Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Monday, discussing Nikita Zaitsev and Auston Matthews’ status, Mitch Marner’s recent form, William Nylander’s play at center, and much more.
On Nikita Zaitsev’s status:
Babcock: Obviously, he didn’t bounce back the way we expected, so he’s seeing the doctor today and we’ll know more. We just think it’s the flu, but it wasn’t done as quickly as we expected.
On Auston Matthews practicing for over an hour in a red jersey:
Babcock: He’s obviously feeling way better. I noticed, when we did the contact stuff, he didn’t do as much as that. He didn’t dive right into it. I didn’t talk to anybody; that’s just what I noticed.
On the ability to skate keeping him in shape for when he returns for the final games plus playoffs:
Babcock: It will help him for sure. We’ve made a point — he’s done some skating. He’ll be in better shape when he comes back than he was when he left just because with two of his previous injuries, he couldn’t skate during that time. I think that’s important for him. It’ll still take him a bit for timing. I would expect that he’s going to be pushing not for the Dallas game but after that some time. I don’t know when that is exactly, but I’d imagine that would be part of the plan. As he’s feeling better, he’ll get involved more.
On the importance of special teams balance heading towards the playoffs:
Babcock: It’s real important, obviously. Our penalty kill has been real good and won us lots of games. Our power play — it’s been real dangerous on one group and not as good on the other group. We have to get that fixed. You need two balanced units with fresh guys going out there so they can do a job. Obviously, we feel we have the depth to do that. So, we’ve got to come up with a scheme and a work ethic and an execution that can do that. That’ll still happen more when Matty is back. In the meantime, we still need power play goals out of that other group.
On Mitch Marner’s versatility to play in so many different spots in the lineup:
Babcock: I mean, obviously, he’s a good player. He’s one of those wingers that is able to drive a line. We try to put him in a spot to generate offense, is what we try to do, as best we possibly can. Home and away is a little bit different that way, so we adjust accordingly. He started slow but he’s got confidence right now and confidence is everything in this game, as you know. He feels good about himself.
On whether Marner is shedding some of his pass-first mentality:
Babcock: We talked about it and he understands it. If everyone knows you’re going to pass, they don’t have to worry about you very much. I thought he had two real good cracks last game when he hit the bar on one and hit the top of the pad on the other one. I believe he can shoot the puck and shoot it well. He’s just got to use his momentum. He’s working on it constantly and he’s getting better.
On what Marner did to earn his confidence back:
Babcock: He got back to work. If you work all the time, you don’t have to worry about much. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do in the summer, or you don’t push it every day in practice, as soon as you don’t do it right, it’s coming to get you. The league is just too good. That’s just the reality. Even when you work hard and you do everything right, sometimes it goes away. The best thing to guard against it is to try to get better every day and pick a skill you need to work on. Pursue that and get stronger in the gym, and eat right and live right. You do those things and it’ll turn out good.
On the playoff cushion and making sure the team doesn’t get complacent:
Babcock: I think you guys have been asking me this quite a while and I keep giving you the same answer every time. The biggest game you play is the one you’re playing. We’ve got to get better every day. We’re pushing as hard as we can as a coaching staff and as players to get better. We know that, once you get into the tournament, you can be done in a hurry if you’re not ready. Having momentum going in and feeling good about yourself is important. We’ve got a lot of detail to cover here in the next little while. I think we’re 8 and 5 as far home and the road, so we’ve got to dial in and get better.
On William Nylander working after practice as he looks to snap a goal-scoring slump:
Babcock: I think he is on track. I thought he played one of his best games in our lineup at center. Head-to-head against Malkin, I thought he did a great job last game. He had the great tip and could’ve scored easily. I don’t think Willy is off it at all. I actually think he’s playing really well.
On whether he learns a lot about the team with Auston Matthews out of the lineup:
Babcock: It’s way easier for me when he’s in, so we don’t have to talk about it so much. You know what I mean? This is what I would tell you: It doesn’t matter who is in the lineup, we expect to win. We think we’re good enough to play hard and do it right. That doesn’t mean we do all the time. Obviously, there is slippage at times. I just think, for us, no matter who is playing, we’ve got to be dialled in, ready to go, and we’ve got to play fast. If we play right, especially without the puck, we’ll get our chances and we’ll have a good chance to win.
With Matt Martin skating on the fourth line in practice, on whether he’s anticipating any lineup changes for the game versus Dallas on Wednesday:
Babcock: I wouldn’t look at anything… I wouldn’t try reading my mind. I don’t even know what’s going on in there. How’s that?