Mike Babcock addressed the media on the opening day of training camp, discussing Auston Matthews’ ice time, his job security, Mitch Marner’s absence, his relationship with Kyle Dubas, his new assistant coaches, and the battle for jobs in camp.
Let’s start off with Mitch Marner. He’s not here. Is the focus to coach the guys that are here?
Babcock: That is the focus for your staff. You’ve got to worry about the guys that are on deck. We talk about that all year when there are injuries — you’ve got Hyms and Dermott — and things like that. There is nothing you can do about that.
We had a lot of change over the summer. Our staff has done a real nice job of acquiring players and moving it around. We’ve got a big job here. This is as much change as I’ve seen since I’ve been in the NHL. We’ve got to get up and running. That’s what we are excited about doing.
A third of your roster is potentially changing. Where do you see the personality of this hockey club given where you were a year ago?
Babcock: I am going to watch just like you. To be honest with you, I am real excited about our group. You know who our top-four D are. There are two spots there that we are just going to watch and we are going to figure that out. We know who our starting goalie is. There are guys battling for that [backup] spot and we’ve got to figure that out because we need help for Freddy. Up front, we have two jobs and we have three jobs at the start because of Hyman’s situation.
But we definitely have jobs. Most training camps you go to, there are 22 contracts and they are on the team. They are battling for power play time and penalty kill time and 5-on-5 and 6-on-5 and those things. Here, there are jobs. There are legitimate jobs. We have 19 days. We have 19 days to evaluate the process. They are going to make the decisions. We are going to watch them.
On the blue line, what do you like about this group? Is one of the things getting the puck to the forwards quicker and breaking out fast?
Babcock: You say that, but one of the things we have to improve the most is playing in our own zone. If you look at it and where we are strength-wise in the league, offensively, we are better than we have been defensively.
A number of things: We’ve got left and right shots in our top four. We need Rielly and Barrie to be allowed to do what they do, and then we need Ceci and Muzzin too play defense. That’s the fact.
And then we’ve got to figure out the next group. Dermy, if I am not mistaken, is 12-14 games away. There is a real good opportunity for someone else. Injury in pro sport is opportunity for someone else. If you can get yourself some confidence and get yourself rolling, we’ve got to find… because you need six. You probably need eight, to be honest with you.
I think we’ve done a good job as an organization to increase our depth. Last year, when we lost D, we didn’t maintain winning. We played tight and we were in it, but we didn’t maintain winning. Part of that is just continuing to improve your depth — that’s with your young guys growing each and every year, but it is also with adding guys that are right there knocking on the door. We think we’ve done that.
With all of the changes, the emphasis seems to be more or less on speed and skill and creativity. Has the identity of this team changed? Does it affect your process?
Babcock: Every year it is totally different. You’ve got 23 guys and 23 different ways to coach. Cap wise, we might have 20 guys eventually. You’ve got to look at it different. The players are all different and you’ve got to handle them different. Once you’ve got new guys, they’re going to learn you and you’re going to learn them. You’ve got to figure out the process to handle it.
I don’t think, to be honest, what we are looking for has changed. You can’t change it instantly. It takes time to get your team to be the position you want it to be in. Let’s be honest — we are a good, good team in the NHL. It has taken us some time to get here, but now we are a team that we feel has an opportunity each and every year. We didn’t have an opportunity in the past.
When we made the playoffs my second year here, we didn’t have an opportunity. Now we are getting to a point where you earn the right. You get slapped around a little bit. All of those little slappings help you grow. All you’ve got to do is look at the teams that win. They’ve been slapped previously.
What do you think a change of scenery will do for Cody Ceci and what are you looking for from him specifically?
Babcock: That’s a great question right there. We believe that he is just scratching the surface. We think the same about Barrie. We think there is growth potential there for sure. I think sometimes just the change of scenery, to me, is invigorating. It is a new challenge. They are coming to camp and instead of being relaxed, they’re a little bit antsy. Even though they’re veterans, there is more tension. Why? Because they don’t know the situation. They don’t know if the coach is good. They don’t know if the manager is good. They don’t know if their teammates are good. I think that leads to excitement but also growth chances.
[Hakstol] — I love the guys to lead the D that were minor D-type defensemen. In other words, they didn’t rely on skill. They had to know where to put their feet and their stick to survive. He was one of those guys. Being a coach, I think he’s really going to help. The other thing he’s going to do is that — [DJ Smith] had been here a while and had an opinion on players — he has no opinions on these guys. If you’ve been in the organization and you think your opinion… She’s a brand new opportunity for you. He is just looking for who he is going to be comfortable with. That’s who he is putting out on the ice.
Who do you see as having potentially the first chance to fill the winger roles on John’s line if he has to start without Zach and Mitch?
Babcock: We’ve only got one guy not coming so far, right? I am optimistic every day. How’s that? We don’t start until tomorrow. We’ve been through all that over and over again. We are going to figure it out as we go here. I’d like to tell you I’ve got something set in stone. I don’t.
Kapanen, who we’d like to play with Kerfoot, is going to start in that spot. Depending on what happens with multiple players, that’ll determine if we’ve got to move Matty’s line around a little bit.
Given the depth you’ve had now, you’ve spoken to the opportunity that hadn’t existed. There is some thought outside the organization that your seat is a little hotter and this team has to go deeper in the playoffs. Do you notice it?
Babcock: I do for sure. I think what you try to do is get better each and every year. We’ve got to get in the playoffs. The first thing is — everyone talks about the playoffs and the run, but you’ve got to get in the playoffs. I don’t know if you’ve noticed around our side that things have gotten better. She’s going to be tight from the get-go. We understand that.
We also think we’ve really taken a step internally. What I mean by that is that a lot of our core players have gotten substantially better; they’ve gotten older. They are more comfortable with themselves and more comfortable on the ice offensively and defensively. I also think the expectations each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you are going in the right direction. We are. Any way you look at it, we were in last place. This team was no good. That is not the case now. We’ve got something to be proud of and our fans are proud. We are, too, but we want more. I think that’s the way life should be.
You talked about the meeting you had in the offseason in terms of how you guys kind of…
Babcock: Did I talk about that? I thought we snuck it in there.
You received more criticism after the Game 7 in terms of usage of Auston and stuff like that. When you go back and look at last year and how this year might change for this team, do you see anything different in terms of how you are going to handle usage for star players?
Babcock: It is interesting. I am not sure and I didn’t check before I came in here, but I think Auston played about 18 and a half minutes last year. I think, in the playoffs, every game but Game 7, I think he played in the 20s or something like that. In Game 7, check his shift length — did he play the same amount of shifts? Some of these things I am not in control of. I am just in control of how many times he gets out there.
What I would say to you is we’ve had good discussion. When you talk to Auston… He arrived a big-time player. There is no question about it. But the comfort in himself and his ability to share himself with his teammates and his ability to lead has gotten better and better as time has gone on, which you would expect from a young man. I don’t think it’s any different from Marner that way. I don’t think it is any different for Morgan Rielly that way. You earn the right to be comfortable. I can’t give that to you. You earn that right. I think he’s really grown in that area. He wants to be a driving force — no different than John Tavares. They want to be the difference makers. They want to be the guys that put their name on the Cup that have led their team — like Toews, like Bergeron.
I think that is what you aspire to as a player and I think that is your job as a coach to help them. I think that’s what we have tried to do. Is it going to be rosy every day? No, but he is an important part of our team and we understand that.
How would you describe your relationship with Kyle?
Babcock: I’ve got to be careful. Every time I do this and leave, it is different. But it’s good. We talk all the time. We communicate all the time. We don’t agree all the time. I’ve enjoyed it. I get a four-month break — or a three-month break from you guys. I speak at the end of the year and I don’t speak until this time again. It appears to me there is always lots to talk about in the offseason. We talked a lot. We made a lot of changes to our lineup. We are excited about our opportunity. Let’s get on with it.
In an ideal world, whoever it is that wins the backup job, what are you looking for from that position?
Babcock: There are two parts to that question. Everyone talks about load management and to play this guy this much. You want us to play this guy more and that guy less. We’ve got to make the playoffs, right? This great plan that everybody has in hindsight, you have to make the playoffs. Can we all agree that is the first priority? I think that answers that question.