Immediately following Toronto’s completion of picks at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock sat down with NHL Network to talk about how his team did today, and what their next steps are.
NHLN: First of all, congratulations on an unbelievable year with the Leafs this year, nominated for the Jack Adams, you’re probably going to win that one of these years. You’ve done an unbelievable job as a coach in this league. What was it like having Auston Matthews in year number one?
Babcock: Toronto’s an exciting place to play right now, the reason it’s probably so exciting is the growth of our young people. But also, we’ve created hope in the city again about their team, and there are passionate fans and we’re excited about that. We have a lot of good young players, obviously Matthews is the guy you talk about, but when you look at [William] Nylander, you look at [Zach] Hyman, you look at [Connor] Brown, you look at [Mitch] Marner, there’s a ton of them and we’re fortunate to have that. Obviously, you’re here on draft day trying to build on that and build on your nucleus.
NHLN: How do you avoid any sort of “step back”, whether it’s for your individuals, or as the group?
Babcock: I think that’s a great question, and one we’ve discussed quite a bit. Is there any sort of guarantees? No. But I think we have to improve our team; as a management group, that’s our job, to improve our team over the summer. So we’ll do that.
But also, with our sports science guys, to make sure that our training is going well, that our guys don’t rest on their laurels, and working hard to get stronger and quicker, and being dialled in. The league gets tougher, that’s what the risk and reality is. You become a dominant player in your league, you’re identified and you’re checked harder. So, it’s a challenge for kids.
NHLN: You talked about the sports science guys involved. You came into the league coaching the Anaheim Ducks years ago. It’s changed a lot, hasn’t it?
Babcock: I just look at our coaching staff. We had one computer on [Anaheim’s] coaching staff, and I think we had three guys. Now, everyone has a computer and a laptop, you have R&D people, you have sports science people. Our sports science staff is amazing. I mean, we’re working on our people before they ever get injured. It’s just a whole different league today, but the competition is such that you’ve gotta go extra to win in the end.
NHLN: So how’s this event for you. Say, yesterday. Timothy Liljegren gets selected. What’s your conversation with him like, initially?
Babcock: I met his mom and his brothers. I’m excited for the kid. Now, I don’t know the player. I see him on video, they tell me what we’re drafting. We’re excited to have him, because of [his] upside and potential. Now, you draft the guy, and you draft him in the right spot, but it’s what you do with him now as an organization to get him where you want him to go. We get to see him ourselves, at our development camp and set out a path for him over the next few years.
Obviously, the quicker we can get him to an NHL player level, and that doesn’t mean he plays in the NHL, the quicker we can develop him so he’s over-ready when he arrives the better off we are.
NHLN: When I look at your team, obviously there are all of those terrific forwards. You also have some really good defencemen too, with [Morgan] Rielly, [Jake Gardiner], but that seems to be the area where you want to get better. What do you do in the offseason, to that end?
Babcock: Well, I think a couple of things we did already, by signing [Andreas] Borgman and [Calle] Rosen, two guys from the Swedish Hockey League. One guy was a rookie of the year and he’s a ’95, the other guy Rosen is a year older but is an elite, elite skater. Can they step right in and play? Well, we’re going to give them the opportunity, but then it’s up to them. So I think that’s key for us.
I think there’s a lot of things that you can do. As you can see, [Travis] Hamonic went to Calgary. It’s expensive to get marquee [defencemen] in our league. It’s better if you draft them, develop them, and have them coming. But D are very important, and if we can set ourselves up to improve in that area, we will.