Mike Babcock appeared on Hockey Central at Noon on Thursday to discuss the Leafs the halfway point, the goaltending situation, whether Morgan Rielly can become a number-one defenceman, the idea of “progress in spite of the standings,” and more.
When you said that, “if you don’t think there is pain coming, there’s pain coming,” that was about seven months ago. Looking back on it, were they the right comments to make at the right time? Did it set the table that you were looking for with those comments? Or do you sit there and go, “maybe I was a little too transparent?”
Mike Babcock: I don’t even think about it to be honest with you. I think the reality is, when you’re building an organization to have a ten-year run like our plan is, there is going to be some times that are ugly. Whether it’s gone better or worse than you’d like as a fan, the reality is that’s the case. I know how long it takes. I know how long these teams — the Chicago Blackhawks, I know how many years of pain there was. The Florida Panthers, who are playing great right now and their kids have come of age and they’ve got some good veterans. I know how long it took. So, that’s where we’re at. What’s real pleasure for me is Gardiner and Rielly and Kadri, and the way these guys are better players than I thought. They play harder and they’re more competitive. So, to me, that part is the positive part. The way we’ve competed most nights, the way we’ve been organized, has been positive. We still have tons of work to do. You need game breakers to win in the end. And you need lots of depth. And we’re not there yet.
You’re looking for some core guys that can be around a long time. Out of the 23-man roster, is there a number? Is it five? Is it seven? [The number of] guys that you project that have a future here. Or is it too early?
Babcock: What I’d say to you is – I just mentioned three guys, guys that have been real good pros this year. There are a number of parts to it. There’s the drafting and developing – the Marlies are running away with things with lots of good kids. We’ve got some good players. We need more. But who’s going to help them be pros? You need the guys that set the tone, and not only do they need to be good players, they need to be good men. When I look at Leo, I think to myself, “guy who does it every day.” When I look at Hunwick, he does it everyday. Polak does it everyday. Dion has been fantastic. So there’s four guys that are setting the tone for us. Now, depending on their age, are they the age that they can grow with our group, or help our group grow? So you look at that. Who is competitive enough and wants to be a good enough pro and has enough talent, and at the right age to be with your group? I think that’s all part of the process. The other thing about it is what can you do free agents wise? What can you do at the trade deadline? What can you do in the draft? My job, even though I’m aware of all those things, is to get our team prepared to play. I didn’t do my job yesterday. I’ve got to do my job today so that we’re ready to go tomorrow. So that’s my focus, and Lou and Shanny and Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter are more on the other side. Do we talk every day? Absolutely. But there’s lots of work to be done and it’s just going to take baby sets and one step at a time.
You’re in this bubble in Toronto. How is it different than coaching in Detroit or Anaheim?
Babcock: It’s a good question. It’s been fantastic. The city is spectacular. The fanbase is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. Don’t get me wrong, coaching in Detroit and living in Detroit, you can’t have a better job. In saying that, this is a different job and what’s interesting about this job is how much support the Leafs have. The Leafs fans’ support is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s so many people. And because of the environment here, the opportunity is so good in my opinion. We should have a model franchise and we’re going to have a model franchise. We need to get the product on the ice as good as the opportunity is, so that’s what we’re working at. I’ve been very impressed with the fans. What I’ve seen is that if we work hard and prepare, they’re happy, and if we’re not, they’re not very happy – and I don’t blame them for that. So let’s make sure we’re dialled in and working.
You weren’t around to finish last season, but the sense was that a lot of these guys, and some of the guys you just mentioned in Kadri and Gardiner, weren’t feeling very good about themselves. Was the challenge as much technically on the ice as it was off the ice in helping them restore – I don’t know if this is the right word – self esteem? Is that fair?
Babcock: I think it is. Self esteem, confidence, whatever you want to call it. I think it’s the same for you – when you do a good job, and you know you’re doing a good job, you feel good about yourself. When things aren’t going very good, and people are beating on you and the ratings aren’t very good, you don’t feel very good. That’s just the reality of the situation. What we’ve done here – and I wouldn’t say today necessarily – is that there’s been a good feeling in our room, the guys are having tons of fun, they’ve worked hard, they’ve been accountable; they’ve been, I think, excellent. We’ve been able to – and I don’t want to say maximize the group – but we’ve done pretty good with the group. Now we’re here, and last night was a set back. We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to get back on track, and we’ve got to keep the momentum going. But I’ve found the community to be very supportive. We talked today about that in our room. It’s been a good spot for us this year because we’ve played hard enough and we’ve earned the right to feel good about ourselves and the community supports that. Let’s keep it up. Let’s keep getting better.
You, in Detroit, were fortunate to have a number-one centerman, a number-one defenceman – maybe one of the greatest of all time – and maybe a number-one goalie at times. I look here and I say, “okay, is there a number-one centerman in the pipeline? Is there a number-one defenceman in the pipeline? Is there a number-one goalie in the pipeline?” I guess the first question would be – can Rielly be a number-one defenceman, or is maybe a real good 2-3?
Babcock: He’s a real good two for sure. Is he a one? We’re going to watch together and figure it out. I really like him. I think he’s got huge upside. I love how he can get the puck to the net. I love how conscientious he’s becoming defensively. He does a good job, he plays against the best people. We haven’t played him on the powerplay on purpose. We will play him on the powerplay. I think he has a chance to be real good. I think Gardiner is a real good two-pair guy and is getting better each and every day. More confident, goes back for the puck better, stronger. So he’s good. I think Naz has done a real nice job. When you play head to head against the other people’s best players, when they get running around the other night in LA and you’re running right back and you’re greasy, I really liked it. He might be the biggest surprise for me. I’m almost shocked how good he’s been, and competitive, and greasy. So, to me, those things are real positive. Now, all these kids you have that everyone says, “well they’re real good in the American league, they’re leading the American league,” or, “they were real good in the World Junior tournament”; we’ve all been around for a long time. Some of them end up being real good NHLers. That’s why you have to have too many draft picks and too many prospects, because some of them aren’t going to be. The more you have, the more you can acquire from other organizations at the same time. As far as the goaltending goes, I don’t know what the right way to do that is. Not many people draft Carey Price and he turns into Carey Price. Most people end up getting a goalie on the third stop and the guy ends up being a heck of a goalie. I can’t tell you the answer to that part of things. I know Reims struggled early, had a real good run and then got the groin problems and hopefully is on his way back. Bernie seems to be gravitating and going in the right direction. Goaltending is huge, obviously. Nik Lidstrom – there’s no tree with him on it, I know that. Been around a long time to know that, but we sure like some of the guys we have here, and our prospects.
Goaltending – you challenge your goalies. A lot of coaches go out of their way to protect them. You went straight at both Bernier and Reimer at times. Why do you take that tact?
Babcock: Because this is what I believe: I believe that, if my boss tells me the truth each and every day, and he doesn’t think I’m doing my job and he tells me, then I can fix it. I know where I stand. I just want to know, and I want to please him. I think goaltenders are a part of the team. Now, “not protecting them,” I disagree with that. I think we protect them, we protect them with how we play and how we talk to them and how we treat them. But we try to make them accountable like everybody else. I think that’s an important part of being on a team. I really believe that. I could be nuts, but that’s what I think.
While we’re all in agreement that the process has gone, so far, well in the picture, for you when does it come all about where you are in the standings? You sit today and you talk about a lot of great things, and we’re in agreement, but you’re also one of the worst teams in the League in the standings. When is the cut off for when it doesn’t matter how good you feel about certain things if it’s not good enough to be 28th overall?
Babcock: Yeah, I didn’t look at the standings today. When you have to turn the newspaper upside down to feel good about yourself, it’s not good, you and I know that.
Is it possible to feel this good and be in the same spot next year in the standings?
Babcock: I think the next couple of years, and even though no one wants to hear this, everyone wants steady progress… when you put young people in your lineup, you tend to get worse. That’s a hard, hard thing to swallow. This is what I do: Get up everyday and try to win that day. Without any question, I love to win. Believe me, I love to win. Can’t stand losing. In saying that, I also like to maximize the group. I like what we’ve done thus far. I think the hardest part of the year is still ahead. I’m very cognizant of that. The next few years, there’s going to be lots of tough times. I understand that totally, but I knew what I signed up for. Some days are going to be harder than others, but I think there’s going to be lots of good times ahead and I’m excited about it.