Mike Babcock addressed the media after his team’s practice on Friday, discussing the loss of John Tavares to injury for at least two weeks, the new lines, Jason Spezza’s opportunity at 3C and Alex Kerfoot’s at 2C, “loading” lines, and the game against Boston on Saturday night.
New Maple Leafs lines:
Nylander taking Tavares's bumper spot on PP1.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) October 18, 2019
Can you talk about your team depth and what it might do to adequately get you through the next couple of weeks?
Babcock: I think the big thing is it is an opportunity for guys. I think when you are a good player on teams, you want to be the guy. Here is an opportunity. As a team, we’ve got to get better. I think we’re better than we’ve played. I think we are way better defensively than we showed. We’ve got to do that.
Everyone is getting an opportunity. There are a whole bunch of guys who probably wanted more ice time. Now they get more ice time. When you get the opportunity, it is what you do with it. We can always adjust the lineup if you’re really good and you play really well. We can find a way to get you on the ice more. Here is your opportunity.
On the defensive side of the puck, where are you at with Auston Matthews and the big matchups we assume he’ll get?
Babcock: The big thing about it, though — yeah, he’ll get some matchups, but we are more about o-zone and d-zone starts. We are just following that. Otherwise, your best players are always starting in your zone. Any way you look at it, the math doesn’t add up as good as if you start in the o-zone. I think Goat’s group has done a real good job of that. If you just look at our next opponent, their big line starts, just based on their faceoffs so far this year, the majority of the time in the offensive zone. That means, if you are going head to head, your guys are starting in the d-zone all the time. The math doesn’t work out that way.
The bottom line is I thought Matty’s line was real good the other night. I thought they weren’t as good in the first as they could’ve been but real good. They’ve just got to continue being solid defensively and then generate [offensively].
What are you looking for from Kerfoot as he moves up a line?
Babcock: I just think it’s a good opportunity for Kerf. Kerf is a way better player than we expected. He is way grittier. He has more grease to him. We think he is going to make way more plays as time goes on and he gets more comfortable. He’s just got to continue to work on his defensive side so he has the puck more. That is the big thing for him — having the puck more. But he is playing with good players and he’s got a good opportunity.
How obvious were the line combinations that you came up with? Did you tinker overnight?
Babcock: Oh no, yeah. We spent the full day. I got everybody’s input. They all sent it to me. They all had a different theory. And then we walked through all the options and why. Nothing is set in stone. We did the prescout on Boston and watched Boston again last night. You say, “Okay, what are we going to do? How is it going to go?” You try to give yourself the best opportunity. This is for warm-up, for sure.
For Spezza, how is this opportunity different than the ones he’s had so far?
Babcock: I just think every opportunity is what you make it. You’ve got to get in there and get after it. He is playing with different players. The Goat line, or Shoresy’s line, or whoever — it’s been really good for us. It has actually been one of our better lines. That’s something that is working better for us right now. We didn’t want to screw around with that, so Spez is getting an opportunity with good players.
With the zone start stuff — have you evolved your thinking on matchups?
Babcock: I think it all depends how deep you are matchup wise. I’d still like to… We’d like to play really good players against real good players because they have to worry about playing defense. But also the workload on them defensively… We did it on purpose last year to John Tavares. We wanted to improve his defensive game. That was a great matchup with Hyman. They started in the d-zone and were always in the o-zone. But that hasn’t been something that we’ve tried to do.
We were waiting to get a fourth line. We’d been looking for a fourth line. Over four years, we’ve done a lot of trading trying to get that to work. Now Goat seems to have come of age and Shoresy seems to be able to do it. We’ll just keep evaluating. If it doesn’t work, you go away from it right away and you go back to where you were.
Is there a different feel with the Bruins coming in here on a Saturday night with the way the last couple of years have gone?
Babcock: I don’t know. It feels just like each year at this time of the year. It’s a game you want to win. They’re a good team. I watched the game against Tampa last night. It was a good game. Two good teams. We’ve played them, like you said, two years a row in the playoffs. They’ve eliminated us two years in a row, so you know them pretty good. But it’s an October game. It is a big game for us and the one we’re playing…. What else would I normally say? [laughs]
Boston has loaded up their top lines and have done it for years. Tampa has done it. You seem to go for balance throughout the lineup. What is the benefit to balance as opposed to loading up heavy?
Babcock: I think they’re both real good. I think Tampa would tell you they’re pretty balanced in their lineup, too. The reality is you’ve got to do what you think is best for your group. There is no question about it — when it goes real good, whatever you did was right. When it doesn’t go good, it wasn’t right. That’s how I look at it each and every time.