Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock entered his second season of their franchise’s organizational rebuild with a much younger team than last year, including 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews and 2015 fourth overall pick Mitch Marner making their NHL debuts. Babcock joined The Jim Rome Show on Tuesday and talked about how different this year’s team, which has started 10-9-5, has been.
“We really like our group. We have 8 rookies in our lineup. We’ve changed from an old veteran team that wasn’t very talented to a young, young group, probably too young for the National Hockey League in saying that we feel like we’re going in the right direction,” Babcock said. “Our biggest thing is staying in the hunt right now. We got to stay in the hunt while we get better as a team, and the longer we can stay in it, the better we are off for the run.”
Having coached younger teams throughout his career, Babcock has used that experience to pull from.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I coached Major Junior Hockey, so that’s basically 19 and under for 8 years, enjoyed it. Coached college hockey, enjoyed it as well, and these guys are good young players. They’re getting better fast,” Babcock said. “It’s a growth process, but there’s lots of teaching and we have our ups and downs, but the majority of the time, we work hard, we compete, we’re a lot of fun to watch, we just do silly things sometimes.”
Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut, a night Babcock says was his best night as the organization’s head coach. Babcock talked about the 19-year-old’s overall transition to the world’s premier league through 24 games.
“We went into Edmonton last year and [Connor] McDavid got five points, and I’d never seen anything like it in my life, and then you see this and you go this is a special player,” Babcock said on Matthews’ debut. “Obviously when you come to the league as a center, it’s a lot harder to be a center than it is a winger, and you got to learn to play with or without the puck, and you got a lot of growth that has to take place and saying that, he embraces it. He’s a hard worker, wants to be the best. He’s a big big man with elite talent and an elite drive train, and so he’s going to be a special player for us in time to come. The great thing for him, though, is he’s not by himself, he’s surrounded by a core of young guys that have high-end ability as well and really want to be special.”