Mike Babcock joined TSN Overdrive on Friday evening, discussing a wide variety of topics including the team’s heaviness, William Nylander’s process of getting up to speed, lightening Frederik Andersen’s workload in the second half, and much more.
On the progress of his team since his arrival as head coach and his satisfaction with where the team is at through 35 games
Are you allowing yourself to bask in this and what is going on with your team right now, or do you not kind of sit back and enjoy it?
Babcock: Oh no, I enjoy it for sure. All you’ve got to do is take a look at where we were when I arrived four years ago and where we are now. It’s very exciting to say the least. And yet we are a work in progress — no question about it. We are a group that I think has a chance to get a lot better during this year. We are going to need to.
You look at the teams in the league; there are good teams. I watched the end of the Calgary – Tampa game last night and that was a high-end hockey game. There are good teams all around the league, so we are going to have to be a lot better if we are going to win in the end.
You mentioned when you got here four years ago that you knew there was going to be a lot of turnover. You ended up finishing dead last in the league. How would you compare your message to your team today to the message you were sending four years ago?
Babcock: Four years ago, all we were trying to do was work as hard as we could for the group we had and have a great showing each and every night. We never carried anything over from day to day at all. Zero. We just got up each day, the sun came up, and we got at it.
Now we are in a different situation. Our expectation for our group is much different. We spent a lot of time growing our group. We have real good people and real good leadership. We have good depth. We think we are good in all positions, and yet we are young, young, young. We are trying to go through and grow our group as best we can. Some times our best days, even though they don’t feel like it at the time, are some of the lessons we received during the year here.
On Morgan Rielly’s emergence as a top-flight defenseman: “He is really committed to the defensive side of the puck”
Morgan Rielly is on pace to have the greatest offensive season by a Leafs defenseman in the history of the club. We’ve known he is good for quite some time, but what do you think he has unlocked this year to make the impact he has been making?
Babcock: I don’t know about before I got here, but since I got here, he’s had steady growth each and every year. He improved so much our first year here that it wasn’t even funny. He is really committed to the defensive side of the puck. He is a real team leader for us with his energy and his passion. He loves being a Leaf. He has gotten better every day.
His reads defensively set up a lot offensively. The 2 on 1 for Kadri last night was a real good play defensively. We got caught 3-on-2 and he makes a good play, and next thing you know, it’s going the other direction. I just think his stick and his feet and his ability to play physical and ability to be tight in the neutral zone has all allowed him to take a huge step.
I think you get to a point in your career where you are comfortable. You don’t spend all day thinking about hockey and whether you are getting to play or not play. You know you are a good player and you come to the rink and play hard and you enjoy it.
On John Tavares’ successful adjustment to Toronto: “He just plays and he leads”
John Tavares with another couple of goals against Florida. Everyone knew his capabilities and the type of player he was, but he was walking into a very unique situation as a hometown kid and a kid everyone knew in the city since he was 12 or 13 years old. On the ice, he hasn’t missed a beat or got caught up in the moment at all. Behind the scenes, at any point has he been kind of caught up in the buzz of the city? Has he felt any different to you because he is in Toronto?
Babcock: I think he’s enjoying it, but I also think that as a guy who has been around for a long time — he is a man and not a kid anymore — he is not caught up in all of that. He’s a married guy. He enjoys being here. He’s got both sides of the family here. I think he enjoys that. He’s got people around him lots. In saying that, he just plays and he leads.
What I am real impressed with is last night we played Matthews head-to-head and he had a better matchup. On the road the other night, it was the opposite way. They went head-to-head against Tavares, so Matthews had a better matchup. I just think what it’s done is make our team better. With the three centres we have, we are much deeper down the middle now. They can all play against anybody in hockey. It gives us a lot more options and they get a lot more freedom that way.
On keeping Nazem Kadri engaged as the 3C: “Naz is such a good guy and such a good teammate”
At any point have you been concerned about the psychology of Nazem Kadri and where he fits into the center position?
Babcock: Not really just because Naz is such a good guy and such a good teammate. We talk on a regular basis. I have to do and have to continue to do the best job I can. The toughest time for any of those guys… when we’re penalty killing, John takes face-offs on it. After faceoffs, especially if we get multiple penalties in a row, getting them all on the ice fast enough so they’re not freezing to death has been our biggest challenge. But they’re all good people and understand what we are trying to do and understand that we are trying to win.
I think it’s interesting when you watch the other teams with a ton of depth. You look at Tampa and they are doing the same thing — they’re spreading their ice time out with guys and guys won’t be fatigued. In the end, they’re going to use numbers to wear you out. We are trying to do the same set up for our club to have the most depth we possibly can.
On Frederik Andersen’s workload: “We’ve got it laid out in the second half that [Sparks] will get more starts”
Obviously, you are getting some of the best goaltending in the NHL thanks to Frederik Andersen. He is on pace to play about the same as last year — about 66-67 games. We saw him sort of wear down a little bit down the stretch last year. Any concern…
Babcock: You mean you thought you saw him wearing down…
He wasn’t wearing down?
Babcock: I don’t think he was one bit, but anyway, I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t my opinion and it was your opinion.
Is there any concern on your end that that could be a problem again?
Babcock: We have exactly the same concern as you just stated. We’ve talked about it quite a bit. A big part for us is just getting Sparks up to the NHL pace, so we feel the goalie coach and him have done a real good job. We are hoping — we’ve got it laid out in the second half — that he’ll get more starts. We’d like Freddy to play 60 games if he could. In saying that, that means quite a bit more every five or six-game segment for Sparky. We’ll see how it all goes.
In the end, there is no question we’d like him to be as fresh as we possibly can. At the same time, we don’t want him going long stretches without playing. We’ll have to balance the two.
On William Nylander’s process of getting up to speed: “He is going to be fine”
When William Nylander finally signed and got here, you mentioned he should be very fresh. The majority of the hockey world was willing to give him a grace period. Now we are a couple of weeks into him being back. It feels like he is inside his head a little bit. He had a tap-in backdoor from Brown and he couldn’t score. What do you make of where Nylander is at? Is this what you were expecting at this stage?
Babcock: Yeah. You’d like it to go better for the guy than it has. You didn’t expect it to go better. I still think he is a couple weeks away. We talk quite a bit about that. There is no sense of getting inside your own head or getting frustrated. Don’t do any of those things. Just come into work. Come to work, win your one-on-one battles, play as simple as you can, keep your shift shorts, and every day in practice, work at it. There is no sense in getting in your own way. That is just a waste of time and energy.
It is a challenge. That’s why you have training camp. That’s why you all start together. It’s just one of those things. It makes it hard on you and it makes it harder on you when you think you should be scoring and you’re not. And then the pressure mounts. The pressure just means you expect more of yourself. It’s no big deal. He is going to be fine. Just keep working.
On the team’s togetherness and camaraderie: “We have real good leadership from young players and old players”
How much focus do you place on camaraderie in the room?
Babcock: Huge. I have to tell you, the first couple of years here, we didn’t spend as much time on that as we normally do because of the fact that we knew so many people were leaving. But that is a huge part of our program. I think it is a huge part of good teams. In the end, team building is done when you block a shot, when you get the puck out on the wall, and when you pay the price to win, but enjoying one another, I think, is really important. Having a group that meshes and having a group that makes each other accountable — a group that challenges each other — I think we’ve done a good job that way.
We have real good leadership from young players and old players. We have good balance that way and I think real good people. That makes hockey a lot of fun.
On the team’s relative lack of power play opportunities: “I have lots of theories… I am going to share none of them with you”
We’ve seen coaches this year lobbying the referees for how their players get officiated. Your team is chronically at the bottom of the league in terms of the power play opportunities you get. We know how deadly your power play can be. Why do you think you guys don’t draw as many penalties as some of the other teams in the league?
Babcock: I have lots of theories. I am going to share none of them with you. I don’t think it does you any good as a coach when you get talking about this.
Is that because you don’t want to get fined?
Babcock: Nope, that’s because I don’t think it does you any good. We go there each and every day and try to play with discipline and try to play as hard as we possibly can. Our specialty teams, to be honest with you, for this last while and until last night, hadn’t been good. We hadn’t given up a ton on the penalty kill but we are not keeping it out right now. We are going to have to do a better job in that area. It was great to see the power play bounce back last night. We have good skill level there and good scheme. Guys were tight there for a little bit and didn’t execute.
The bottom line is we get what we get.
On the need for heaviness: “I think we can become a bigger, stronger team… We are going to do everything we can to improve our group from within. We’ll see what happens from without.”
Zach Hyman is going to be out a minimum of three weeks with an ankle sprain. Obviously, he is a really important piece. You said something along the lines of, “He is one of the guys with size and we don’t have a lot of that.” It’s been a big topic of discussion on our show and other shows and other fan bases in terms of the size of your team. You can win in the regular season and everyone knows that. Can you win 16 games in the Spring without size?
Babcock: The biggest thing is… I said heavy, is the word I said, because there are lots of guys that are real big players that don’t play heavy at all and can’t hang onto the puck in the offensive zone and can’t roll around and maintain it and keep on coming no matter what happens. I think Zach is one of those guys. He is a big man and he plays heavy. He keeps coming. It doesn’t matter. They say three weeks, but I don’t buy it for one second because it’s Zach and he’ll find a way back.
The reality is, though, you do need a certain amount of heaviness in your lineup. The good thing about us is that we are 35 games into the season. There is lots of opportunity to develop our team. We’ve got a lot of young players. You look at our group, and Marner is getting heavier every day. I am not just talking about the size of him; I am talking about the way he plays. Johnsson was falling all over the ice when he first arrived at the start of the year. You just learn how to play. He gets to the net way more than he did. Kapanen has taken a huge step for us. You go through what Nylander is going through and even Matthews. We’ve got a lot of growth opportunity from within.
I think we can become a bigger, stronger team. We are lucky we are heavy down the middle — not so much in Naz but the other two, but Naz plays a game and he can stand up to anybody. I like a lot of things about our group that way. We are going to do everything we can to improve our group from within. We’ll see what happens from without.
You said you are really happy when your team is “machine-like.” Can you describe that for us? What does machine-like look like for you?
Babcock: I just think when you look at the really good teams that win every day, they just know how to do it. When the score gets up or the score gets down, it doesn’t matter. They just keep coming. Every night, there are enough good pros on the team that they know how to play to win. And they do that. We still play as a young team at times. What I mean by that is there is a huge fluctuation within a game with our play and how we take care of the puck and how much time we spend in the offensive zone. I think we are a good enough team that we can get to another level that way and that is what we are looking for. We are looking for more consistency out of our group night after night.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining. We’ve got lots of wins and we’ve done a good job. I just think there is a lot of growth left to happen here throughout the year. We are going to have real good moments. We are going to have moments that are not so good. I think it’s just important that we continue to go in the right direction and give ourselves a chance.