Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Thursday, discussing the opening night win over the Senators, the rotation on the fourth line and bottom pairing (Nic Petan, Jason Spezza, and Justin Holl are in vs. Columbus), Ilya Mikheyev’s transition to the NHL, first impressions of Tyson Barrie, and much more.
Four sets of back-to-back this month… how do you tackle that challenge right out of the gate?
Babcock: To be honest with you, we’ve got some rotations we have planned, but other than that, we do our best. We went as short as we could here today. We are going to have a third goalie here most of the year, so we’ll do that to help us out with that. We start with four in six. You’re not a huge fan of going four in six, but on the other side of it, I’m going to know a lot more in six days than I would if we played four in a week and a half.
It’s like anything — you’re just trying to build confidence and earn confidence. At the start of the year, I think everyone is pretty close to the same. As some teams earn confidence and other teams don’t, you separate yourself a little bit. Right now, every game is competitive and they’re tough to win.
It looks like you are going to do a fourth-line rotation for a while. Are you going to do the same on defense?
Babcock: I am going to do the same on D for a bit. When we made our decisions on our lineup, you’d like to say that everything is set in stone and you know exactly what you’re doing, but that’s not necessarily true. What we’re doing this time is we’ll figure out if maybe there is someone playing for the Marlies, too, that is in the mix that we didn’t consider or prioritize as highly at that time. We will just see what happens over the next bit.
In the three weeks you’ve seen Tyson Barrie on the ice, what has stood out about him? Has he flown under the radar a little bit with all of the other stuff happening around the team?
Babcock: Well, he hasn’t flown under the radar for me. We obviously made a big trade this summer to acquire him. He has got a real good skill set with the puck, a real good understanding of the game. I think he is just scratching the surface. I talk to him quite a bit about that. We think he could take a huge step this year as a player and we look forward to him doing that.
The spin-o-rama move he made to set up Ilya MIkheyev at the blue line — as a coach, is that one of the moves you’re okay with because you know he can do it and has the swagger to do it?
Babcock: I just think at the right times, everything is acceptable. At other times, you’re ahead and you just play that way. To me, he has got real good defensive instincts. He knows what he is doing. There are some things he can clean up and we’ll work hard at cleaning those things up that will allow him to have the puck more. He is a guy you’d like to have it on his tape because he can get it going a hurry.
Jason Spezza hasn’t killed penalties in a while. What is the biggest challenge in getting him up to speed?
Babcock: Just reps. We didn’t do a good enough job in training camp. Our plan coming in was to penalty kill him all the time. In training camp, though, we wanted him on the power play all the time, too. We probably didn’t do a good enough job of that so he wasn’t ready to kill on a regular basis. We played him in a game — the last game he played — and we didn’t have him up to speed. That’s not on him — that’s on us. We spent a lot of time over this last while where we haven’t put him on the power play at all and are just getting him dialed into that.
If you look at our fourth line, every time they started on the ice, they started in the d-zone. They had a left and a right shot for d-zone faceoffs. That might not be important to you right now but it is important as time goes on. In the end, we didn’t match last night because we had so many power plays early that we had to get everyone on the ice, and then I liked how the game was going better without that. We were able to do it.
Whoever is going to be playing every night on the fourth line, you’re not playing a lot of minutes. You’ve got to be able to play faceoffs, you’ve got to play against good players, and you’ve got to be able to defend. That is what we are looking for.
How encouraging was it to see Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott back at practice — not to say they’re ahead of schedule?
Babcock: Nothing is ahead of schedule. I’d like to think they’d all be, but they won’t let us. Obviously, they are miles away, but they’ve been working real hard. We need them back because we are way better with him and obviously they’re huge depth. It is important to get them back. In the meantime, other guys get good opportunity.
What about Ilya Mikheyev allowed him to transition successfully from the KHL to the NHL?
Babcock: Well, he is a really smart human being. He speaks English. His gal speaks English. He is confident, confident, confident. His habits in his life lead to him being ready to go each and every day. He is a high-end human being who loves hockey. You’re just seeing the start here. You are going to see a hockey player here.
What did you think of Rasmus Sandin once he finally got out there?
Babcock: It’s tough, though — that’s what is different when you are a five or six D or you’re on the fourth line. You can sit there because you are not as big of a priority as winning the game and getting the other people on the ice. I thought he did a great job. He’s got good poise. Some of the things that I notice that you might not is just his stick and his feet when he is defending and his ability to be calm with the puck and do certain things. I thought he was real good in the game and that is why he is playing again.
How important is it to have a guy like Jake Muzzin organizing things for the team to do off the ice, whether it’s a football game or dinner?
Babcock: We have lots of guys who are involved in that, but Muzz is the coordinator for all that stuff. It gives me one guy to talk to instead of 10 that way. But he is that kind of guy anyway. He is a fun guy. He is good to be around. He is a pro. He has been around winning. He knows what that takes and he knows what a good atmosphere is all about.
The turning point last night was the offside goal. How much did your bench give the nod to Andrew and Jordan?
Babcock: Beanbag and Brew did that for sure. They let you know. We had a real good replay. Lots of time in the past, you didn’t have a replay and you went with it. Now it is pretty apparent the league doesn’t want us to challenge. We won’t be challenging unless we are 100% certain. I think it is a big play in the game and yet there were lots of big plays in the game. Just sticking with it and staying patient was the key in the end.
Given the punitive problem with challenging, what is the threshold you have set with your staff when it comes to letting you know? Do you want 100%?
Babcock: Yeah. Just think about the heat in there for them. The other thing about is we know in Toronto, if we get it wrong, there will be no beatdown. You know that [laughs]. But we don’t much care about that, to be honest with you. We care about our team and whether we get it right or wrong. We’ve got decisions to make. Sometimes we are going to be wrong just like everybody in life. Have enough jam to tell us what you think and we’ll make the decision.