Mike Babcock joined Leafs Lunch Thursday afternoon to discuss the first half of the Leafs’ season, the progress of their young players, the importance of veteran leadership, and much more.
Through 41 games, you guys are 16-18-7. Do you feel like your record is a true indicator of the way your team has played?
Mike Babcock: I don’t think your record ever lies. You are what you are. What I can tell you is we lost last night. We weren’t as prepared as we should’ve been at the start of the game, so we played catch-up hockey. What I try to do is just live in present. To me, our job is to get better each and every day to maximize our group. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. I didn’t like last night. I coached in Detroit and played in the Western Conference for a long time. When we came home after trips, we struggled a lot. We tried a bunch of different things. I thought we had enough time off prior to this game to be jumping right out of the gate. Even though we had scoring chances and outshot them 2:1 and all that, in the end catch-up hockey is losing hockey and I didn’t like it. Lots of things have been real positive about the first half. Game 41 wasn’t.
You talk about the execution and how you didn’t like it early on. I know a lot of your teams don’t really fight. Do you think with the arena, the energy in that building, it might have been an opportunity… I know Dion had an altercation, or do you not want a guy like that fighting to try to create some momentum?
Babcock: No, I really never thought about how we needed a fight. I thought we needed to not turn it over at the blueline and get in on the forecheck, but I guess there’s lots of ways to generate energy in your building. To me, when you play real good and you get your crowd awake, that really helps you. I didn’t think we did much until the second and the third. I didn’t expect Dion to go out there and get in a scrap. That wasn’t a priority for me at all.
What is the biggest change with respect to – you had all the skill in Detroit that could create offense – how you try to keep the spirits of your players up knowing that they’ve got to create offense in a different way?
Babcock: I think you’re trying to do lots of things similar. In saying all that, game breakers are game breakers. I’m just preparing for Chicago – I mean, the game is going on, and suddenly someone makes a play within the structure of how they’re team plays, but they just flat out beat somebody. So you don’t have as many of those things go on. Right now I’m watching the highlights of LA, and they’ve just got some guys who are just flat out making some plays different than our guys would make them. So we’ve just got to do it longer and harder, but the other thing you don’t do very well is you don’t play catch-up hockey very well because you don’t have those gamebreakers who can make something out of nothing. Losing van Riemsdyk – he was the one guy, even when James doesn’t have a good game, at the end of the game he’s in on all the scoring chances. That’s what game breakers do. In developing your team and deciding on what kind of club you want to have here, you want to have a number of game breakers that give you those opportunities. Ideally, with good drafts and our development here, some of these kids will end up being real good players.
When you took the gig, one of the first things you said about the players in this market, you said, “I want to make it a safer place.” We’ve talked a lot about that in the first half. We’re surprised at how quiet the first half has been. If you compare it to last year, and I know you weren’t here but I know you were aware of it, there was controversy after controversy, and talking point after talking point, and a lot of it coming off the ice. That has not been the case this year. How have you gone about making it such a safe place for your players?
Babcock: We address it. We talk about it. Even today we talked about it. Last night, after the game, we weren’t as accessible to the media as we should’ve been. When you play real good, be happy to be in there and talking to them. When you play real bad, be in there and talking to them. Own what you do. The other thing I’d say to you is – when your fans think you play hard, and work hard, when you go to a restaurant in town they treat you with respect. When they don’t think you’re working hard, you don’t get the same kind of respect. I think Toronto has been fantastic that way for us this year. They’ve treated us fantastic. We have a fanbase here that’s second to none. They’ve appreciated the work ethic of the guys. I can see it when we’re out in the community. When we don’t play hard, you’re going to pay the price for doing that. So, to me, that’s one of the things we’ve been able to do. But we try to address it everyday – accountability. We addressed how we played last night. If you do that, I think you have a better chance of people appreciating you.
I’m a little bit surprised with how the fanbase has been really accepting of the plan, and has been patient and has been optimistic. I think a lot of people in the city are talking positively about what’s happened in the first half. Even with that being the case, you’re a bottom-five team. Were you expecting that kind of surprise considering the way the team has played and considering the standings?
Babcock: To be honest with you, I didn’t really know anything about the market that way. Obviously, when you come into Toronto you know it’s a big city, a nice city, that there’s tons of hockey fans, but you don’t know what kind of market it is and you don’t know what kind of support you’re going to have. I’m with you – I’m impressed with how much support we get and how the people treat us. If you’ve been here a long time, if you’ve been a Leafs fan a long time, you’ve got to be tired of being average. You want to be really good. I don’t blame them. I want to be really good, too. We’re a work in progress.
We’ve got about a month and a half between now and the deadline. Your team will be a focal point; every team in the league will be. You’ve been going through this for a long time as a head coach. How do you get your team through that storm between now and the deadline?
Babcock: I just think we get ready for the next game. That’s all we’re doing, is you get ready for the next game. Every game you play as hard as you possibly can and you keep going. To me, you can spend a lot of time worried about the noise around you, or you can know what you know and do what you do and enjoy what you’re doing. When you play hard at night, you get to enjoy the next day a lot more than when you don’t. To me, that will be our focus – living in the present, getting better each day.
Through 41 games, what have you learned about your two goaltenders?
Babcock: Well, it’s been an interesting ride. That’s a real good question, by the way. I think both have had their struggles. Reims got it going earlier than Bernie did, and really played well, then obviously he went through the groin thing for a long period of time and he’s trying to get his game back. Bernie really struggled and that’s well documented. He didn’t play like he’s capable of playing. Now he seems to have things going and is feeling much better about himself. Obviously, we need him to play real well for us to be successful. It’s a priority for us to continue to play well.
When you look at players like Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Dion Phaneuf, who, by your own words, have played really, really well — they’ve really looked like they could be part of what you have going forward. You try to create that safe environment, and make sure that they feel good about themselves. How much is convincing them that it’s about playing the right way, and not getting hung up on productivity numbers?
Babcock: What’s been real interesting for me – when you think of Kadri, when you think of Rielly, when you think of Gardiner, I think they’ve been great. I think they get better each and every day. I think they’ve been real, real solid to say the least. I am very impressed with them. Even in the game last night, I thought Rielly was good, I thought Gardiner was good. I didn’t think Naz was as good, but his game in LA I was so impressed with. They’re out there running around, he’s out there running around, too. I didn’t know he is as competitive as he is or could be as good defensively; we play him against the best people and in the hardest matchups each night. He’s doing a heck of a job. Those guys have done a real good job for us. Dion is different than those guys, because those guys are young guys moving ahead. Dion is more of a veteran player. What he’s been able to provide for us that I didn’t know was going to happen is that I didn’t know he is as good of a man as he is, I didn’t know he trained as hard as he did, and lived right and was on the young guys in a positive way as much as he is. To me, he has been excellent that way and has been a big part of us being able to get our players competing on a nightly basis; his preparation and him being on guys. Him, Polak, Leo and Hunwick have been unbelievable pros here.
Did you have to instigate that out of Dion, or did that just come about naturally?
Babcock: That’s a great question. I don’t know much about that. To me, when you’ve been a pro a long time, you’ve got a lot of things that you do. Any time a new coach or a new manager comes in, they’ve got things they want done a certain way. I never got any pushback from him at all. We discussed things, though – I try not to catch anybody by surprise. He’s been all in and has done an excellent job for us. I talked to him a number of times the summer after I got the job. He was good the whole time. When our strength people, our sports science people, went out to see him, he was working hard. I think he’s been excellent that way. Not knowing him prior, even though I had him at Olympic camp, not knowing him prior the way I know him now, I don’t want to say I was shocked but I was pleasantly surprised at what a great pro he is.
There’s so much focus on the young players with your team, and where the team is going, and the three or five year plan, and focus on the draft and the draft lottery. But we were talking to Dale Tallon earlier in the week about what was going on in Florida. Obviously, there is going to be focus on Barkov and Ekblad and Huberdeau, and young players that area really playing well, but he couldn’t talk enough about the Willie Mitchells and the Brian Campbells and the Jagrs and the Luongos. When you’re building the winning team, or team that you believe can compete in the future, how important is it to have that fusion of young players who are impact players but also veteran players who have been there and done it before?
Babcock: I think it’s so, so important. I just think about all the lessons that the players that the players can teach young players that the coach can’t. The coach is not at the back of the plane, he is not at the back of the bus, he’s not at the team meals. That’s just reality. But when you have good people leading the way – when you have Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Kronwall leading the way – and you bring in a young guy and put him in the stall next to him, they do things right and they take them for dinner. That’s a great thing. The other night, when we were on the road, I don’t know where we were, but I saw Bernier with Bibeau. And another time I saw Phaneuf with a young guy we called up. To me, those are the things that you need to have happen. You need people to show them the right way. It’s easy in big cities, when you’re a young person, to get going the wrong direction. So when you put them in an environment where they’ve got good pros around them, I think that really helps. To say you need all young people – that’s not what you need at all. You need good direction for those guys so you need enough good leaders on the team. That’s why I talked about Hunwick and Polak and Leo and Dion – I think they’ve done an excellent job this year.