Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Monday, discussing Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson’s impact of late, adjustments on the power play, Morgan Rielly’s point-a-game production, and the speed and scoring of the modern game.
Talking with Auston about the season and as we approach the midway point, how tight does the league become at this point in time game in and game out?
Babcock: I think everyone wants to win. Some teams are playing really desperate. The teams that are playing desperate are working hard and competing hard and finding ways to win each and every night. That’s how you have to be to survive.
Does Mitch Marner have an underrated leadership quality on this team? It’s something he’s said he wanted to start building.
Babcock: I just think [so] because he works. Anybody who works… It doesn’t matter what your image is. If you don’t come and you don’t work, and you don’t put your work before your skill, you are not leading anybody. Leadership isn’t what you say. It’s what you do and how hard you compete and how much detail you have in your game.
That’s why, when you look at a guy like Marleau or a guy like Tavares, that’s what you see. It’s not that they’re saying anything. They just do it.
At the start of the year, how are teams defending your power play different than they are now?
Babcock: I think everybody does things differently, but if you want to know what’s going on with our power play, you don’t have to look any further than us. This is about us, not the other team. Let’s just simplify and execute. Let’s have puck speed. Let’s have people at the net. Let’s get some pucks back. Let’s win faceoffs. That’s simple. We’ll have the puck more and we’ll have more success and be happier.
What do you like about the dynamic of the Matthews line with Johnsson and Kapanen?
Babcock: Those guys, it doesn’t matter who I play them with right now, are working. When you’ve got guys who work with you, you end up with the puck. We’ve got to get everyone working at the same pace, but those guys have got energy right now and they’re feeling good right now. Whether they’re playing with John the last game in the third or they’re playing with Matty, they’ve got some pop to them.
Four years as a head coach here now, Mike. What have you seen from Morgan Rielly as his game has developed and evolved?
Babcock: I think the biggest thing is just his ability to play without the puck, so he is so much better as a defender and he has the puck way more. He’s got elite confidence. Obviously, he can be active. He can skate. He’s got an unbelievable sift and a real good shot. But he’s intelligent defensively and he doesn’t get himself in bad spots like he used to. That’s the biggest change in his game.
Is he one of five defensemen in the league that is averaging a point a game right now. That would be the first time in a generation that more than one has averaged that. Is it just the fact that scoring is up or has the position changed?
Babcock: Ask me the same question tomorrow when you find out where they’re at at this time of the year. One is an apple and one is an orange, so I can’t compare the two. What I would say is that those guys are good players and they can really skate. But I think 82 games has a way of leveling things out.
Do you feel like the game has gotten more offensive in general, though, in the last couple of years?
Babcock: I am not certain on that for sure. Even right now, if you look, I think power plays are up. And yet, let’s go to 82 games and find out how that works. Everyone can skate, I can tell you that. It is going fast. That would be the biggest change.
I think teams defend way harder than they used to, too. The game is just better. The game is different. If you like the flow and go and no checking, you probably don’t like this game. This game is really fast and there are mistakes because there is so much pressure. I think that leads to scoring. The other thing is, with the sticks and that, guys can shoot the pill.