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Toronto Maple Leafs new head coach Mike Babcock poses following a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, May 21, 2015.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

It's not difficult to picture a scenario in which Mike Babcock wasn't sitting there at Air Canada Centre on Thursday morning, speaking forcefully to the media, on his first day as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Not popping his head into offices around the building, making requests of Leafs staffers he had only just met, getting to work even before the introductions took place.

Not casually bopping around town, appearing on every radio and television station he could squeeze into an 18-hour day.

It's not difficult because there was a very plausible scenario in which Babcock is still coaching, right now, in the NHL playoffs, delaying the hiring sweepstakes by weeks, if not months.

The Detroit Red Wings were that close in Round 1 to knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that now appears destined for the Stanley Cup final. That series was essentially a toss-up, pushed all the way to a Game 7, where the Wings outshot the top offensive team in hockey 31-17 but couldn't squeeze a puck past big Ben Bishop.

Detroit was at a talent disadvantage in that series, with a mediocre D corps, a rookie in goal and limited offensive weapons.

Babcock was a significant reason it was that close.

There's a big difference, however, between elevating a good team into a battle with a great one, and trying to coax a bad one to be something more. Coaches in the NHL have less impact on their team's success than those in the NFL or NBA – where systems and set plays are more integral – and you can't win merely by putting a bright mind behind the bench.

But it can certainly help.

The Red Wings have preached a puck-possession game for decades, dating to well before Babcock was hired there 10 years ago. But since he took over, they have remained the best possession team in hockey, with 56 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength.

Even as they have lost talent – including Nick Lidstrom's retirement in 2012 – and started to integrate younger players, that number hasn't dipped dramatically.

That's in large part because of Babcock, whose systems excel specifically at limiting scoring chances against at even strength.

Even with 34-year-old Niklas Kronwall as his top defenceman, Darren Helm as his top-minute forward (in the playoffs) and a still-developing supporting cast behind his two aging superstars up front.

The past three years, without Lidstrom, Babcock's Wings remained the second-best team in the NHL at preventing scoring chances. The Leafs, with a possession-poor system, were tied for last with Buffalo (coincidentally the team they were bidding against in the Babcock derby).

Getting him is addressing an obvious weakness with what should become a tangible strength.

In time.

The biggest reason it will take time is that it's very unclear what sort of a roster the Leafs will have. President Brendan Shanahan has been rather straightforward in stating there will be major changes and a slow, deliberate restoration through the draft, which means Babcock could well be working with very little for two or three seasons.

He's a good coach; he's not a miracle worker. If Shanahan dives into his deconstruction and youth movement in earnest in the coming months, the Leafs will almost certainly struggle on the ice in the fall.

But Shanahan believes Babcock can bring more to the table than wins in those early days.

"Somebody said to me once, 'Why are you going after guys like Mike Babcock? Wouldn't you rather have the worst coach in hockey for the next few years?'" Shanahan said. "And be in the [lottery] sweepstakes every year? My belief was that wasn't good for our development.

"If Mike wins us some more games because Mike is a great coach, then so be it. It was more important for me that the Morgan Riellys and Nazem Kadris, the William Nylanders, our whole organization, from the Leafs to the [Toronto] Marlies, to even the players we have in Orlando [in the ECHL], that they start building a foundation with a good coach who's going to demand the right things," he added.

The word Shanahan used for Babcock on Thursday more than any other was "teacher." Shanahan believes he's hired someone who can work with any player – vet, rookie, whatever – and make them better because he witnessed that in Detroit.

If he's right, that's the sort of trait that could pay off a little initially – with a few more wins early on – but exponentially down the road, when those in the system use what they learned from Babcock through multiple training camps and call-ups to get better year after year.

That development process is what he signed up for, on an eight-year deal, and that's where he will benefit the franchise more than simply fixing the Xs-and-Os side of things.

In that sense, this isn't a typical hire. Babcock will essentially be part development coach, part assistant GM and part bench boss in Toronto, one of a chorus of voices in a group that Shanahan referred to as "people way smarter and way better at this than me."

"I don't want to work in silos here," Shanahan explained. "I'm not afraid of strong people."

He definitely has that in Babcock. But there's more there than a big personality and a strong system, especially given the uniqueness of this contract and his role as an adviser at the beginning of a rebuild.