Mike Babcock addressed the media on locker clean out day, discussing the 2017-18 season, what’s left to do for the team to contend, the progress of The Big Three, the pending UFAs, his relationship with Auston Matthews, and much more.
Your club has come a long way in just three years. Did the last seven games provide you with an indication of how much further you’ve got to go?
Babcock: I mean, it rips the heart out of your chest. Last year, when we lost out in the playoffs, I don’t think it was devastating to anybody. I think this year, you’re set up and you’re right there. You’re ahead and you’ve got it going good. It just goes to show you how fragile things are at times. Having said that, I’m real proud of our group. I’m proud of our players and management team. They’ve done a good job of getting players and the players have done a better job of getting better and working hard. Our lineup has changed drastically over the years, and now we’ve got a team that we think is set up to be a good team.
We’re still going to have work to do this summer. In saying that, we’re like I don’t know how many teams… there are eight teams playing we’re not. We want to be playing. We’ve got to get to work. That’s what we talked about in our exit meetings with all of our players: The work you do this summer allows you to play eight weeks instead of two. We have to identify what we need to be better at individually and then collectively and continue to make strides if we want to have success.
It’s only been 36 hours to digest, but you talked about the pain. Is part of that that the moment was there? 20 minutes, it was there in front of you, and the stage was set.
Babcock: We didn’t do it. The bottom line is, you work your whole life for opportunities. You keep working. Sometimes you put in the work and you’re disappointed anyway, but to me, if you do it over and over again, opportunities go your way. I’m a big believer in that. We’re disappointed in the way it ended. We are glad to have had the opportunity. We thought we played a real good Boston team. We think we’re a good hockey club. In the end, they advanced. In the third period, when they scored at 4-on-4, we even won the faceoff, for crying out loud. It’s crazy, but… it ends up in the back of our net. And then they get the other goal off the rush. We have three guys there and they have one guy; it goes in the net.
We didn’t recover. We had a TV timeout, I think it was, and lots of time to gather our guys and we didn’t recover. They’re going to play and they’re going to forget the seven-game series. You only forget the seven-game series when you lose. The other guys are going on. They’re going to get on to more things. We’ve just got to keep getting better as a club. That’s it.
When you look at the big picture and you see over the past couple of years how much progress you made, are you where you thought you’d be, or do you still think you’re ahead of the game?
Babcock: If you were to ask me at the time, obviously, miles ahead of the game. In saying all of that, I’m like every other human being – I’m greedy. I want more. We really thought this playoff series was great for our young guys. There was no room, no space, and it was hard on them. Sometimes, the best growing opportunities are those little speed bumps in life. They lead to taking the next step because they challenge you mentally and physically. Sometimes getting slapped is the best thing for growth because you dig in that hard. You don’t like it. You don’t like the feeling. I mean, when we are suddenly going from we think we’re going to be winning to losing, no one on that bench was very happy. You’re disappointed. You’re mad. You’re frustrated. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not the feeling you want to have.
Where do you see the growth of Auston and Mitch and Willy this year? Do you see Willy as a center more next year than you would this year?
Babcock: I’ll just deal with the Willy one – I’m not sure. That’ll depend on our lineup. As far as Mitch – I thought he had a tough, tough start. I thought Mitch took his pills early this year. Those lessons we talked about happened early. It didn’t go for him. He struggled. Once he got going though, I thought he really got going. And then his… I don’t know if it’s his relationship with Marleau, or playing with Naz, or what it was, but he got better and better. He was a real factor at playoff time.
I thought Matty came into a training camp on fire and got off to an unbelievable start and hurt his back. I don’t think any time after that, he ever skated the way Matty can skate. The next injury was his head, so he couldn’t skate at that time, too. Even the last injury with his shoulder… That’s 20 games there. His skating never got back to the level he was at. The two other guys are wingers. It’s way easier to be a winger than a center. When you’re playing against the best players in the world, you’ve got to have a 200-foot game. It was harder for him.
The other thing is, we played a good defensive team in the playoffs. If I’m not mistaken, goals for and goals against, Boston was right there with goals against. They were stingy. When you measure yourself stats wise, I thought it was hard for those guys.
I thought Willy got going. It was just the way it is. Lots of times, when you play and you play lots of rounds, sometimes your first round doesn’t go as good, but then two rounds in, your points look good and everyone thinks you’re doing good, and no one knows you struggled at the start. Sometimes your struggles are just them playing good.
Does the offseason focus here have to be on improving the blue line and getting a stud, if you will, so that we aren’t talking about this again at the same time next year?
Babcock: I guess what I would say to you is this: You always investigate everything you can do. It’s not like we went into the summer last year an said, “We’re getting Patrick Marleau and Hainsey.” It doesn’t work like that. Lots of the best deals you ever did… I remember the best deal in Detroit was getting Rafalski. We tried to spend all the money on someone else and they turned it down. We never would’ve gotten Rafalski. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. What we’re going to do though is what we can to improve our hockey club.
The second part to that question would be: Is that where the focus has to be in the offseason, if you’re comfortable and like the guys you have up front?
Babcock: I think we’ve got free agents up front, too, right? We’ve got a lot of areas. We’ve got work to do.
I’m sure you’re aware with the report from Sportsnet that your relationship with Auston is troubled.
Babcock: I heard about that last night at 11 o’clock. I went to my daughter’s grad the other day so I never got a chance. Someone texted me about it. I said, “I’ll find out in the morning. I’ll meet ‘em and ask ‘em in the morning.”
That’s how I started today. I said, “What’s going on?” Auston was pissed off in the third period in the last 10 minutes of the last game. Probably 23 other guys on the team were the same.
It’s interesting – in Toronto, you guys do such a good job. You’re everywhere. You’re in the bench. You’re in the crack of the door. You’re in the car. You’re in the parking lot. You’re everywhere. Every time anyone does anything, there is a big story. Sometimes, I don’t know, is it 12% of the time it’s true? I think Auston and I have a good relationship. I asked him that exactly today. I’ve told Auston a lot about it – I’ve really got a ton of respect for Auston’s mom and dad. They parent him. When parents give you their children, they expect you to treat them like you’d treat their kid. I try to push Auston to be better every day. I’m very clear to him: If I’m pushing too far, get in my office and tell me.
The other thing about the bench is, sometimes people snap on people. So what? It’s the game. Just because we’ve got all of you guys here, it’s something it’s not. I asked him flat out, “Do we have any?” He was sitting right there. We don’t seem to. But you can do with your stories what you want. But I think Auston is a young man trying to be the best player in the world and wants to get better. He is like everyone else on our team – disappointed today. The hardest part in life is when you’re disappointed and thought you maybe could’ve done more yourself. That’s the hardest part.
I know that for me as a coach, when I feel like I didn’t get what I should’ve done, it makes you sick almost. He’s a good young man. We’re lucky to have him. I’m lucky to coach him. We continue to grow our product here with him leading the way.
Do you think this dressing room is ready for a captain?
Babcock: I don’t know. We haven’t talked about that yet. We have Hainsey and Marleau in that group that have really done a nice job for us and provided leadership. I think it’s something that maybe you guys think we need more than we think we need it. If someone is ready…. I think being a captain is a lot easier in a lot of other places than it is in Toronto. So, do we need to put the extra weight on someone? I don’t know the answer to that question. We’ll talk about that this summer. We’ll make the decision.
Jake obviously had a rough game in Game 7 and came out and spoke and has taken some heat. What does it say about him that he was willing to stand up and take the heat after that game?
Babcock: Let’s not put all of this on Jake Gardiner. We do this together – as a coaching staff, as players, as goaltenders; the whole crew together. It’s important in life to own your own. You don’t have to throw yourself under the bus, though. I thought Jake could’ve just said, “Hey, I wasn’t as good as I should’ve been,” and that would’ve been it. We just talked about this: I think, any time in your life where you felt you could’ve done more yourself, those are the biggest disappointments. I think that is what Jake expressed. I made it clear to him today: Don’t be living with that. The little slap you give yourself so you train harder this summer and work harder – great. The rest, though – move on.
You mentioned the free agents up front. What have JVR, Bozak and Komarov meant to this group over the years?
Babcock: I think a lot. JVR has gotten better every year that I’ve been here. He’s got his skill set. He can score in front of the net and he’s got the long reach. He loves hockey. He tries to get better in any way you possibly can.
I thought Bozak, in the three years I’ve been here, had his best year this year – competitive, good on the power play, way better without the puck than you think, good in the faceoff circle. I thought he was an important part for our team.
Leo is just Leo. What I mean by that – the people in the room and the people that run the hockey club value him way more than the fans and the media do because he does everything right every single day. He’s like Polie in that way. They do it right all the time. They’re the guys you need. We could have really used Leo – and Naz, for that matter – in the playoffs. We could’ve really used them. We think they’re important pieces.
The great thing about what they’ve been able to do: They’ve worked hard to set themselves up for the situation they have right now. They should exercise their option and figure out what is best for them and their family. I don’t think the Leafs are out of the mix there. In saying that, business is business and you don’t know what is going to happen.
Back to those three forwards – Willy self-analyzed his game and said he didn’t think he was good enough at being consistent and at his best through 60 minutes of every hockey game, and that’s his goal. Would you agree with that?
Babcock: I think Willy… It’s interesting. We always come back to the three guys with the most talent because that’s what we are enamoured with. But the way they can help themselves is by competing and becoming more consistent, by becoming better pros, by training harder. When you do it right every single day — when you come to practice and you’re detailed-oriented and competitive — when the game starts, it just happens naturally. Your habits in your life have got to become like that for you to be successful on a regular basis. Willy is a great kid who wants to be good. They’re all great kids. But he’s a great kid who wants to be good and he wants more. I like the fact that he wants more.
Those guys who went through… I don’t know how many points they had in the regular season; around 60-something, or whatever. Matty scored at probably the highest rate per game. I think Mitch led us in scoring, and Willy is right there. When you go through the playoffs, though, because you played such a short time, you go – geez, I wanted more from myself. That is the part that makes guys want more. That is what he is going to do. He’s going to commit to doing that. We just talked about this a minute ago. He wants to be a better player and we want him to be a better player, so it works out for both of us.
There are obviously changes coming. Auston and Mitch playing more together – or do you still like those guys apart?
Babcock: I don’t know if I see that or don’t see it. The great thing about it: I went to Michigan yesterday for my daughter’s grad. I’ve done no whiteboard work or napkin work. I haven’t even had a beer yet, for crying out loud. I haven’t done anything of those things, to tell you the truth. So much depends on who you acquire. I think you guys want them to play together. I want to win. That’s what I want to do.
Just in wrapping up, for me anyway: Coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs is an unbelievable privilege. What you guys do for our franchise, and sometimes you don’t get the respect you deserve because you make it hard, but you also make it great. The coverage we get is second-to-none, and that’s why our franchise can have the kind of people we have at the game and the people in the bars. Our message to our fans is simple: We’re doing everything to get our franchise to a level where you can all be proud. We appreciate the coverage. Have a great day.