Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Wednesday, discussing the team’s strong form since the All-Star break, the team’s offensive depth and the mismatches it creates, what the addition of Jake Muzzin has done for the Leafs’ blue line, “space plays” to stretch the ice, and more.
The club’s quest for consistency… Coming out of the break, you’re 6-1-1. What have you liked best about your club over that stretch?
Babcock: Just what you said. We found a way most nights to be pretty good. Even when we lost, we were pretty good. I think that is a positive thing. That is what we are trying to do. Older veteran teams find a way to have fewer ups and downs. Younger teams end up having highs and lows. We’d just like to keep it as constant as we can.
We talked about that a little bit after the loss in New York. We wanted to bounce back. I thought that was a real tough road game just with the altitude and travel we had, but I thought our guys found a way. Freddy was good in the first and we found a way to stick with it and get it done.
How much is an advantage — if it is an advantage — is the line juggling and defense juggling when it comes to the playoffs and knowing these guys can play in many different situations?
Babcock: I think we make way too big of a deal out of it. After the power play, after a penalty kill, the lines are different every single time anyway. The D are different. On o-zone faceoffs, we often go with different D than we would in the d-zone. You do that stuff all the time. What you are trying to do is trying to find a way to optimize your group. You’re also finding a way, when something goes stale, that doesn’t mean they are not going back together, it’s just to change it up a little bit and to keep everybody jumping.
The other thing that is important to do — if someone is playing good and playing better than someone else, then over a period of time, they end up with the opportunity.
Yesterday, Gerard Gallant sent a bit of a message to his team, saying to compete. Does that team always seem to bounce back pretty strong?
Babcock: I mean, I didn’t like hearing that coming in just because you know… They’ve got a really good team. They’re four lines deep and play real fast. I like their team. They are heavy and hard to play against. We know we’ve got a real good game here tomorrow. I don’t know if you remember, but last year we came in here and we actually dominated the first four shifts. We had a post and good scoring chances and then they just took it to us. We understand what we are in for. We look forward to playing.
What did you see in your new-look D pairings last night that made you want to keep them together here moving forward, at least in the short term?
Babcock: I saw Morgan Rielly on the left side.
Are you tempted at all to put Matthews with Nylander for a prolonged period given their history?
Babcock: Not yet. I tried that early, if you remember. I tried to put the line back together. They weren’t ready to go. When everybody is up and running, that might happen. But until I see that you are at the top of your game, that is now what we are doing.
Do you need to see something further out of Willy?
Babcock: Yeah, he’s just got to keep getting better with and without the puck and be dominant. The more dominant he gets, the quicker with the puck he gets, the more opportunity he’ll get that way. Playing with Naz and Johnny last night I don’t think is any slouch. I mean, those guys dominated the game.
The other thing about it is, it depends where you go, you get a different type of matchup. When you are in the third group getting the third D, it’s not a bad situation for you.
The measuring stick of his improvement… The goal in question is getting in on the forecheck ahead of their defensemen and creating from there?
Babcock: I just think anytime you can compete and you’re mobile enough and you’re aware enough and in shape enough to compete, it gives you a chance when you’ve got his skill set. Until you get up to speed, it is very evident that the league is very, very good and there is not a lot of room. And confidence is a big part of that. Once you lose your confidence a little bit, it takes a while to overcome yourself and get back at it.
Now, I think he is in a real good situation right now. He’s just got to keep getting better and digging in every day.
For someone who wasn’t traded before and had to make an adjustment off the ice, what does it say about what Jake Muzzin has done?
Babcock: For sure. Every day, he is going to walk in there and he is going to be the same size. He is going to still have two Cups. He is going to know what winning is about and how to play. Whether it goes good for him that day or bad for him, he is a good veteran player. He knows how to just bounce back and play the next shift, the next game. He knows how to play in the big moments.
He is a big body. He denies the back. He moves the puck. He cuts off the cycle. He boxes out good. He blocks shots on the penalty kill. Tons of things. And I think we are way deeper through six, so you are not as paranoid about who is on the ice when they are out there.
Given the parity in the league, what did you think about Vegas going all the way to the Cup final last year?
Babcock: I just think that expansion is way different today. There is a way better deal for the expansion team. I thought George McPhee did an outstanding job of cornering the market. We all have players we don’t know how good they’re going to be. You don’t know until they are given the opportunity. Two years later, when you look back, you say, “Geez, I wish we would’ve kept that guy.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think they are set up good now. But that is the idea. You are trying to create a partner in the league, not someone to step all over. They obviously did a good job. Players, coaches, management did a good job. And they had a really good year. Now, they’re like the rest of us, trying to do it again.
How much of a luxury is it for you to have so much offensive depth on your lines and the mismatches it creates?
Babcock: It is, but it is only good if you work and if you play right defensively. It’s only good if you all compete. What happens in the league, as you know, is the time and space goes away and the crowd around the net becomes tighter to get into. The determination and the grit and all of those things, they are not measured in skill. They are measured in will. You’ve got to make sure you’re putting your work before your skill and that is the challenge for our group.
What is the degree of difficulty on the alley-oop pass that Matthews made to Kapanen — that whole play?
Babcock: I think he just flipped it over the top. That one worked. But I thought the play before — the one he didn’t score on — was an even nicer play. The pop from Jake to Matty, the pass… But obviously there is real good speed and it opens up plays underneath. No different than a quarterback in football goes long every once in a while just to keep [the other team honest], otherwise they’re standing on top of you, you’ve got to create some space underneath so you can make some plays. We rather make those plays, to be honest with you, but you’ve got to loosen it up. Especially at the starts of games, there is no room.