Mike Babcock sat down with Darren Dreger at the 2018 World Championships in Demark, discussing the Leafs front office situation in wake of Kyle Dubas’ promotion to General Manager, his relationship with Auston Matthews, improving the team in the offseason, and much more.
Is it safe to assume you rather not be back here next year in the Czech Republic?
Babcock: It’s no problem doing this, as you know. It’s a beautiful spot and all of that. But obviously, there are four teams having a lot of fun right now and you want to be one of those four teams. I think, since I did this my first year in Toronto, we’ve made unbelievable progress. This year was very exciting for our team, for our players, for our fan base. But you want to keep improving your product so you can play at this time of year. Anybody who has been watching the Stanley Cup playoffs — it’s big boy hockey. It’s been spectacular to watch. I took a few days off after we lost, but it’s been fun to watch.
You spent some time here in Denmark. You’re going to watch a number of games. That’s what you do. It’s about watching your own players from the Maple Leafs and maybe scouting out some of the available players that might help you in the future. But from a coaching perspective, does it get the juices flowing a little bit? You’ve got a great international resume. In the right circumstances, you’d rather be behind the bench than in the seats.
Babcock: I’d rather be on the bench in the NHL. I’ve done this a couple of times. What I like coming to the tournament for: I can’t learn much at home. I see my players, like you talked about. I just met with Freddy and his family. It was great to go to his house. Unbelievable and a lot of fun to do that. I met with Zaitsev yesterday. It was good to see Z. He didn’t come to the tournament last year. Two years ago, when I saw him, he was a good player. Now he’s a dominant player. It’s great to see their progress.
And then what you see is other teams’ good young players that are coming to the NHL and you get a handle on them a little bit. And like you said, we’re always looking for more players. Jimmy Paliafito, who I am here with, has done an unbelievable job for us finding players. He continues to do that. He is part of Hunts’ team there. We just want to keep the players coming. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to get more and more depth.
You mentioned you met with Zaitsev and you met with Freddy Andersen. You will meet with Kasperi Kapanen. You’re on a bit of a mini tour, which isn’t unusual for an NHL coach. You met with Auston Matthews recently in Arizona as well. Is that important for you to get in to their home environment and have that face to face?
Babcock: Obviously, we were disappointed in the way the season ended. Without media involvement, I might have gone for a beer with Auston, or I might’ve had coffee with him. But I probably wouldn’t have gone to his house. It ended up being a homerun. And then I got a hold of Freddy. I knew I was coming here anyway.
What is the difference in terms of the media involvement? You said you would’ve met Auston for a beer. Why does it make a difference? You just felt like, because of the speculation of a rift, you needed to?
Babcock: Yes, that, and, as much as he’s a man, he’s 20. I’ve got a 25, 23, and 21-year-old. We’re still parenting them. That’s the reality. We’re probably going to parent them forever. I just thought it was… Number one, you get to see where the guy lives. You get to see him around his family. You get to see the stuff that they’ve got up in their house. You have a nice glass of wine and all of that, too, but you get some nice interaction in an environment where they’re real comfortable. No different than when I was with Freddy.
We met with Z and went to a nice restaurant and that, but it wasn’t the same as being at Freddy’s house. Freddy’s dad is a carpenter. His mom is showing you where he took the roof off and fixed that, how they opened up the walls. There is a net in the backyard where Freddy welded when he was a kid. How can you learn that stuff unless you’re there?
That sounds like the coach trying to get to know his players just a little bit better.
Babcock: It gives you something to talk about, too. The big thing with Freddy Andersen — Freddy Andersen has become a huge part of the Leafs. He is a favourite of his teammates. He is an important guy for us. He has got to keep getting better. We were talking about it — he doesn’t want to be in these anymore. It’s great that it’s in his country and it’s great that he’s been given this opportunity. But enough is enough now.
Specific to Matthews and the media and how we perceived what was going on with you and Auston Matthews… There is no question there was frustration from a player perspective. Was that frustration maybe misunderstood a little bit from a media perspective?
Babcock: I’m not changing the media’s mind on anything – they get to do what they want. This is what I do know: The player knows and the coach knows, and the rest doesn’t much matter.
He wants to be better. I want him to be better. I want our team to be better. He wants to be playing now. So that’s what we are working towards. He wants to be the best two-way player in the game and we’re going to work as hard as we can.
It’s not going to be rosy every day. It never is. Anybody who perceives the NHL that things are going good every day, it’s not like that. It’s a competitive, competitive atmosphere. It’s competitive in the room. It’s competitive on the bench. It’s competitive in practice. That’s why the guys love it. That’s why they’re in it. The best players want to be pushed. They want to be pushed the hardest because they want to be the best.
Some days are harder than others for the star player, for the guy who is trying to make a living as a fourth-line player just getting into the lineup. And likewise for coaches, right? You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t push buttons when they needed to be pushed.
Babcock: I think there is a real fine line – and not crossing it. When you do cross it, I think it’s important that you’ve built a good enough relationship that the guy can say, “Woah, woah.” But I think that is part of it.
On the other side, they don’t want to go sleep. These guys want to get better. I’ve coached a lot of the great players in the game being involved with the good teams but also with the national programs. They push. They want more. Every year they go home — every summer — and they’re trying to reinvent themselves. They want to be better and we want them to be better. In order to win, they’ve got to get better.
The other thing about it: There is a big difference between being 28 and totally established and being 20. We’ve got a lot of young people on our team, as you know. That guidance is going to continue to happen. But we’re excited about our group. We really are. We’re excited about our people. Our guys like one another. We’ve got a good room. We’ve got a good thing going in Toronto.
The three-year process we’ve been in… we set a record this year for home win and points, but you want to do it now. So you’ve got to get deeper. When you watch these teams that are playing now, they are deep. A lot of their guys have been through it a number of times and not had much success and suddenly they’re having success. A little bit of adversity never killed anybody.
After losing Game 7 to the Boston Bruins, we had a brief communication. You just said, “Tough loss. Tough series.” Obviously, everyone involved with the organization was deeply disappointed. But going into the playoffs — you know this club better than anyone — you knew it was going to be a tough series. But did you feel like the Maple Leafs were experienced enough to beat Boston and go that much deeper than where you ended up?
Babcock: Well, it doesn’t matter what I feel. It is what I project and tell the players. And we expected to win.
Now, is it going to help us? I believe set backs in life really help you. I didn’t think Jake Gardiner should’ve owned anything. I don’t think he needed to. I thought he could’ve said, “Hey, I wasn’t as good as I could’ve been tonight.” But if you think he isn’t going to be better next year… He’s going to work this summer. Why? Because he felt like he didn’t get it done.
Auston Matthews? If you think he isn’t going to work this summer…
That’s the message to everybody. The best players… Anyone watching Scheifele? He’s 25 years of age. He’s been in the NHL. I looked it up because I wanted to see. People don’t understand it is a process. Stevie Yzerman, one of the greatest players in the game and a GM now, it took him a while to get it going, too.
I am not talking individual things. Team things. That’s what we want in Toronto. That’s what our fans want. That’s what we want. We are not through the easy stuff, though. If anyone thinks it just happens, it doesn’t just happen. There are lots of teams that try a long time. But our window is coming, and we’re excited about it.
Next year, the year after? What does that mean — your window is coming?
Babcock: We need to have a big summer as a management team, there is no question about it. You can’t do anything silly, but we’ve got to keep improving our product. That’s what we’re trying to do. I’d like to tell you it’s next year for sure, but you don’t know. Washington thought, probably, after last year that it wasn’t… They look pretty good right now. You don’t know. Just keep building your product. Steady on the rudder. Good things will happen.
Brendan Shanahan believes that he’s got a star in the making in newly-named Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. What was your thinking of that hiring and the youthfulness that Kyle brings to that position?
Babcock: This is what I would tell you: You knew it was coming. I knew the way the setup was. I didn’t know if it was going to be Mark Hunter or Kyle Dubas. Those are good, good men. That’s a hard decision. My hope is that Lou Lamoriello stays, Hunt stays, Dubie stays, and we continue to have a real good management team that’s all working together to get better. Who knows how this all falls out. You never know for sure. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll know more. I just think that when Hunts and Kyle and Shanny hired me, that was the group. Lou wasn’t there. We had a plan then. We have a plan now.
I remember one time – Kenny Holland was telling me this – being in Detroit and we were talking about bringing Hasek back for another time, or whatever. I think at that time we had Yzerman, Verbeek, Bowman, Holland, and Nill. I might be missing [someone]. And then suddenly Verbeek and Yzerman are in Tampa, Nill is in Dallas. You go through it – Bowman is in Chicago. You’ve got good people and you want to hang onto good people. That is players, that’s scouts, that’s management – that’s everybody.
It’s great to have someone to spit ball with. It’s great to have a sounding board. Everyone needs someone to talk to and someone who can be real with you.
Have you submitted your list yet to Kyle? “Here are the players I think we need to at least consider. Let’s at least consider these guys.” And maybe it includes your own guys. You’ve got a list of fairly impactful players that could go out the door and into free agency. How active do you think the Maple Leafs will be this summer?
Babcock: That’s a real good question. It’s ongoing. The communication is ongoing. It has been ongoing all year. We know where we are at. We know what we’d like to do. I say this all the time and people don’t necessarily believe it: You don’t know what is going to happen. You have a plan. Sometimes your best-laid plans don’t work and you end up doing better than you thought. You make a trade and you never even knew the trade was available. You can’t even believe it’s available and that you might have something to work [with]. There are other ones you think are going to get done and you’re getting it done for sure. “We’re getting this done.” Never happens. We’ll see what happens.
There are probably three million Maple Leafs coaches in Toronto. Everyone thinks that, maybe they can’t do it better, but they’ve got some pretty good ideas of how they could make things better. One of those theories or questions out there is why doesn’t Mike play Matthews with Marner more? You’ve always identified a driver on each line, as you like to say, and Marner, more often than not, is the driver on his line. So you’re spreading the wealth a little bit. But do you see a place in the near future where those two guys do have a home on the same line?
Babcock: It’s interesting. Right after the series, because Boston had the one line… Boston is out just like us. Tampa had more depth. I like winning. Okay? We have lots of people in our organization so we get to talk about these things every day. And in the end, we try to do whatever is right to win that night. That’s what we try to do. Whether that be who it is together, we’ll see what team we have and we’ll make the decisions based on it. But it won’t be about individual stats or anything like that. It will be about winning. Simply about winning.
I just think we were real fortunate this year. We had three lines and three of them had 30-goal scorers on them. Obviously, James is a free agent now. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Bozie played on that line. We’re going to be constructed differently. Now, can we get those guys back? I don’t know the answer to that. They’ve earned the right to go to free agency.
Would you like them back? Just based on how they fit?
Babcock: I think they’re good players. I think it’s hard to get good players. I really thought Bozie had a great year this year. James can flat out score. James works every summer to reinvent himself. He loves hockey. Those are good people.
You go through the whole list of those guys — Leo Komarov is a really good man and can play and be important on a team. Just his personality alone makes you better and his drive train. You go through all of our guys that have earned the right to be free agents, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re going to go through it and make decisions.
In Paris, we asked you about the blue line and whether or not it needed attention, and it got some attention with some of the pieces that were brought in or younger players that developed and got an opportunity over the course of the season. Are you happy with your blue line? Is it better than it gets credit for?
Babcock: Oh, for sure. 5-on-5 points, in the NHL this year, we were second. We had two 50-point defensemen. They don’t grow on trees. You can slam them all you want. Those are real good hockey players. Dermott is going to turn into a… His playoff wasn’t wonderful, but he played well. He was +16 and added 13 points, or something, in 30 games. We believe Zaitsev is a really good, competitive player. Hainsey played really well for us. Now, we add Polie and Carrick and in the other spot, we have Borgman, Rosen, Holl. We’ve got more coming to be announced. We’re trying to get better every day. It’s competitive. That is the reality. But our D is better than people think. They’re not growing on trees and they don’t just give them to you. Everything you acquire, unless they’re a free agent, there is a price. Is the price worth it? How long is the contract? How much money is it? There are lots of things to manage.
In the New Year, you learned you’ve been named to the Order of Hockey in Canada. That gala is coming up in June. What does an honour like that mean to you?
Babcock: It means you’re getting old. No, it means you’ve been in the league a long time and you’ve been really fortunate and blessed by God. I’ve got a real supportive family and work with good people, coached good players so you can have success. So you’re being honoured. You know, you never think about these kinds of things. It’s just part of the process. I am honoured and it will be great to have my family there. All of those things that happen in your life — they’re way better when you’ve got people in your life to share them with. Of all of the things that have happened in my life, I am most proud of my wife and my kids by far. To share that with them that day will be special.
Tough day in the world of hockey, specifically Western Canada hockey, with the passing of the legendary Clare Drake. He had influence on so many coaches — amateur coaches, junior coaches, yourself, Ken Hitchcock… go down the list. What did Clare Drake mean to Mike Babcock?
Babcock: I think the first thing, obviously: To Dolly and the family, we are thinking of you. Clare was 89 years old. Clare touched more people than you can even imagine. The guys who played for Clare talked about him with reverence like you can’t believe. John Wooden of Canada. My favourite memories of Clare were at coaching conferences, having a drink afterwards, sharing stories, sharing ideas. The passion of this man, how humble he was, how much he shared — he was special. A lot of us were touched by him and we’ll be forever grateful. I also think his message was for us to step up, too, and make sure we are sharing. Like I said, for his family, it’s a tough, tough day. But it’s going to be an unbelievable celebration of life, and he had a great life. Great man.
You stay in constant communication with the Humboldt Broncos — staff members, people impacted. You’ve got friends with kids who were on that bus. In a devastating fashion, 16 lives were lost. No one is ever going to forget. But you carry that with you, don’t you?
Babcock: It’s… the new normal in Humboldt, the new normal in those’ families’ lives, I can’t even imagine that. My son rode the bus in Fargo, North Dakota. Plays college hockey. My daughter played sports all over. They were on those buses. My kids are my best friends. They are with you every day. When I talked to a few of the dads, the thing that resonated with me was, “I lost my best friend. Who am I going to talk to?” I can’t even imagine. I just can’t imagine what they’re going through and what they are going to go through. It is a scary thing. It is an absolute scary thing. It can change so fast and in an instant. Pray for them. That’s all I can say: Pray for them.