Mike Babcock addressed the media ahead of the preseason matchup against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, touching on the team’s youth, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Gauthier, and more.
On the youth in camp:
Babcock: We’ve got lots of good young players. I think we’ve got enough veterans to help them out. We’re obviously much more talented than we were last year. Last year we could check the puck back, and when we got the puck back we didn’t know what to do with it. I’m hoping that, over time, with the skill level that we have, we’ll be good offensively. It was nice to Andersen out there in the first group. He’s obviously a big guy. He looks like he could really play. We have some really interesting decisions over the next week here. We’re going to watch our guys and play our guys a lot, and we’ll figure it out.
Still got a lot of teaching to do with those young guys?
Babcock: Sure, but I mean, it’s no different than any other team. I think we’re ahead of where we were last year just because last year they didn’t have a clue how you wanted them to play. They’ll get up to speed quickly. We need to play some games. I need to watch them and get a feel for them, and then we’ll be able to get dialled in better as we go over the next week.
What have you seen in Marner’s game in the couple of games he’s gotten into here so far?
Babcock: He has the puck lots, which is real positive. He’s just got to keep going. I’ve enjoyed watching him thus far. He’s been effective. He’s going to play with Bozak and van Riemsdyk tonight here and we’ll see how he does. The whole key is, as you go on, they’re going to end up in some games with NHL defencemen. You learn more in those situations.
You’ve got Nylander on the wing after playing him at center for most of training camp. Why Nylander on the wing and what do you like about that particular combination with Auston Matthews?
Babcock: They’re both good young players. They both think they’re the best players, so let’s find out who is. They can compete all the time there. One can take right-hand faceoffs, one can take left-hand faceoffs. They both can play down low in their zone. Good players like to play with good players. I think it’s a good fit there. Hyman’s just a hard worker. If either one of them can work as hard as Hyman, I’ll be pumped.
What would you like to see Matthews take from these NHL preseason games having come from the World Cup from Switzerland? Obviously, that’s a good prep for this. What can he learn? What can he take from this?
Babcock: Obviously he did a real good job in the World Cup. Now he gets a chance to wear our uniform here for tonight for the first time in obviously his opening game. It’s just an opportunity to get comfortable and be around his teammates and understand what we expect. In the World Cup, he didn’t have to play down low in his own zone. When you go through the matchups, they didn’t play McDavid in a head-to-head matchup. Any way you look at it, he’s going to decide whether they match up against them or Bozak or Kadri when you’re on the road based on his level of play. If he’s our best player, they’re going to match up head to head with him and that’ll be a good test.
Morgan Rielly had a strong World Cup. What have you seen from him so far?
Babcock: The World Cup was obviously really good for Rielly. The World Championship [too]. It’s a confidence thing. You earn the right to feel good about yourself. He thinks he’s an elite player and he’s getting better. He’s got lots of work to do in his game but he’s come a long way. He’s one of our leaders and we need him to keep growing.
The comment you made at the end of the World Cup about [a championship] coming to Toronto. Do you recognize that that confidence seeps into the dressing room already?
Babcock: I never said it was going to happen tomorrow. We’re a work in progress. I just think we should get used to winning around here instead of used to losing. Expect to win and expect to compete hard enough to win. There are 30 teams right now in the NHL that all think they have a chance, that are all optimistic like us. The first question was about how we’ve got all these kids. Everyone thinks they’re good.
What’s your assessment of Freddie Gauthier’s camp so far?
Babcock: The thing I like about Freddie the best is he’s 6’5 and 235. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shift or a bad shift. I like that. He’s a very intelligent guy to say the least. He’s got to play with more pace and he’s got to be harder. When’s that going to happen? He’s going to play in the NHL. How soon is it going to happen? It’s up to Freddie.