Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on the eve of the 2019-20 regular season, discussing the adjustment period with the roster turnover, expectations for the season, and the depth of the team.
What is the status of your young defensemen as they prepare for the rigors of a long season?
Babcock: Obviously, we’re excited about it. Lilypad is here, too, and he has done a real nice job, I thought, last year in the American league. He and Sandman really turned themselves into good players. What I like about both of them is that they’re really determined guys. They’re in the gym. They live right. They want to be hockey players. I think that is an important thing. You want to have D coming all the time. I think for them to be around our guys — and we’ve got some good veteran leaders — is an important thing.
Obviously, Dermy here — I just said to him, “The worst guy in the world you could get hurt at the same time with is Hyman because he works so far.” Holy mackerel, what a grind they’ve got going here. They should be in shape when they get back after a long time away. But Dermy is another guy that we need to take a step.
To go from the beginning of last year to where you are now, you’ve had five of the six defensemen changed. The backup goalie has changed. Six forwards have changed. To have that much change on already a good team, how much is that to adapt to for the beginning of a new season?
Babcock: Training camp has been very important for us. We really think we’ve made progress in training camp. That’s easy to say right now. The measure is coming up — the real test. What I would say to you is I think our guys have really worked hard. They’ve been in tune with what we are trying to get done. Because we had a couple of new coaches, we had lots of changes as well that way, structurally. I think it has been good for the guy and it’s been fun.
Now, trying to figure them out — to run the bench, to run the specialty teams, to have the right people in the right spots, we’d like to tell you we have that all solved, but that wouldn’t be the truth.
How strange will it be to look over tomorrow night and see four guys that were with you a year ago on the Senators, including the head coach?
Babcock: Obviously, great for DJ. I am proud of the fact that he came here and now he is an NHL head coach. I mean, the prescout — his team is prepared. They’re playing hard and they’re playing well.
Brown cow is a guy who we love. You hate to see a guy who is from Toronto and who loves being here leave. But it is the finances in the game. That is just the reality of the situation.
Ron Hainsey — we talked to Ron and he got a better offer than we could muster. [Ennis] — when we talked to him at the start of the year last year, we were trying to get his career back. He played really well for us.
They’re all high-energy people, and then you put Z… Z’s one of those guys that the coaches and the teammates love way more than necessarily the people on the outside, but he’s a real good defender. Elite stick. Jumps hard. Plays the game well. An energy guy, too, that loves hockey. I think it really helps you with your culture when you’re DJ going there.
Do you still see a lot of growth from Morgan Rielly?
Babcock: For sure. What has been interesting for me is when you watch the good d-men in the league, and then you watch your own guy… The other thing that has happened with Farly and Hak coming here is that they’ve seen a lot of good players. They come here and they see your players. They haven’t seen his growth. They just see what they see now and I think it is evidence he is a real good player and a real good man.
How much will it help Jake Muzzin being here from the start this year?
Babcock: For sure, but you’ve also got to give Muzz a lot of credit. He worked in the offseason. He is fit. He is light. He is a really intelligent guy. The other thing about Muzz is Muzz doesn’t mind taking a hit to make a play. He is a big body. He can absorb hits and still make good plays. He can shoot the puck from the point. And he’s a great teammate. Every team needs a social coordinator; Muzz can get things lined up and going. He is a good teammate.
How much has this team grown from this time a year ago?
Babcock: I think there is a belief. Eventually, it’s got to be your time, right? But you’ve got to work to make it your time. You’ve got to keep growing. Now, there are 31 teams having the same conversation with their media today, but the season goes on and you grind and you’ve got to show it. As we saw with St. Louis last year, sometimes it doesn’t show in the first 20 games or the first 40 games. What you do is stay steady on the rudder and keep grinding each and every day. The first thing you’ve got to do is make the playoffs, and then you’ve got to be prepared for them.
You guys want to hit the ground running, but with so many new faces, is there an adjustment period once the game starts mattering?
Babcock: I sure hope not. I think the biggest change: When you look at it in the penalty killing area of our game, we’ve got a lot of new people. That’s a huge part. Really, in the end, last year against Boston, if you go through power plays in the league… Florida has a great power play. Tampa has a great power play. Boston has got a great power play. I don’t wanna short anyone if I missed someone on our side. But penalty killing is a huge part of our game. You can play great and suddenly it’s in your net. I think that is the biggest focus of making sure we are up to speed.
Everybody cleared waivers. What does that mean for you?
Babcock: That’s really good news for us. As much as we’d like to be sure and know exactly what we’re doing and be clear about what decisions we’ve made, that’s not… We weren’t 100% on some of those. Now you’ve got ten games to figure this stuff out to end up with the right people. Sometimes at the start, you don’t.
With everyone healthy, it looks like you have a top nine and a bottom three. How much does that change how you can challenge teams?
Babcock: That’s what you’re hoping. We thought we had that set up last year, too, and then Naz wasn’t there for the playoffs, so it didn’t work out that way — and the injuries. Obviously, when Hyman gets back, there is no question there are guys. The other thing is they’re older. They’ve been through it. They’ve been slapped around a little bit and been disappointed. I think that is a good thing for us as well. We’re excited about our team. 31 teams are excited today, but we are excited.