Mike Babcock met with the media on Day 2 of the 2018 NHL Draft, discussing the Marlies’ Calder Cup championship, the promise of the draft, free agency, the challenge of getting over the hump in the playoffs, and much more.
You have a chance to reflect back on a really good season and see the future at hand here. How do bridge where the team is going and where it’s been given some of the young talent added over the last 24 hours?
Babcock: Obviously, we have to get a lot better. We were out in the first round. We had a real good regular season and set records both with home wins and points in the regular season. But we’ve got to get better. The team we lost to in the playoffs were out in the next round, and that team was out the following round. We’ve got lots of steps to make. We understand that. We have some good players that are free agents and who knows how that is going to work out. And then we’ve got a bunch of these kids — a stockpile of players with the Marlies that are ready and kids that we drafted before these guys. These kids are a ways away, and yet you try to draft the best players you possibly can. If you’re right on draft day, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be right three years later. You’ve got to develop them. So that’s our process here over the next while.
What impact might the Marlies have over your club over the course of the next couple of years, given how long they went?
Babcock: I think the biggest thing is they had a real good group of veterans here but kids were real important. Dermy and Johnny we already knew about, but it was good to see Johnsson score the way they did and be as dominant as he was. You don’t learn to score in the NHL. You’ve got to have scored before you arrive and feel good. That was important, but there were a lot of other guys that were important down there that I thought played well and are going to push for jobs. In the end, the guys on our team probably don’t want to give their jobs away and plan on being there a long while. Things are going to get tougher. All of these guys don’t have to play for us. A lot of them are going to play in the league. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to play on our team. I think that’s important, so we just keep building it and just keep going.
Is there a different dynamic now between you and Kyle than there was with you and Lou?
Babcock: Well, I can’t tell you for sure. The thing is, we’ve been together the whole time anyway. Lou and I had a real good relationship. I’ve been fortunate. I had Bryan Murray. Well, Tim Speltz, I worked with six years in Spokane and he is here on our staff. I had Bryan Murray. I had Ken Holland. I had Lou. Now I’ve got Dubie. They’re all real good people and I’m proud of the relationship I have with all of them. I think the biggest thing is we’ve just got to keep moving. We all came here for the same reason. We got her going in the right direction, obviously. In saying that, it is not easy. I just saw a 32-year-old Ovechkin lift the Cup. Yzerman was 31. Very few of us are blessed to do it at 20. We’ve got lots of work to do and probably lots of hard knocks coming, too.
Do you end up talking to Kyle now that he’s GM? Do the conversations change?
Babcock: I mean, I talk to him every day. But I talked to him lots before. It’s not like you don’t talk. You’re working for the same company. Those conversations would’ve been more about Marlies, or if he was at our game and I texted him to say, “What have you seen?” That part is different. I didn’t, during the Marlie run… I thought it was real important that he just be in charge of the Marlies. Win a championship and then this. We will continue to do what you always do as a GM and coach. You talk a lot and disagree a lot and agree a lot, and try to get better as an organization. But I think it’s way different than… I’ve only been in one spot where a GM was changed and a new one came in, and I left. But I think that’s all part of the process. In this situation, it is much different because we’ve been working together for so long.
One of the things that Kyle said a few weeks ago is that he enjoys the fact that you and other people in the brain trust aren’t scared to disagree. You don’t want everyone agreeing with you. You want different opinions.
Babcock: I think we’ve got real strong people. In any good organization, you have that. Lots of debate. I thought that was one of Ken Holland’s real strengths: Everyone had a say. In the end, someone has to make a decision. No different than when I am gathering information about our own team. In the end, I’ve got to decide who goes on the ice. That doesn’t mean you haven’t talked to everyone in the organization. We’re going to have lots of good debate. We’ve had lots of good debate already. We’ll continue to do that. I think that’s all part of the process. I don’t think that’s different than any other team.
How concerned are you with the depth up the middle of the organization with the three free agents and now Aaltonen going to the KHL?
Babcock: Aalts, if you’re in his situation, he came here and won himself a Calder Cup and championship and it went real good. We also acquired Lindholm. Players make decisions based on that. But the great thing about it is the season hasn’t started yet, so we will see where we are at when the season starts. How’s that?
What do you make of Kyle’s drafting philosophy so far?
Babcock: I don’t make anything of it. We’re going to know a lot more in three or four years. It’s not like we had the first or second pick. It’s a way different situation when you’re picking where we are. What we tried to do is, the guys putting together the lists spent a lot of time at it and a lot of debate at it, and we try to end up with the best group of players. Every team here today walks out and says, “I can’t believe that guy was there.” We all have a different list. That is why the guy is there. Everyone leaves pumped up, but two and three years from now… someone went today in the second or third round that is going to be a star. Let’s just hope he’s on our team.
One of the common threads that has come out of the European free agents you’ve signed is that the conversations with you were something that helped. Are you going to be a part of the free agent window this week with the NHL guys?
Babcock: It’s like anything. We always use whoever we can to help ourselves, depending on what goes on. I’m normally involved in it, but sometimes I am not and sometimes I am. As far as free agents go, we’ve got certain people that do certain jobs. If they need that resource, you use whatever you can. I try to watch everybody so we’re prepared.
What should these guys know about the Maple Leafs, do you think?
Babcock: The free agents right now? I think they know.
What did you make out of Vegas making it all the way to the Final? What does that say about this league?
Babcock: I loved it. I thought they played good and I thought they did a good job. The way the draft worked and the way they were able to corner the market, the way sometimes in the league we get overthinking and end up losing two players instead of one, or three. I think there are lots of things that went on there. But they did a real good job with their management people and their coaching staff and their players. They drafted a whole bunch of Hyman and Browns; in other words, workers that compete. Those are the guys that are kind of available at that spot with the protection. And they worked. Great team speed. It was a lot of fun. I think it’s great for hockey. Their following has been unbelievable. It also tells you how tight it is.
In Game 7, you were 20 minutes away. You had the lead. At some point, you have to learn to get over that hurdle. What do these guys have to do to get over that hurdle?
Babcock: Well, I think you want something specific. We weren’t good enough. Not deep enough. Not enough battle scars. Not getting slapped around enough and having failure and letting guys kick the crap out of us for a couple of months. Get tougher. Understand it’s a hard league. We always want everything… immediate gratification world. That is not the NHL. It’s earn the right to be a champion. Have you watched them celebrate? You earn that right by getting beaten. It’s hard to win. You get your name on that thing for life. It’s worth digging in for. That’s lots of summers doing it right. That’s some things that go wrong. I think the best players pick their boots up and get back to work when things don’t go well. That’s what we’ve got to do.