Every year at the IIHF World Championships, Darren Dreger does some interviews in a sidewalk café with players, coaches and anyone else he can find haunting the arena hallways. For the last couple of years, he’s had Mike Babcock on to talk Leafs and the season just ended and the one set to begin. While they both mentioned that Babcock would rather never being free to do it again, he had some interesting things to say this time.
Matthews and his visit to Arizona
Babcock said that if the media hadn’t made a big deal out of Auston Matthews being unhappy with losing game seven against Boston, he’d never have gone to Arizona. He said he’d have taken him out for a beer or something. He’s happy to have had the goad to go and see Matthews with his family and called it a “home run”, and he said the same things in this interview he said post-season: They both want the same things.
About Matthews, he also said that he has kids only a bit older, and he assumes he’s going to parent them forever. It’s clear that he sees the young players on the Leafs in the same way. “As much as he’s a man, he’s 20.” Babcock talks a lot through the interview about the process of development and how long it takes.
Babcock also says that, “[Auston Matthews] wants to be the best two-way player in the game, and we’re going to work hard as we can.”
The Babcock tour continued with a visit to Frederik Andersen’s parents, which Babcock describes in a charming way. He then met with Nikita Zaitsev, who is in Copenhagen right now, but he hasn’t had time to get together with Kasperi Kapanen.
The Leafs defence
In a way that hearkened back to what Kyle Dubas said in his first media scrum as GM. He said the Leafs have a large group of defencemen now, and Dubas thinks there’s a lot of good young defenders in their system, but they are open to making deals. However, those deals are not always there just for the asking.
Babcock emphasizes that you can make all the plans you like, but you never really know when the team is going to be good enough to contend or when a trade you didn’t know was out there is suddenly in front of you.
Babcock named most of his current NHL-contracted defenders other than Timothy Liljegren, who is clearly not in the picture for the NHL next season. It’s interesting that Babcock is blunt that Travis Dermott was not very good in the playoffs, and he says nice things about Zaitsev that few will agree with.
All those players, barring Roman Polak, are either under contract or are RFAs. It’s a substantial list, well beyond what one team needs, and Babcock finishes it off with, “We’ve got more coming to be announced.” But the underlying message is the same as it was last year, in the same words: defenders don’t grow on trees.
Both Dubas and Babcock seem to be warning fans not to assume that a trade for a top pairing player is a given, and rightly so.
Babcock says he thinks they need to have a big summer as a management team, but they can’t do anything silly. And that leads right to the questions about who is on that team now. Babcock says he would like all the current members of the group, including Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter, to all stay.
He mentions all the good former names in management who left in Detroit, and he talks about needing people around to talk over ideas with. We should expect to know more about all of this in two weeks.
Mitch Marner playing with Matthews
This comes up again, and Dreger answers his own question about why they don’t play together very much. The answer is the same as it always is, that Babcock wants to win. He does mention that Boston and their superline are out of the playoffs, losers to a team with more depth.
So, while Bacock says that he’s not making any decisions until they have the roster in place, the indications are the Leafs will not be running a superline any time soon.
This interview is much the same as last year’s, but it’s worth a listen. The Leafs are much the same team right now as they were then, and until decisions are made on contracts, players to be added or trades to be made, there won’t be any reasonable way to forecast how much better they will be next year.
I find Babcock’s statement that they need to have a big summer very telling. They had a fairly tepid summer last year, plugging some holes with makeshift temporary players and getting most of their impact additions from promotions from the AHL. This year, it’s going to be harder to find players to promote, harder to find impact players to sign, and they do need to add someone more than a veteran with a few years left to improve the roster.
But those someones, defenders, forwards or goalies, don’t grow on trees. Babcock’s favourite cliché is unfortunately correct.