TORONTO – The seat under Mike Babcock might be warmer than years past, but at the opening of Toronto’s 2019 training camp on Thursday, the Maple Leafs head coach appeared as affable – and unaffected – as ever by the mounting pressure.
“You get slapped around a bit and all those little slappings help you grow,” Babcock said from Ford Performance Centre. “I think the expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous one if you’re going in the right direction, and we are. We’ve got something to be proud of. But we want more and that’s how it should be.”
The Leafs have little choice but to aim higher than where they were four months ago, when Babcock was architect of the team’s third consecutive first-round playoff exit (and second straight in a Game 7 showdown with the Boston Bruins).
Last April, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas vowed to assess Babcock thoroughly and ultimately decided to keep him behind the Toronto bench for a fifth season. Last year was the first where the 56-year-old Babcock and 33-year-old Dubas interacted as coach and general manager respectively, after Dubas had spent his previous four years with the organization as assistant GM. And like any new relationship, there was a feeling-out process to navigate.
“You begin to get used to each other and then at the end of the year reflect on how it went. I think it went great,” Dubas said. “We disagree as any coach and GM do a lot; we agree on a lot of things and work though it all. The key thing is, on the areas where you disagree, you respect one another and work through [it] all. I’m excited for the season with him.”
“We communicate all the time, we don’t agree all the time,” added Babcock. “We talked a lot. We made a lot of changes to our lineup. We’re excited about our opportunity. Let’s get on with it.”
Dubas wasn’t the only one Babcock had to have critical conversations with over the summer. For the second consecutive off-season, Babcock paid a visit to top centre Auston Matthews’ home in Scottsdale, Ariz., to hash out the season that was, in particular the way it ended.
One of the primary criticisms dogging Babcock since April has been his apparent underutilization of Matthews in Toronto’s Game 7 loss to Boston, doling out the 22-year-old’s second-fewest minutes of the series (18:48) rather than loading his up in a decisive matchup.
Babcock again defended how he handled Matthews by noting on Thursday he actually gave Matthews his second-most shifts of the series (27) in that game, a not insignificant number to have an impact on the game’s outcome. Still, Babcock met with Matthews after the dust settled to hash out any lingering issues.
“We had a good discussion,” Babcock said. “He wants to be a driving force. No different than John Tavares…they want to be the guys putting their name on the Cup that have led their team. That’s what you aspire to as a player and think that’s your job as a coach to help them [achieve that]. Is it going to be rosy every day? No. But he’s an important part of our team.”
While keeping the exact details between coach and player to himself, Matthews said their summit got him and Babcock on the right track ahead of a new NHL season.
“I think we made a lot of positive progress,” Matthews said. “Moving forward I think I made it clear what I want to see out of him and [he said] what he wants to see out of me. You’re never going to agree with everything that’s being said and you’ll have opinions on stuff, but I think coming out of it, we made some good progress.”
Now the Leafs as a whole will try to do the same. Dubas went out and acquired Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci on July 1 to bolster Toronto’s often maligned blueline. Babcock noted how last season the Leafs failed to "maintain winning" when defencemen were injured, and suffered especially down the stretch when Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott both missed extended time with back and shoulder injuries respectively.
With Gardiner now departed for Carolina as a free agent and Dermott expected to miss the first 12 to14 games of the season following off-season shoulder surgery, it'll be on Babcock to not only work Ceci and Barrie into the team’s top-four rotation with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, but also determine who will fill out the team's bottom pairing from among the likes of Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur and Kevin Gravel. And that's just one of many areas that Babcock and the Leafs will experience turnover from a year ago.
"This is as much change as I’ve seen in the National Hockey League," said the 17-year NHL head coaching veteran. "Every year it’s totally different. You’ve got 23 guys, and 23 ways to coach them. When you get new guys, they’re going to learn you and you’re going to learn them and you’re going to figure out the process to handle them. What we’re looking for hasn’t changed, but it takes time to get your team to the position you want. We’re a good, good team in the National Hockey League."
If Toronto intends to live up to that billing, its new additions will have to successfully complement the growth of Toronto’s vaunted young core of players, including Matthews, Tavares, William Nylander, Rielly and Mitch Marner (when and if the restricted free agent, still without a contract, returns to the club) has to offer.
“We have to get in the playoffs,” Babcock surmised of his mission this season. “Everyone talks about the playoffs and the run, but you have to get in the playoffs. And teams [in our division] got better. So she’s going to be tight from the get-go and we understand that. We also think we’ve really taken a step [forward] internally. A lot of our core players have gotten substantially better.”