Jim Hiller addressed the media ahead of the preseason tilt against Buffalo on Thursday, touching on William Nylander on the wing versus center, the team’s work ethic in camp, and what Matt Martin can bring to the team beyond fighting.
Expectations for tonight – slightly different group obviously, but what are you trying to build from Halifax now to St. Catharines?
Jim Hiller: We talked about it – we thought we did a lot of things well in Halifax, but there were a lot of staples of our game that were missing. We think we addressed those through video and through explanation. We’ll look to see some of those things [improve] tonight. I think one of the things is us being in front of their goaltender and spending more time in front of the net. You better see that tonight.
And protecting the puck, less turnovers in the neutral zone?
Hiller: A couple of things off the rush. A couple of sort-outs that we had. Offensively, it’s just getting to their net front. You saw we had a lot of shots, but we didn’t think we generated enough. There were a few breakdowns where the puck ended up in our net, and we talked about those as well.
The fact that Mike Babcock is not here – does that change anything for any player trying to make this team?
Hiller: I don’t think so. Mike is not here, [Andrew Brewer] is not here, but there are a heck of a lot of guys here watching each player daily and giving reports to Mike. He’ll want to get a look on them live, too. I don’t think that changes [anything]; if you’re a player, you’ve got to be good every single day. We talked a lot about that last year – every single day. If you think you’re waiting until Babs shows up, you’re probably making a mistake.
Garret Sparks said today that he thinks the players have done a pretty good job of policing themselves to keep up the tempo in Mike’s absence. What do you think?
Hiller: I think so. That was one of the things we talked about. Do you have to teach these guys a lot of new stuff? Well, you’ve always got to remind the players of the systems. You’ve got to go over the details of the systems. What I found really encouraging were the work ethic and the relentlessness and determination. That was definitely a carryover from last season into the beginning of this season’s training camp. That is a good sign. That’s culture, right there. Mistakes we can clean up. The fact that the guys came to work, I think, was a great sign moving forward.
How long do you think it took you guys to get that message through last year, from where they were in training camp to the relentlessness that you want?
Hiller: I don’t know if you can put a timeline on it. You always want more, so you never feel like you’re there. I just think that Mike did a terrific job instilling that daily with his work ethic, and it rubbed off on his players. When it happened, as it grew slowly – I don’t know. Our players, I think they came up this year and were focused and knew what to expect. I think that’s the big part of it, too – the tempo and the pace of practice.
Referring to William Nylander, will you continue to move him between the middle and right side as things start to narrow down in a week? And then maybe finalize where he might open the season?
Hiller: We’re not exactly sure where he’s going to play, right? He was at center last year and did a terrific job. I know Mike has talked about how maybe he’ll play the wing this year. I think he’s focused right now. He’s in the middle. He’s focused on playing center. I think anytime you have versatility in a player, that’s a bonus for him. But right now we’re looking at him down the middle. He’s doing a good job. He gets to go tonight. We’ll see what he does.
Whether it be Matt Martin or Zach Hyman, do you like having a couple of guys like that who can really create time and space?
Hiller: I think so. I think the one that we talked about is that we weren’t at the net front enough. What we saw, really, with that line was that Matt Martin spent a lot of time in training camp scrimmages in front of their goaltender. Hyman did a lot of good work under the goal line and Willy of course was their triggerman and finding those guys. We liked how they looked in training camp, so we should see that again here tonight where we’ve got a good offensive presence in those three.
You were glad to see Kerby step up the other night, I’m sure. Do you look forward to seeing a bit more of him in a game?
Hiller: There is a lot of different things that happen in a game. When you drop your gloves and you get involved, that’s one thing that everybody remembers. It happened way too quick, so we’ll see a little bit more about what he can do up and down the ice, but everybody was encouraged with him based on his performance.
There is not a lot of fighting in the game anymore. I know Mike Babcock teams don’t really have fighters, but Matt Martin – what does he bring? He’s got that element to his game, but there’s more to him than that, right?
Hiller: There is. We’re seeing that here daily. He’s been really impressive with his work ethic, his hunger to get better. When you’re out there with a guy like Willy – he spent a lot of time with Willy in this training camp – you’re playing in the offensive zone, you’re getting to the net front, you’re the presence in front of the goaltender. It’s much more than just potentially getting into a fight once and a while. He just brings a leadership presence. When he gets in front of the net, he’s a hard guy to move. That’s an important part. Goaltenders are so hard to score on. With a big guy in front, there’s a few more holes that open up.