With the heat turning up in Toronto, Babcock betting on himself
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. who practised at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Golden Knights.
Does Mike Babcock have trouble tuning out chatter about his job security?
"You know, not really," the Maple Leafs head coach said. "I'm in a pretty good spot in my life. My kids are grown, if my kids were young I'd never coach in Toronto. So, in my spot, I don't spend a whole lot of time listening."
But Babcock is certainly aware that speculation about his future is swirling right now. He's been getting text messages from friends sending their support. So, what's the coach's mindset?
"I'm going to do it as hard as I can, as long as I can and I've always bet on Mike Babcock and I'll continue to bet on him."
The Leafs have lost five straight (0-4-1) for the first time since Feb. 23 to March 3, 2017 and currently sit outside the playoff picture as they embark on a tough road swing through Vegas, Arizona and Colorado.
"The standings are what the standings are and we got to get a reset and get going in the right direction as fast as we possibly can," Babcock said, "so we talked about that and the commitment we need to make to one another and to our sweater and do things right."
Babcock ran a fairly standard practice on Monday, the team's first on-ice session since the humbling 6-1 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh Saturday. There was no yelling or skating drills. It lasted 33 minutes, around the average for Babcock, and focused on even-strength play.
There was, however, one big change: the defence finally got a makeover. While Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci remained together the other two pairs had a new look with Justin Holl and Tyson Barrie swapping spots. Holl skated alongside Jake Muzzin while Barrie was with Travis Dermott.
"In a perfect world you want to have your partners and stick with it and have it work that way," Barrie said, "but when things aren't going well maybe a different combo can kind of jumpstart you."
Babcock previously said defence pairings take longer to mesh and he wanted to give the group time to build chemistry.
"Well, obviously, what we're doing isn't going good enough and so want to give everyone a reset there and help ourselves," the coach explained. "Now, they're all going to play a little bit more with everyone on O-zone faceoffs and that. We're just going to try and find a way to maximize the group."
"We're kind of killing ourselves," said Barrie. "Last game was a bit embarrassing. We gave up probably 20 odd-man rushes it felt like. The good news is it's things we can fix. It's not that we don’t have the skill or the players in here it’s all, you know, essentially systems and commitment to doing it right."
And, in that regard, Babcock is quick to point out it has to be a team effort.
"As a group of forwards we have to get to work and look after our D better and so that's kind of the message here is we have to clean this area of our game up for sure," Babcock said. "We're not getting the transition we're used to getting the last few years and so we got to do a better job ... being organized coming out and so we can get some transition going the other way like we used to, that’s a priority for us, it will allow our skill to come out."
Despite picking up an assist on Saturday (his second in the last 19 games), it was another rough night for Barrie, who was on the ice for four of the Pittsburgh goals despite playing a season-low 17:06.
The adjustment to a new team has not been easy for Barrie and the stress has been magnified, because he’s in the final year of his contract.
"It's a new situation for me and one that comes with a lot of pressure and obviously with the contract stuff and what not you put a little bit of extra pressure on yourself, but, at the end of the day, you try not to think about it and just play."
Easier said than done for the pending unrestricted free agent, who spent his previous eight NHL years in Colorado.
"You don't really feel it until things start to go so poorly so I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't feeling it a little bit now."
Barrie will get a chance to open a new chapter of the season on Tuesday as he joins forces with Dermott.
"It could be a good fit," Barrie said. "He's a very skilled guy, he skates really well, he makes plays, he's a confident guy so hopefully we can mesh well together, get some stuff going in the O-zone and maybe it will be a fit."
Is Babcock worried about his players letting loose in a city like Las Vegas?
"I'm worried about that all the time, but what do you do? I don’t think you can put them in jail. They're men. This is a great city, Nashville's a great city, there's a whole bunch of great cities. We got a game tomorrow and we have to be all-in tomorrow. We know that."
Multiple players have cited this road trip – the first multi-game voyage of the season – as an important time to bond and grow closer. But it sounds like there's been more honest dialogue than crazy partying.
"It's nice to get everyone in the same room and on the same page," said Rielly. "We had an opportunity to talk and it's important now that we look ourselves in the mirror and it's time to dig in and we’re aware of that. It's a good test for us."
The leadership group reacted quickly to the setback in Pittsburgh with both captain John Tavares and Rielly, an alternate captain, holding a meeting with Babcock.
"They came to see me without me going to see them, which I really appreciated," Babcock said. "To me, that's an important part, the leadership group is a huge part of it."
While Babcock is stressing systematic changes, the players are focusing on effort.
"There are a number of things we talked about that we can improve on, you know, D zone being one, power play being one, penalty kill, neutral zone, kind of all the way through," said Rielly. "We just have to dig in more. We've talked about things we can change within the system and how we can improve, but it comes down to work ethic and that's on the players so that's what we have to be prepared to do."
"There's no secrets," said Barrie. "It's time to get going. It's not time to panic, but we've got a good chunk of the season out of the way and we're not where we want to be so it's time to bear down and man up here."
Trevor Moore (shoulder) was placed on injured reserve paving the way for Pierre Engvall to be recalled from the Marlies giving the Leafs an extra forward.
Babcock was noncommittal when asked if Engvall, who has 16 points in 15 games in the AHL, will make his NHL debut on this trip.
"He's a big body, he can really skate, he’s having success, it would make us a bigger, faster team," Babcock said. "We'd like to have him, but he's got to be ready for us to have him."
Babcock actually protected Engvall, who has played centre and wing with the Marlies, to make the NHL this season.
"In the summer napkins, Engvall was on the napkin," the coach revealed, "when camp was over he wasn’t on the napkin. (Dmytro) Timashov wasn't on and then was."
Engvall arrived at the rink shortly after practice ended.
Lines at Monday's practice:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Hyman - Tavares - Kapanen
Mikheyev - Spezza - Petan
Timashov - Shore - Gauthier
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie