Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Wednesday, discussing Zach Hyman’s nearing return, Jason Spezza rotating in and out of the lineup, the team’s identity, special teams, Frederik Andersen’s improving form, and the challenge against Vegas on Thursday night.
When Zach Hyman gets back down the road here, how much is he going to help John Tavares and Mitch Marner? In which ways does he help them the most?
Babcock: Well, he just gets the puck back. He forechecks as good as anybody. I don’t know how long it is going to take him to help them. Any time you get injured for two weeks and come back, you’re not the same as you were. If you’ve missed as much time as he has, I don’t know how long that is going to take. I don’t have the answer to that.
Obviously, he is an elite forechecker. He is heavy on the puck. He has got an elite drive train. He comes to play every day. The people that play with him end up having the puck all the time and playing in the offensive zone. That is what you want as a good player — you want the puck and you want to play in the offensive zone.
Are you as a coach enjoying the battle for ice time and lineup spots?
Babcock: I don’t know… You enjoy everything except telling the guy he isn’t playing. You want everyone to be at their best playing and being happy. The reality is, on really good teams, that doesn’t happen all the time. The other thing is, we are trying to figure out our group. It looks like we have kind of nine guys in order or something like that once Hyman gets back. After that, we are still a work in progress, to say the least.
It is all about the team. What I mean by that: You do something that can help the team win. That is what happens in the NHL. Your depth guys have to have skill sets — whether you’re a power-play guy, a penalty-kill guy, a heavy guy. That is what we are trying to figure out as we get to know the group.
How has Jason Spezza handled being in and out of the lineup? He’s still out there late in practice.
Babcock: He loves hockey. That’s the one thing about Spez. Every day he comes here in a good mood. He is enjoying the guys. But it doesn’t make it easy. The hardest part is when you’ve been a top, top player and now you are trying to fit into that role piece. That is the hardest part. You’ve never had to deal with that. You just come to the rink and put your stuff on.
These other guys have gotten used to it. Some of them have spent 10, eight, five years doing it and have found a way to survive and stay mentally strong and stay feeling good about themselves. The wear of it can take all of your energy away. That is an important part.
He is lucky he has a whole life at home. He has got four girls and a wife and has a lot going on. When he leaves the rink, he’s got it great there, too.
Is it hardest adjusting to the role or change in minutes?
Babcock: I think minutes is a big one, but I also think your role — you’re not put in situations you once were. If you’re a defensive guy and that has been your whole life and you’re still that, it’s different. When you’ve been an offensive guy, you’ve never thought about all of these things and now that’s the only job that is available to you.
We are talking about Jason, but we could be talking about anybody here. You’ve got to find a niche. What I know now I didn’t know at the end of training camp. I just didn’t. There was no way to know that. We are just going to keep playing and we’ll figure it out.
Alex Kerfoot is not happy with his amount of time in the penalty box. How can he come off that a bit?
Babcock: Well, that wasn’t a penalty last night he took. But no, you can’t go to the box. He and I discussed that. He’s a smart guy. He figures it out. Kerf has been great for us. That is going to be a real, real good line for us. In saying that, you’ve got to find a way to stay out of the box. You’ve got to be greasy. You’ve got to be no the edge. You’ve got to do all of the things he is doing, but you can’t go to the penalty box.
The other side of it is we have got to do a better job in a game where we only take a few. They can’t end up in our net. That is on us to fix that, too.
You’ve talked about how you are still figuring out who you are as a team. As you continue to figure that out, where have you seen the most progression towards being the team you want to be?
Babcock: The biggest thing is… It’s interesting. You ask me about Todd McLellan and how he coached the team yesterday. That was interesting because every team you coach is different and you’ve got to figure out a way to get them to win. That is the bottom line. You might have these great theories coming in, but it does you no good if you can’t win. You’ve got to figure it out. That is what we are trying to do right now. I can’t answer that for you.
I know we’ve got to play harder for longer every night. That means staying out of the box. That means shift length. That means all of the things that we do. One of the biggest things that is happening is that we are getting to know each other better.
I said this yesterday: When you know people, and you’re around your family and you do something wrong, someone smacks you. I am not talking about with a hand, but they keep you in line. When you are on a team and you’re used to each other, you keep each other accountable. When you don’t know each other, you tip-toe around too much. I think maybe that’s the biggest part of the process for us.
Who you are is less about stylistically how you play and more about how you approach the game?
Babcock: And figuring out who does what on your team, and figuring out who is in what role, and what job. You get a level of comfort in what you’re doing and what is expected of me. When you have as much change as we had this year, it’s not like coming back and you get everything in order and you just turn the lightbulbs back on. It is starting over in some ways, but I think it is fun, too. We are in a really good spot. We’ve got to just keep getting better.
I liked what happened last night because it was hard. It wasn’t easy for our team. We stuck with it and we didn’t get in our own way. We stayed patient. We’ve got a really good team coming in here next and we’re going to have to od the same thing, but you’ve got to learn to do that night in, night out and find a way to win in the end.
Is that something that can be overlooked by people outside the organization — when a new guy comes in after 500 games with another team, and it’s all of a sudden a totally different scenario?
Babcock: I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about that. We just worry about what we think and the process and how we can help them. You are trying to get the most out of every guy. As a coach, when a guy is not playing at a level we think he can, you’ve got to change and adjust and talk to him different and show him differently. You’ve got to help him. They’ve got to help themselves, but that is your job, too. You need to get everyone going so that they are not thinking or wearing themselves out when they leave the rink. That’s the process we are in.
How do you assess special teams at this point in the season and how can they be a bigger weapon?
Babcock: Well, they haven’t been good enough. Any way you look at it, they haven’t been good enough. When you look at our whole group, they kind of look like our team. We are just a work in progress. We think we can be way better in both areas, but that is great to say. You’ve got to do it.
The number one thing that can help our penalty kill is staying out of the box so we don’t take over three a game. On our power play, getting everyone back and let’s get rolling. We need puck speed and retrievals and we’ve got to be happy to shoot the puck and spend more time in the offensive zone.
We’ve got a number of things that we are trying to get done that we haven’t gotten done as quickly as we thought we would, but that is part of it.
In terms of skill set matching role, where does Nic Petan fit best in the organization?
Babcock: That’s a great question. We are trying to figure that out for him. Pete loves hockey. He works hard. He is a good guy. He can make plays. Where can he fit in so he can help the team and help himself? We’re trying to figure that out.
How big of a stabilizing force has Frederik Andersen been just with the level of confidence he’s been playing with?
Babcock: Freddy would tell you these last few have been better for him, right? Freddy is a leader for us. He is a guy that the guys really like. They play hard for him. The better he gets in his game, the more confidence we get. It is nice when you can make a mistake and it doesn’t end up in your net. I think Freddy’s game always gets better and better as the year goes on. He looks like he is hitting his form now and it gives us confidence.
A quick word about the Golden Knights — what challenges do they bring for you?
Babcock: Well, a lot of them. They’ve got a good lineup. They’ve done a nice job. They play hard. Their top six, their D is active on the back, they’ve got good goaltending. It should be a lot of fun.