Mike Babcock sat down with Darren Dreger to discuss Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and the future of the Maple Leafs.

The video is available here. Transcript below.

Darren Dreger: Prior to coming to Russia, you spent time scouting the London Knights, paying close attention to Mitch Marner and the great playoff run he is having. The more you watch him play, is he convincing you that he is very close to being NHL ready?

Mike Babcock: I think there’s two parts to that question. Is he done with junior? That’s one thing. If you’re done with junior, and you’re not quite ready for the NHL, where do you go in our system? That’s the problem. He can’t play in the AHL, so we are going to have to make that decision. His summer is going to determine that. Not his Memorial Cup, his summer — his commitment to eating right, living right, and lifting right. I mean, he’s unbelievably talented. He really is. He’s competitive. He doesn’t mind stickhandling among the trees. He makes plays. He sees things. He’s a special talent. But part of your process is to make sure that your prospects are ready. You don’t want them hurt. It’s a man’s league; it’s a hard league. He’s a super talent, so we are just going to watch him and see what happens.

Darren Dreger: Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he follows the coach’s recipe. If he follows the plan, in your eyes, is he ready?

Mike Babcock: The great thing about it is I don’t have to make any decisions now, so why would I? The sequence of events — these things are going to happen, and we’re going to watch him and we’re going to go into training camp. The rules are such that you don’t have to make a decision right away anyway. We’re going to do what’s right for the Leafs and what’s right for Mitch.

Darren Dreger: Based on your experience at all levels of hockey, apart from having a true number-one goaltender, is there a more important position on any team than a number-one center?

Mike Babcock: Good question by you, and asked really well. Centers have more opportunity to affect the game than a winger would. I think that’s what you’re really asking, but so do defencemen. You’re always looking for a number-one D or a number-one center. How many teams in the NHL actually have one? Not many.

Darren Dreger: And you can’t trade for one, or it’s really hard to.

Mike Babcock: No one’s trading one to you. Once you get a number-one D or a number-one center, they’re not getting moved. Now, in saying that, Wayne Gretzky got moved, so anything is possible.

Darren Dreger: It makes sense you would draft one when given the opportunity, doesn’t it?

Mike Babcock: I think what you do is draft the best player. You’ve had time to script your questions here so I’ve had time to script my answers. What you’ve got to do is take the best player. The other thing you have to do is, if afforded a window to prepare for an exam, you should take the full amount of time. I don’t know why you’d write the exam three weeks early. I don’t know why we would either. This creates more drama coming up to the event.

Darren Dreger: You’ve also had time to do you research, as you suggest. Based on what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned over the past few years, specific to Auston Matthews, does he at least have the potential in your mind to be a franchise-type center?

Mike Babcock: I think so. When you look at the draft this year, there are three guys there that are special. But when we thought we were picking fourth, there were three to four guys there who you don’t even know who to take. There’s lots of good players in the draft. There’s also somebody in the draft that’s going to go 23rd or 40th that is going to be better than the other guys. Happens all the time. We don’t know that for four or five years. Jamie Benn is not a bad player. You go through guys like that. When you go through the process, we’re going to do everything we can to make the right decision based on the information we have at the time, but things change over time. That’s just the way it goes. Somebody is going to emerge as a really good player that we didn’t have ranked in the right order.

Darren Dreger: But you see the potential of Matthews perhaps developing into that player?

Mike Babcock: Well, he is going to for sure. Elite hockey sense. Big body. Elite drive train. Smart guy. Comes from a good family. He’s a pretty special player.

Darren Dreger: We believe the consensus top three, of course, are Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi. How would getting a player like Matthews, Laine or Puljujarvi help the Toronto Maple Leafs in their turnaround, whether to expedite the process or just build a really solid foundation moving forward?

Mike Babcock: It really expedites the process because of the high level of player that it is. You can’t win without great players. You can coach and manage all you want, but you need great players. Great players are really committed to winning and doing it right. Being a special talent is a gift from God. Being a professional grinder who wants to be the best there is in your sport is a special gift as well. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for someone to lead in that way. Whoever we end up taking is going to be immersed with a bunch of kids. We have a bunch of kids; not a few, a bunch of kids. In the end, they all aren’t going to be able to play for the Leafs. That’s an exciting thing. A real movement of players 21 and under, or maybe 22 and under, where we have too many players for the amount of jobs that are going to be available.

Darren Dreger: Does it tempt you, though, to look outside and maybe add a piece here or there, whether it’s a goalie or a defenceman or what have you? Or do you first have to learn what you’ve got? Or are you at a point now where you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on what you’ve got coming?

Mike Babcock: I think you’ve always got to be adding pieces. You know the pieces you don’t have. In saying that, those big pieces that fans and media fantasize about are usually added when your team is ready, not when your team is growing. We’re in the growing phase. I think Shanny and Lou and Hunts and all of the guys have done an unbelievable job. Over a 12 month period, it’s night and day different; absolutely night and day different than when we were sitting here last year. I couldn’t have imagined everything would be set up the way it is. But that’s one year into the process. We’ve got to keep that going. We need to have another huge year in the development process, the selection process, the signing process in order to get to where we want to go.

Darren Dreger: Is it unrealistic to think the Maple Leafs could compete for a playoff spot as early as next season?

Mike Babcock: Yeah, that’s a real good question. We sure hope to. I said this in the past: “I don’t know how long it’s going to take.” I just know we are getting there. I’m more sure than I’ve ever been of that. The timeline? You know, I thought we were going to win in Detroit one year before we did win. I don’t know the answer to that. I just know that when you do good things over time, good things happen.  We’ve got a lot of things going in the right direction.

Darren Dreger: You’ve had great seasons as an NHL coach with great teams and you’ve coached great players. Sometimes that translates into going deep into the playoffs and ultimately winning a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal — whatever the pinnacle is in that particular season. But individually or personally, you can measure success stories differently, can’t you? So compare what you’ve experienced this year, in your first year with the Maple Leafs, and how that might compare to some of the better personal experiences in hockey that you’ve had.

Mike Babcock: It was a great year. How can you be the worst coach in the NHL and finish dead last and say it’s a great year, it was a phenomenal year? Working with the people I got to work with was special. We have a real good group. Our management team, I think, is excellent. Lots of ideas, lots of sharing, lots of different backgrounds, so that was special. I read that we had 42 players or something, they said. The change of players from where we were, from trying to sign guys on July 1 just to get them before they signed somewhere else, to now being in a position where we probably can’t because we’ve got too many players, to having a farm team that is elite, to have lots of prospects in junior, and then to have a chance to do what we’re doing now [drafting] first overall… I think is great. The city has really embraced us. That’s the thing that’s really special for me — the city is jacked right up. How can you finish last and have your fans excited? I don’t really know the answer to that. I couldn’t believe it, but they are.

Darren Dreger: Do you take any credit for that, though? One thing you’re very good at — it comes naturally — is selling. I don’t think you tried to fool anybody. The organization didn’t try to fool anybody. Maybe that honesty paid some dividends with your fan base. 

Mike Babcock: I’d really like to think that we didn’t try to kid anybody. We told them how it was going to be. That’s why, when you asked the question, “are you competing for a playoff spot,” I don’t know the answer to that. I want to. We want too. But the timeline is the timeline. I think when you show good progress, when you know you’re going in the right direction in life — as a reporter, as a journalist, as whatever you do — you feel good about who you are. When you’re going the wrong direction, that’s when it sucks the life out of you. It does the same to your fan base. They can feel it. Our players can feel it. Our players are proud to be Leafs.

Darren Dreger: We’re watching Morgan Rielly have a very good tournament here at the World Championships. The leadership qualities in that young man seem obvious. Is he on the path to perhaps being an elite defenceman in the NHL?

Mike Babcock: Yeah, for sure. I mean, he’s still got lots to work on. The great thing about Rielly is he wants to work at it. He’s confident and feels good about himself. Comfortable in his own skin, intelligent, real good skill set, and is getting better each and everyday. It’s great for him to come to this event for affirmation. You play with all of these other players and you find out, “hey, I’m a pretty good player.” That can only help the Leafs.

Darren Dreger: Auston Matthews said last week that he met with Lou and met with Mark Hunter. It seemed pretty informal; just a real quick discussion. Do you intend or are you hoping to do the same?

Mike Babcock: For sure. I talked to Patrik this morning. I talked to Auston, too. I didn’t bug them or anything. I just talked to them. I’ll talk to both of them for sure. I had the good fortune with Matthew Tkachuk and Auston Matthews that Donny Granato coached them, so he’d bring them into the Red Wing coaches office. I never thought that I was going to get a chance to coach anybody getting drafted that high, to be honest with you, at the time. The Laine kid — it’s unbelievable. He looks like such a young guy, and you see him on the ice and he’s a giant. You see Matthews walk by; they’re big, big men who have elite skill sets and they’re going to make big differences to their franchises. They’re probably going to sell the odd ticket and jersey, too.

Darren Dreger: In such a short, brief meeting and discussion like that, can you get any sense of personality or what the kid is all about one way or another?

Mike Babcock: I know lots of people on the US team. I know the coach real good. I know Leo is playing for the Finns. We’re going to have a pretty good handle on everything. There’s not going to be any surprises. The way the system is today there’s no surprises anyway. Our guys have been all over this for a long period of time. We knew for quite a while that we’ve been picking high. We didn’t know how high, so you had to have your ducks in a row. Hunts does a real good job. The people with him — we have an excellent scouting staff and they’re going to make good decisions.

Darren Dreger: You’ll watch these kids over the next few days here. Are you glued on what they’re doing specifically? Without tipping your hand too much, is there something that you’re looking for, or does it just come naturally, where you’ll see them make a play in a small area of the ice or something that catches your eye?

Mike Babcock: I’m looking for good things, obviously. I watched every shift of Morgan Rielly last night, why? Because he’s our guy. I want to see Leo play. Marty Marincin last night, I watched every shift. Why wouldn’t I watch these guys? That’s what you do. There’s always things that attract you to a player. You’re going to watch and see what they do. I’m excited to see them.

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