Mike Babcock joined Leafs Lunch on Friday afternoon, discussing Mitch Marner’s status, Auston Matthews’ development, Josh Leivo’s recent play, the plan for William Nylander at wing vs. center, and the team’s deadline plans.
Do we have an update on Mitch Marner?
Mike Babcock: He’s day to day. The doctors will decide whether tomorrow is the day or not. We’ll just see how he does. He’s got an upper-body injury. Obviously, we’ll have him in the lineup as soon as he’s capable. This is why they don’t let the coach make this decision or he’d be in.
Going back to Sidney Crosby for a second – would you ever show some of your young skilled players some video of him? Because, as somebody who played against him – and even if you just watch he games – you can tell that what makes him special is obviously the skill, but more important than that is obviously the way that he works for pucks and makes his teammates better. Is that something you guys do at all?
Babcock: Yeah, for sure. We actually did a whole package when we played Pittsburgh this year. We spent a lot of time on that. I spent a lot of time with [Auston Matthews] in particular — just because he’s a centerman — on some of the details that Sid had. The other thing you express to [Auston] is that Sid didn’t have them when he got into the league either. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. He worked on them. First year, he wasn’t very good in the faceoff circle. He’s a guy who embraces life-long learning. You’ve got to get better each year. It doesn’t matter what your job is. He’s really embraced that since he got to the NHL. Some guys arrive, and when they get to a certain level, the good-enough meter kicks in. That hasn’t happened at all. He’s just pushing.
What is it you’re looking at in Auston Matthews’ game to say, “I want to see you elevate or get better in this particular area?”
Babcock: I’m not going to share that with you, but what I would tell you is we’re in constant dialogue about him getting better. What I want for Matty – I want him to have the puck all the time. In order to have the puck all the time, you’ve got to be better without it. You’ve got to be better in the faceoff circle. You’ve got to understand the game more and how it’s played at this level to be successful. He does a lot of good things. He’s one of those guys, like Sid in that way, who’s got an elite drive train. He wants to be better every day. He takes it very seriously. He can laugh at himself and enjoy what he’s doing, but he’s a real pro at a very, very young age. That’s why his growth opportunity is great.
The other thing that happens is, when you’re a guy like Sidney Crosby or a guy like Tom Brady or a guy like Matty, you make your teammates better not because of what you say but how hard you work. You almost shame them into working as well.
Do you think it’s difficult with a younger group to get over a good game? I found, on teams where we were rebuilding, it was tough to get over the good game and easier to get over a bad game because you’re looking forward to the next one.
Babcock: I think you’re exactly right. It’s called being a good pro. It’s called ‘every single day’ and being an ‘every-day’er’. The best of the best at what they do – it’s like water off a duck’s back and you just bring it the next day. That’s whether things go good or things go poorly. It’s about living in the moment and doing it right. There is no question about it. You get feeling good and the intensity is not the same. In this league, if you’re not ready to go at the drop of the puck, you’re chasing the game and it looks bad on you. I just find with young people — and as the league turns up – they want space. They’ve had space their whole life. There is lots of room to make plays. There is no space as the NHL gets farther and farther, and then you get to the playoffs and it’s a whole other level. As it’s tightened up, it’s harder on young people. They’re used to having space, and suddenly they don’t have it.
What has Josh Leivo done to impress you in the games he’s been in?
Babcock: Real good hockey sense. Elite shot. You never know what part is true and what part isn’t, but he worked hard this summer, and he’s skated every single day until nausea. He’s probably in the best shape of his life, and he looks quicker when he’s out there. You’ve got to give the kid credit. He was the best player on the ice whether he played with Smith and Martin or whether he played with Naz and Leo. He was our best player, and one of the best two players in the last two games. He’s earned his opportunity. Now it’s important for him to just keep earning it. You never know what could happen. There are lots of players in the league where someone got hurt, they got in and they never went out. So good for him.
If Mitch doesn’t play tomorrow or this weekend at all, do you look for anyone in particular to step up and take advantage of that opportunity? Or do you just kind of wait and see, and whoever shows up is going to get the chance?
Babcock: What we did today is set them up in lines accordingly. We left Leivo with Kadri and Soshnikov will come back in. Bozak will go with Brown. I thought they were going to be a line at the start of the year anyway, but Marner was way ahead of what I expected. And then Nylander plays with Matthews. Obviously, Marner is a really good player, but the way I look at the NHL is that we all wear the same sweater and when you get your opportunity you make good on it. What I’m hoping is to find an extra player out of it. I think having Leivo has been really positive for me. You want to have too many forwards for the amount of slots. You can tell a guy, “hey, get going,” all you want, but when he misses a shift and Leivo takes his spot, it’s amazing how that helps, rather than me talking.
Regarding Nylander, given where you guys are in the standings, do you find it more difficult to find out [if he’s a center] when at this point… I know you want to win and did last year too, but at this point, there is obviously something bigger at the end of the line here.
Babcock: Yeah. I wasn’t going to play him at center this year anyway. Now, if we got an injury, that’d be different, but our plan is for him to play on the wing all year and maybe into next year. Over time, though… and you’ve seen a tonne of guys who that’s happened with in the NHL. You’ve arrived and think you’re a center, you don’t know how to check your own half, and you play on the wing for a while while you learn. Once you learn how you can go back to playing in the middle. I don’t see this happening right away. We feel he needs ice time. He can’t get it on the fourth line. We feel the three centers we’ve got playing center are ahead of him at this point.
With the trade deadline a few weeks away, there has been a lot of talk of teams adding, subtracting. When it comes to the Leafs, how much help do you think comes from within? How much help do you think can come from the outside?
Babcock: What I’d tell you is we’ve got a long-term plan here. We feel like we’d do anything we could to get in the playoffs that doesn’t get in the way of our long-term plan. I’m no different than anyone else. People can speculate but the reality is, you look at our group, and I think this is our group moving ahead. What we can do in the offseason to help ourselves – that’s a big job for our management team. But right now, if anybody is looking for us to be the news on trade deadline day, I’d find something else to do.
Before we let you go, did you ever have a moment where you went home after a game, poured yourself a drink, sat down and looked at your wife and said, “that really impressed me.” Was there a moment so far this season where you’re like, “I didn’t expect that. That impressed me.”
Babcock: The truth is we’ve played lots of really good hockey. Having that drink – I have one of those once in a while for sure. I’m happy to tell my bride when we do good things. I guess what I’d tell you is I’m impressed with our group. I really am impressed with our group. Being impressed with your group now, though, [means] that the expectation has changed. Sometimes you’re more disappointed when you never would’ve been earlier just because the expectations have changed. I think that’s a healthy thing. I think it’s great to be in an environment where we played good enough that we’re kind of under the gun now. That’s great for the development of our team.