Mike Babcock joined The Andrew Walker Show to talk about the end of his first season in Toronto, reflections on the year, the youth, fans cheering for losses, and more. Full transcript below.
The season is almost over – three games to go, one more home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets for your club. Are you beginning to see the big picture on how your first season has gone here in Toronto?
Mike Babcock: Have I sat down and done an evaluation this season? No, but I’m pretty aware. If you look at the standings, you understand where your team is. We’re not competitive in the National Hockey League as of yet. Knew that when I arrived and knew it was going to take some time. I think we’ve done a lot of really good work this year in acquiring assets and moving people and setting ourselves up for the future. We’ve got our guys to play hard and compete on a nightly basis, which gives our fans a product to watch. Yet, we understand we’re nowhere near the product we want to be.
If you look at the standings now, the Leafs are tied for 30th with 67 points. Fans ask all the time, “we were expecting pain and for some reason this season doesn’t feel as painful as we anticipated.” 67 points, even if you pick up a few more along the way, would represent the highest point total since two lockouts ago, for a 30th place team. That might not mean much to you, but you’ve done your fair share of winning, too.
Babcock: When you’re standing on the bench for 82 games like I do, you understand where you’re at. When you’re used to winning on a nightly basis and you’re suddenly not, it’s a huge change. In saying that, the expectations of our fans should be very, very high for our group moving ahead. We liked what we’ve done. We don’t like where we’re at. It’s an awful feeling going out today knowing that will be our last practice. We have some pregame skates, but that will be our last practice of the year and you’re not preparing for the playoffs. So it’s not something you plan on getting used to; it’s something we plan on fixing. In saying that, what I’ve found over the years is that when your team plays hard, people usually leave the building pretty satisfied. When you don’t play hard, and you cheat, people understand that. You don’t have to be a hockey connoisseur to understand whether a guy is competing or not. To me, I think we’ve done a good job in that area, but let’s not kid ourselves – we’re not where we want to be.
How would you term last night’s effort vs. the Panthers in the grand scheme of things?
Babcock: To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind our first, and I liked our third. But I thought our second period – we made mistakes and we got dominated. The other thing I’d say to you – what good teams do is find ways to score one more goal than you do. You think you’re close, you think you’re close, but the team that’s ahead of you doesn’t think you’re close. You need one to tie and two to win. The reality of the situation is – when you’re a good team, you find a way, whether you’ve got you’re A-stuff or B-stuff or C-stuff. When you’re not as good, you find a way to get close and you feel a little better about yourself. But really, in the end, I think it’s great for the product we have right now, but there’s not a lot of moral victories in sports. You’ve got to find a way to win games.
It’s a good point. You look at those one-goal losses – 27 one-goal losses for your team – and you say, “okay, maybe this group isn’t too far off. A goal here, a goal there turns those losses into ties or overtimes or wins.” You look at the standings and say, “we’ve got 27 one-goal losses,” but guess what? Good teams lose by one goal. You think you’re close, and the next year you have 29 one-goal losses. That margin for error, it’s so slim, isn’t it?
Babcock: No question. If you think you go from the basement to the top overnight, that doesn’t happen. It happens with drafting and developing and signing good free agents and helping a product. I like what we’ve done. Without any question, we have way more than I expected. We’re further ahead than where I expected. It doesn’t show in the standings right now. We need to do a real good job as a management team again this summer. I thought we did a good job last summer, and we need to do a real good job again this summer to set ourselves up so we can be feeling way better and for there to be way more excitement in our town. We have an obligation to the business owners of this community and to our fans to have a way better team, to have a playoff run on a regular basis, and that’s our plan.
In every Canadian market right now, people are cheering for losses. That’s a broken system. Last night, Vancouver scores a late goal and they beat a very good LA Kings team 3-2. Three games in four nights and they beat every team from California, and Canucks fans are upset at this. It’s not a great system. Would you like to see a revamped system where teams get rewarded for winning down the stretch if you’re on the bottom end of things?
Babcock: Let’s just go through the whole thing. The whole league is set up to help the bottom feeders. We have a salary cap. If there was no salary cap, the Toronto Maple Leafs could go out and spend all the money they wanted. And as long as you made the money, you could spend it. Now, I like that. I call it user pay. That’s my political background, that’s what I believe in; that’s what I believe in in life. But that’s not the way the league is run. Let’s fix that first and then we can get into the draft.
You said you’re further along than anticipated in terms of the younger players and their development. Anyone in particular stand out to you over the last month or so?
Babcock: For sure. I was very impressed with Carrick, I was impressed with Valiev, I was impressed with Hyman, I was impressed Brown, I was impressed with Soshnikov. I thought they all played well. Nylander. Now, these kids we have right now in Kapanen and Lindberg and Gauthier, they’re further away, but they’re still going to play in the NHL. Managing that, and making sure we have a real strong Marlie product, making sure we are developing players, making sure we’re getting the best free agents we possibly can get, making sure we draft and continue to do that – this is going to be the core of our group. We’re fortunate that, moving ahead, we look like we’re going to have a 26-and-under team, which is very positive for us long term. Obviously, with all of this group coming and the push from the bottom, that’s what you want. Too many players for the amount of slots you have, and when you have that you have a much better chance of having a competitive program.
Could Zach Hyman become the Justin Abdelkader of this team eventually?
Babcock: Obviously he’s a real good player, and he plays with lots of energy and he’s hard. When I look at Helm and Abdelkader, I talk about those guys a lot just because I think they’re good players and they compete hard. They don’t have a skillset off the charts but they’ve maximized their skillset. That’s what you’re going to need. I think when young guys come everyone thinks they’re going to be Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Well, that’s just a fantasy world. Most are going to be those other guys, so you’ve got to figure out a way to turn yourself into the best you you can possibly be. We spend a lot of time with Kapanen, Lindberg, Nylander, Hyman, Brown – the rest of them, going through that so they understand. In saying that, we’re setting them up for a real good playoff team with the Marlies. Now, the Marlies are a real skilled team and skill isn’t necessarily what wins at playoff time – it’s work ethic, it’s structure, it’s goaltending, it’s team defence. So they’ve got a lot of work to do here, but we’ve set them up to have a real opportunity this Spring.
What type of player did you think you were getting in Nazem Kadri when you took the job? How would you describe his year? Was it what you expected? Better? Worse?
Babcock: He’s a better player than I thought. He’s more competitive. He’s good without the puck. He knows how to play. With a good summer, an NHL summer, on his body, he can be a much better player. It will help him with his shot. He has a chance to be a real good player moving ahead.