Mike Babcock joined TSN’s Darren Dreger to discuss the growth of the Leafs’ rookies, scouting the World Championships, and expectations for the team next season.
The video is available here.
Dreger: For the second consecutive year, you’re back in the Dreger Cafe. You seem to be upping the ante a little bit. Last year, it was St. Petersburg. Now we’re in beautiful Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Copenhagen next year is going to be a tough one to beat.
Babcock: Hopefully I’m not there.
Dreger: I was just going to say that chances are you and the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be there. In saying that, though, not every NHL head coach makes it a point to come to the World Championships. Why, when you’re available, do you come?
Babcock: I guess a number of things. Number one, I’m not going to learn about a whole much about hockey sitting at home. I can watch the NHL playoffs, which I hate doing, on TV, and I’m still going to get home with lots of time to see the end. I just think it’s learning the players. We’ve got people — Jim Paliafito, for example — who has been over here grinding trying to find players. I think it’s important you support those guys, get to know those guys, and build a relationship with those guys. In the end, they breathe life into the Leafs and into our hockey team.
Dreger: You also have selfish interest for being here, clearly. You’ve got Mitch Marner playing for Team Canada. You watched him for the first time in this Men’s World Championship on Monday night, playing on a pretty entertaining kid line. What did you think?
Babcock: I thought he was really skating. Mitch had a great year for us. You didn’t even know if he was going to be on the team, and then he was real dominant for you. He got injured and he got sick and wasn’t quite the same. I really thought he had the pop back in his legs yesterday. On one shift alone he made three plays — one to the D and two other forwards — for chances and then had a good chance himself. He is a real good player. He loves hockey and his energy is contagious. He’s a kid who is going to get better, obviously.
Dreger: When you look at the year that Marner had — and you touched on it a little bit — he had a tremendous season. Your rookie core had a tremendous year, no question about that. Because it was slowed a little bit by the injury and the illness late in the season, was it important for Marner to accept the invite and continue to play?
Babcock: Each guy has got to make his own decision. Lou and I talked a lot about that. Each guy has got to decide what they want to do. I think it’s fantastic for him and Nylander to be over here. They’re earning confidence. When you get on a stage that is different than you’re used to and then you show how good you are — I thought Willy was dominant the other night against the Germans — it makes you feel good. You’re sitting in the locker room and you’re with different leaders and they’re saying things you haven’t heard and you’re learning from them. You’re learning from the things you don’t like and you’re learning from the things you do like. To me, that confidence they’re earning is just going to benefit our team.
Dreger: Are you excited by that? To see how that confidence is building in Nylander and Matthews and in Mitch Marner? How can they be better and stronger to make the Leafs better and stronger?
Babcock: I think just getting stronger. Each one of them has a summer program that they have to follow to take a step. Matthews’ body is different than the other two for sure. Willy has actually done quite a bit of work there. Mitch has grown a tonne since we drafted him. He’s way taller than he was, but he’s a power packed individual in his lower half. He’s got to get stronger, and he will. They are just kids and there is a growth process. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got those three there. We’ve got Hyman and Brown. They all work and they all love hockey. We’ve got a lot of good players in Toronto. We’re fortunate.
Dreger: How far did those three young men exceed your expectations? Can you even qualify the significance?
Babcock: You don’t know for sure. Even Auston, with as good of a player as you knew he was and the size of him, you knew he was going to be good. You had no idea he was going to embrace doing the things he did with and without the puck — the 200-foot stuff, the big moment stuff, the competitiveness when he got bumped around. In fairness to Willy, his shot and his hands and his skating and his edges are second to none. The competitiveness, I wasn’t sure of. To see him elevate in that way was good. Mitch, we’ve already talked about. They’re special players. They’re exciting players. They’re fun to watch. They bring you out of your seat, too. That is a lot of fun. Obviously, to have a real good hockey club, when you watch the playoffs and you watch the battles going on right now, you need a whole group. You need a lot of men, and you’ve got to have great depth. The way the games are played in the NHL now, every night is a big time game. It’s so tight. Without depth… I just look at Tampa this year, and I’ve used this as an example a number of times. They have great depth and they still missed, but they hung in and hung in. We’re not in that stage yet. We have to build our depth, and that’s why we’re here. We’re here trying to find players to fill in the holes to make our team better.
Dreger: Year after year, we’ve seen NHL teams make improvements but then, for whatever reason, inexplicably take a step back. What can we expect from the Toronto Maple Leafs next season?
Babcock: I think that’s a great question. What we’re going to try to do is stay steady on the rudder. Our plan is our plan and we’ll keep building our program. You never know about injuries. You never know what is going to happen for sure. I think it’s up to management — and I include myself in that area — to help the players. We have to improve the team. I think it’s up to the players to improve this summer by getting stronger, by getting faster, by focusing in on the detail. If it is your shot, you’re spending time on that. If it’s your faceoff circle, you’re spending time on that. If it’s your skating… but to think you’re just going home and cruising, that’s not what happens. Those days are long over with. You take your two weeks off and you get to work.
Dreger: In terms of wants and needs, it’s tough to do anything during the season, but there is an important offseason coming up for the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is a difference between wants and needs. What would you say your wants and needs are?
Babcock: You’d like to think that there is a tree in your backyard and you could just go in and pluck that right-handed defenceman who can play 25 minutes off and put him on your team, or you pluck another heavy guy to play up front, but it doesn’t work like that. There is a cost in everything. If you’re going to acquire something, what is the cost? I thought Lou did a real nice job last year. He went out and got us Freddie Andersen to give us a goaltender that we knew was starting each and every night, which I think is a real safety net for your team. Matt Martin was a huge acquisition. We never got slapped this year at all. When you’ve got a bunch of kids, you can’t afford to get slapped.
We’re going to do everything we can to improve your team, and we could use help both up front and on the back for sure. We’re going to see what is available. Our scouting staff, with Hunter and his crew there, have done an unbelievable job this year. We’ll announce here coming up some signings that will be important for our hockey club as well. We think we’re going in the right direction, but for me to be able to tell you what’s going to happen… I don’t know for sure. Lou wouldn’t know for sure, either. We’ll see what comes and we’ll try to be as prepared as we are to make the right deal at the right time.
Dreger: By signings, do you mean guys who are restricted free agents?
Babcock: No. Guys that we are going to add to our group here that we’ve worked our and have identified and are going to add to our group going ahead.
Dreger: European guys?
Babcock: Well, there you go.
Dreger: You’re not going any further, are you?
Babcock: That’d be it for that.
Dreger: Let’s try to look into the crystal ball, if we can, to next season. Should Leafs fans automatically expect another playoff berth?
Babcock: That’s going to be our hope. Our hope and our goal is to get in the playoffs. Ideally, what you want to be — and I’ve said this a number of times — is a team that, when the puck drops in September, you know you’re in the playoffs like Washington was this year and has been for a period of time. We’d like to get to that level. We’re not at that level. You’ve seen a number of teams that make the playoffs and miss and everyone is upset, and they’re back the next year. It’s a battle right now. You want to be one of those teams that is capable of being in it every year. That’s what we’re growing towards. We’re not at that. But, in saying that, we’re allowed to get better each and every day and we’re allowed to compete hard. And good luck… I’m not a big believer in getting luck. I believe, if you prepare real well and do good things, luck happens. But the luck you need is with injuries. They can decimate you in a hurry and we were real fortunate this year, knock on wood. We need to be fortunate again next year.
Dreger: When you were introduced as head coach fo the Leafs, you prepared the fan base. You said to prepare for pain. There is no question that first year — for you, for the team, for fans of the Maple Leafs — was painful, but it almost feels a little bit like you were playing possum because Year 2 was far from painful.
Babcock: I didn’t know Matthews and I didn’t know Zaitsev. How do you know you’re getting those guys? With all due respect to all the other players in the draft last year, if we don’t get a number-one center, we’re not even close to where we are. If we don’t get Zaitsev… Jim Paliafito, who I talked about earlier, if he doesn’t get that done for us… He’s in our top three. How do you get a guy for free to be in your top three? It just doesn’t happen. I didn’t know Hyman could do what he could do, or that Brown could do what he could do, or the three kids we’ve already talked about. Nevermind that we had career years out of van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Kadri, and maybe I missed somebody. Leo Komarov has turned into a player that you can count on each and every day that competes hard, that provides leadership, that doesn’t mind making his teammates accountable. The goaltender. For me to tell you all of this is going to come together and say it is going to happen as quick as it did would’ve been premature on my part. In saying all that, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just understand what the plan is. We’re building a team that is going to be something to be proud of. It might take us more time than people want, but we’re still building it.
Dreger: Building to be a Cup contender?
Dreger: It’s tough to put a time frame on that. When you make guarantees, or you suggest, “in two years, if we’re not there, we’ve got to do something else…”
Babcock: I just look at what the Edmonton Oilers are doing right now and I look at McDavid and that group there and what they’ve been able to accomplish. I’m impressed with them like crazy. On the other side of that, Bob Murray and Anaheim and what they’ve been through… I was there when we drafted Getzlaf and Perry. The run they’ve had — and there have been some ups and downs — for them to be where they’re at… or you see Tampa, who I thought was ging to be in the Cup Final. They’re not in the playoffs. In this league, there is not much to pick. The more depth you have, the more opportunities you have. When I was Detroit, Ken Holland used to always say, “You knock on the door and you knock on the door, and every once in a while they open the door.” That’s what we’re going to do.
Dreger: You don’t have to be inside the hockey circle to recognize that Auston Matthews very quickly revealed himself as a special, special hockey talent. Did anything about his game this season surprise you?
Babcock: Just his commitment. It’s not a surprise, but what most impressed me… the first time I met Auston’s mom and dad, I was pumping my fist under the table because when I saw him talk to his mom with such respect, and the way he treated his dad, you know you’ve got a good young man there right away. Good people make other people better. I say this all the time. My goal is to make them great players, but at 22, they’ve got to be good men. If they’re good men, they’re going to lead and do things the right way. The most special thing about Auston is the man he’s going to become. That makes your teammates better.
The second thing I’d say to you is, by caring about the team and his commitment to doing it right without the puck, he’s learned to have the puck all the time against real good players. You can play him against anyone. Some nights, the other guy matches up pretty good and plays hard, but he is a pretty good player. He’s committed to doing things right. We’re fortunate to have him, to say the least, and he’s fortunate to play in a great city like Toronto. The hockey market in Toronto is second to none and the fans are spectacular. They’re obviously embracing our young team.
Dreger: He sounds like a very good young leader. Potential captain?
Babcock: For sure he is. The biggest decisions you make are when and how. You have to make the right decisions at the right time. For young players, the second years are often the toughest year. I think just letting him grow is an important thing, and trying not to get in our own way.
Dreger: The final question — and you know how TSN loves these comparisons — comes from TSN’s evil quiz master, who says, “Matthews is a better skating Phil Esposito. Like the Bruins great, Matthews is a slot scoring machine, excellent playmaker, and an elite competitor.” What do you think of that comparison?
Babcock: Boston was my favourite team there when I was a kid. For most people watching this, they’re too young to even know what Phil was able to do. I’ll always remember Phil from the ’72 Series and the compete he had. He could really score. Auston Matthews, to me, gets up and down the rink, like you said, much better. He has a chance to be an elite, elite “200 footer.” The game is much different than it was then. It’s probably a good comparison in some ways. I expect — and it’s harder to be better than anybody, so you have to be careful here — if Auston can stay healthy, he has a chance to have a real mark on the game of hockey.