.

He talks like a melange of old-timey Canadian stereotypes. He might've been pulled from a logging camp after doing a correspondence PhD. He's homespun. He defers to his wife. He's prickly, but never cruel. He's as careful about showing up his employees as his employers. He's smart, but careful never to come off as too smart. For the most part, he doesn't say anything at all – which is the quickest way to convince people you're a genius.

Maybe the easiest way to parse this out is contrasting Babcock with someone of similar accomplishment. Hey, Randy Carlyle's not doing anything right now. Maybe forever.

Both men have one championship as a head coach. They have (very roughly) similar winning percentages. Carlyle was far and away the better player (he played in 1,055 NHL games; Babcock played in none). Both are as Canadian as ketchup chips.

However similar they are on paper – and though Carlyle has the better all-round hockey pedigree – no one would seriously compare the two.

That's because Carlyle took three serious missteps in his managerial career: He didn't get put in charge of the national team; he lost his hair and put on a few pounds in middle age; and he took a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Very heavy emphasis on number three.

The lesson here: Babcock isn't viewed as the best coach in the game just because of the things he's done right. It has every bit as much to do with the things he hasn't yet gotten wrong.

Everything he's done and correctly chosen not to do feeds his ultimate goal.

"I want to be the best coach of my era," Babcock said last fall, when everyone still expected that re-signing with the Red Wings was a sure thing. That should've been the clue. He was never getting out of Bowman's long shadow in Detroit, and he's canny enough to know it.

He's apparently narrowed his job hunt down to a few cities – Edmonton, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Jose … actually, that's beginning to sound like all of them.

Because Babcock is not looking for the right hockey team to coach. He's looking for the one that's least wrong.

All of the current options are varying degrees of wrong.

Edmonton? It's still Edmonton.

Buffalo? Edmonton to the power of infinity.

Toronto? The highest reward, and also the highest peak to climb. Call it the Carlyle Paradox.

Detroit? More of the same, and therefore more of nothing.

Philadelphia or San Jose? Seriously. Who would care in the grand scheme of things?

The best option is unavailable – Montreal. Babcock is a transplanted Montrealer from his school days. It's the game's most iconic franchise. It's poised for a great disappointment, but the core of talent is still high.

Montreal is the only NHL city that gives Babcock's legacy hunt the highest possible upside with limited risk. Maybe that's why he's stringing this thing out – to see if it's possible.

If it's not, he's back to the least worst.

That's the most fascinating thing about Babcock's current position.

It looks as if he's on top of the hockey world, holding everyone in the NHL by the tail. Instead, he understands that he may be as high as he'll ever go. And now he has to jump.

Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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