Mike Babcock met with the media after practice on Friday, discussing JVR and Bozak’s recent play without Mitch Marner, Frederik Andersen’s performance against New York, the rookies’ response to a playoff race, and more.
Missing some guys [JVR, Bozak, Brown] today?
Mike Babcock: Yeah, started to practice, didn’t have enough. I don’t think anyone is injured and I think everyone is available for tomorrow.
How have JVR and Bozak adjusted since Mitch went down?
Babcock: Well, I thought good. There’s lots of nights where you say, “okay, we’re young and stuff like that.” I didn’t think our veteran guys up front last night were near as good as they normally are, so we need them to be better. They were dominant for us the other night in Carolina and good again the other night. That line wasn’t as good last night and neither was Naz’s group that’s been dominant for us. It wasn’t quite the same. Those things happen and someone else has to pick them up. Just in general as a team, we could’ve won more battles. I thought we were way too respectful of the opposition last night and turned the puck over too much and made it hard on ourselves.
You said you were giving Smith a reset, but with how Gauthier has played, do you see him keeping his spot in the lineup?
Babcock: We watch every game and try to play the right people as best as we possibly can. Goat was the fourth-line center today and Smitty was filling in, so that would be the way we move ahead. Smitty is a real good pro though. Whether he plays right wing, center, or left wing, he’ll be ready to go when you need him.
Last night was just one game, but looking ahead to tomorrow, how do you get better zone entries on the powerplay?
Babcock: Well, I think our powerplay is ranked number one in the league, isn’t it? We were no good on it. We’ll be better next game. How’s that? I mean, we weren’t any good last game and we didn’t execute. I didn’t think we executed with the puck all night long, to be honest with you. We’ve got to revisit it. I don’t think it was necessarily anything New York did last night. We’ve seen their forecheck many times. We play a good Montreal team tomorrow. They’ve had their way with us. We look forward to playing them.
Carey Price and Lundqvist had quite the battle a few nights ago. Last night, Andie and Lundqvist. How does it feel to have a goalie you can put into that fight?
Babcock: I thought for sure. In the first period, Andie was the star. Both goalies. Once it gets to 3 on 3, it’s just… I don’t even know what you call that. Obviously, they’ve got to make saves and they did.
JVR has no goals in ten here. Do you notice he’s pressing?
Babcock: I think he just got two great assists the other night. I don’t know what he had last game. I didn’t look. The biggest thing for me – I don’t measure guys on how they score, I measure guys on how they compete and how much they have the puck and how many shifts they’re in on the puck. If you want to score and you’re on the puck, you’re going to score. The biggest thing is just to compete hard enough to play in the o-zone. If you’re rolling around the o-zone, eventually a big guy like him will score.
A lot of your players have never been involved in a playoff race like this one. Do they feel excited? Anxious?
Babcock: I think most of them have been in lots of playoff races. It was just at a different level. You know, they’re used to winning. The only guys that aren’t used to winning are the guys who have been here for a while. So, we always talk about the kids, but that’s not the group we have to worry about. We’ve got to worry about the group that’s been here for a while. They’ve got to get used to winning every night.
Those players that have been here for a while – Gardiner, JVR, Kadri – when you talk about the rookies and their growth this season, but what about those guys that are mid-to-late 20s? Have you felt a growth in their play?
Babcock: Obviously, Kadri’s become a real good player. He didn’t have a real good game the other night but he’s become a real good important player for us. Gardiner is the same way. JVR is having a pretty good year, I think. He’s really improved his cycle game and his physical game. We feel those players are all going in the right direction. Now they’ve got to play well tomorrow.
How do you feel that your sports science staff has helped you be more proactive in terms of player health and keeping them on their game?
Babcock: Well, great. There is a fine line, too. When you’re a coach, you want everyone to play. Tape an aspirin to him and get him in the lineup. So we don’t take that approach here. Sometimes that doesn’t work for the coach, but who cares what the coach thinks? That’s why those guys are paid to do their job.
Two weeks ago you said that Claude Julien would find another job quickly. Did you think it would be that quick?
Babcock: I knew he was going to have an opportunity that quick. I just didn’t know whether he wanted to… some guys want the rest of the year off and to be with their family again, and he’s got young kids. I didn’t know what Julie boy was going to do. But obviously, it’s a good opportunity for him. He’s a real good coach and a real good man. You just knew he was going to coach. He’s too good of a coach not to be in the business.
Are you looking forward to coaching against him tomorrow night?
Babcock: I like coaching against him, obviously. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s a good man, and he’s a good coach. It’s always fun to coach against guys you coached with and been involved with. I’m cheering for him every night except for the nights he plays the Leafs.