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Mike Babcock promises pain, reward as Maple Leafs move forward

New Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was bluntly honest at his introductory press conference in Toronto.

It’s hard to remember a better sports day in Toronto than this one. Mike Babcock is officially a member of the Maple Leafs.

Just be sure to enjoy the sunny skies while they last, O ye burghers of Hogtown, because the forecast calls for years and years of pain clouds.

If nothing else was made clear during Babcock’s exhaustive press conference on Thursday morning, it was that the Leafs are continuing down the bumpy path to building a long-term contender from square one ... and the arrival of the NHL’s hottest free agent is not going to expedite the process.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” Babcock warned at his introduction. “This is going to be a massive, massive challenge. It's going to take a long time.”

Maybe that's not what long-suffering Leafs fans want to hear, but it's what they need to hear.

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Babcock, who signed an eight-year, $50 million contract with the Leafs on Wednesday, might be the best coach in the game. His record with Detroit was 458-223-105 and the Red Wings made the playoffs in all 10 years that they were on his watch. His overall NHL record is 950-527-285. He’s won the Stanley Cup and guided Team Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals. But he's no miracle worker.

A team that has missed the playoffs in nine of the past 10 years won’t suddenly turn it around just because it has someone new tapping its players on the shoulder. It’ll take time to assess, acquire and develop the assets that are needed to make this squad a winner.

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Some of those players may already be part of the organization. Morgan Rielly. William Nylander. Nazem Kadri. There may be others as well, although neither Babcock and team president Brendan Shanahan were not interested in naming names.

“We have good people here,” said Shanahan. “We’re going to acquire good people and we’re going to make them better.”

Shanahan also said that Babcock will have input into player personnel decisions.

“We're going to have men on this team,” Babcock promised. “We're going to have people that are accountable.”

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That's a strong message to the fans and, more importantly, the players. If lack of talent was issue No. 1 for this season’s Leafs, then lack of accountability was 1A. Babcock will address that problem. That’s a standard he set in Detroit, with the help of trusted leaders like Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. Even if success doesn’t come quickly to Toronto, you can bet that accountability will.

Bet on this as well: The arrival of a premier coach means the Leafs intend to move forward. Whatever this organization eventually achieves, it won’t be built on tanking for better odds in the draft lottery. There won’t be two or three Sabres-style seasons spent as the league’s punching bag in hopes of hoarding top picks. The Leafs intend to get better immediately, if only by incremental steps.

Babcock’s arrival is one of those. But just the first of many.