Mike Babcock joined TSN Overdrive after the Maple Leafs announced the selection of Auston Matthews as their first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Happy man tonight, Mike?
Mike Babcock: Ecstatic. This is something I’ve known was coming for a while here. We think we’ve got a real good player. We think we’ve got a real good kid. His mom and dad are spectacular people. Comes from a good family. Has an elite drive train. He’s got a skillset that is going to make people on our team a lot better. We’re thrilled to have him. I said to Lou, “you are a way better GM now.” He said, “you’re a way better coach.” We’re a way better franchise period, so we’re fortunate. Obviously we are sitting at the wrong end of the floor here. Scotty Bowman, when he walked in, said, “Hey, you want to be at the other end.” I knew that, but we’ve got to get that fixed.
This is a big part of it obviously. You’ve talked a lot about protecting him. When you’ve got a first overall pick, there’s going to be a lot of hype. You match that with the city and the marketplace being what it is, how do you go about protecting Auston Matthews?
Babcock: I have a 23, a 21 and a 19 year old myself. I know what kids are like. He’s a kid. You’ve got to look after them and give them lots of love and lots of support and lots of confidence. I think it’s also important that we make them better men. Our people are going to do that. In saying that, Nazem Kadri and Bozak can protect this guy. That’s their job. He’ll start on our team in the three hole and he’ll work his way to whatever he earns in whatever time. He’s going to be a dominant number-one center in the NHL. I don’t know what day that’s going to be. He’ll be that when he’s ready. In the meantime, we’ll look after him.
You talk about insulation and protecting young players – not just Auston Matthews, but some of the younger players who could potentially be on your team. Is it about your veteran core or having guys like that who can help insulate them and also help grow them as players on the ice?
Babcock: I think that’s a real good point. You know as a GM and as a coach that you can’t be in the room all the time. You can’t be in the team meal and you can’t be on the bus. You’re not on the plane where they’re sitting. Someone else has to be a man and make good decisions for them. As you guys know, some guys don’t like making the right decision all the time. It’s always nice to have someone around who does that. My point is you need men, and you need good men. We’re fortunate with Komarov and Hunwick and guys like that. We need to grow that. I thought van Riemsdyk, last year, was taking off. I think he’s going to have the best year of his career this year. He’s really working this summer. Nazem Kadri is becoming a guy that was way more dependable for us. But you need men that make the right decisions. So do you go and get some? We’ll evaluate what we have here and we’ll see what happens in the next few days. We’re in the business of trying to improve our team but we also understand where we want to go.
Was there any discussion about who you were taking? Obviously there was some discussion but was Auston Matthews a slam dunk? Never any discussions?
Babcock: Well, I mean there are always discussions, but for me he’s a slam-dunk. Patrik Laine and Puljujarvi and those guys, they’re unbelievably talented players. They’re really talented, great players. But you use it all over the NHL. When you don’t have a center to get you the pill, what do you do out there? I really believe that, when you’re good down the middle and on the backend and in goal, the rest looks after itself. To me, this is a huge step for our organization here today.
You mentioned, as of now, he’s on the third-line as your third-slotted centerman behind Bozak and Kadri. But he played with men last year. Obviously we saw what he did at the World Championships. He’s going to be at the World Cup in September, so he’s that highly touted. How good could he be next year?
Babcock: I don’t know for sure. I think he’s going to be really good. The great thing about hockey is we put you on the board and you go out there everyday and you look at where you are. You’re either 1, 2, 3 or 4 in the lineup, but if you play good you play as one. It doesn’t matter. Whoever plays good plays lots. We’re going to look after him and make him a better person, a better man, push him hard. He’s training already. I don’t know if you’ve seen him, but he’s a man. He’s got thickness in the guy when you grab him. And he knows how to play, and he’s competitive and he wants to win. It’s up to him. The other thing this does — if you’re Willy Nylander, you’re sitting there seeing your brother drafted, and you see Matthews go by. You don’t want to be second. When you’re that good, you want to be one. We just got better because there is now internal competition. Willy thinks he’s that good. This is the first news that he found out he isn’t playing center.
We’ve all seen Auston Matthews play and we can jump on YouTube and see all the highlights. Give us some detail into the intangibles, like what kind of personality he has, and how he’s going to handle a market like this in Toronto.
Babcock: It’s going to be no issue for him. He’s been good for a long period of time. This didn’t just happen. He’s a serious kid about his craft. The way these cities get in the way sometimes is when you get distracted. He isn’t going to be distracted. Tony Granato worked with me in Detroit and his brother Donny coached him, so I went over to watch him play for Michigan. Matthews was unbelievable. He would come to our office after games, him and Tkachuk. I’ve known the kid for a while here. He’s a good kid. Like I said to you earlier, his parents are really good people. He wants to be great. He believes he’s good. I believe the separation between good and great in the NHL – everything thinks it’s skill – is drive train. There is lots of skill guys who never ever lead their franchise to where they want. It’s the drive train of the guys who love it that makes the rest of the people better. I believe he has that.
You’re talking about drive train and you’re talking about skill. When we’re looking at Auston Matthews, you’re going to be able to assess hands-on, day-in-day-out how far away he is from actually dominating. It is your job to maximize what he has. The details of his game — and it’s basically on a daily basis — you’re going to have to assess and push him in certain areas. Is that basically the thought process going into it right away as an 18 year old? Bringing him into camp and saying, “where is he at right now and where does he need to be?”
Babcock: I’ve talked to him already here a bit. Pace is going to be the first thing. You’ve go to play the whole shift; you can’t play half a shift. Faceoff circle. We can look after all those things before camp even starts. He’s a competitive guy and he wants to be good. The great thing about the World Championships this year – McDavid was there and he was there. I watched Canada and I watched the US. I could compare them. These are upper-echelon players who don’t take a backseat to men. When you go to a tournament, and you’re playing with NHL players that are good NHL players and you’re better than them, you must be okay.
What do you think about the World Cup? Does that help him? The NHL season is a long season. Is that something that can help?
Babcock: Yeah, that’s going to help him — being around the best guys and then going there and figuring out you can play in a hurry. He’s going to be able to play. Nothing is going to overwhelm this kid at all. He is going to play on a team with McDavid and Eichel and maybe there’s no room. Maybe he is a left winger. So what? Suck it up and find a way to play. Get on the ice. He’ll figure it out. Todd McLellan will be coaching that team. The best players are going to play on that team. It will be confidence. It’s like Zaitsev playing for the Russians. It’s confidence. When you play with the best players and you know you can play with them, you know you’re good.