Mike Babcock’s office is just as you’d imagine it.
It’s organized. There doesn’t appear to be a single item out of place. His desk at the team’s practice facility in Toronto’s west end is dotted with notebooks, loose sheets of paper covered in plastic, a book, and pictures of his family.
It’s what you’d expect for the uber-prepared, hard-charging head coach of the Maple Leafs.
The 56-year-old enters the season in a place he hasn’t been much before, if at all in the NHL, on something of a hot seat, following back-to-back disappointing first-round exits. In his office earlier this week — prior to the news of Auston Matthews’ disorderly conduct charges — Babcock spoke to The Athletic about his critics, stealing from CEOs, soccer and the NFL, working for Kyle Dubas, managing ice time for his top players, and whether or not he’s become a different coach in hockey’s age of analytics.
I know you visited Auston (Matthews) in the summer. How do you choose which guys you’re going to go see and how many do you end up visiting in the offseason?
So I try to see our leadership group. I didn’t see Mitch just because of the (contract) situation. So I mean, I went and saw Freddy. I went and saw Mo. Who did I see this summer? I went and saw Auston. I mean, I saw Tavares here I don’t know how many times. I meant to see Willy this year. That was my plan when I went to Russia. I never got a chance, which was too bad. But what I try to do is try to just set it up so I can bump into the guys. I don’t believe with our situation in Toronto, the way we have it, we have access for our players basically all summer they can be around (the practice facility). So I think it’s important that the head coach isn’t around, every single day watching over them.
Just because they can relax?
Yeah. They got enough months (with me during the season). They don’t need that. That doesn’t mean you can’t come in. It’s easy to come in, bump into the guys, do whatever. So you see a lot of guys that way. But when you go see a guy in his own place and you see his own house and you see his own situation, you learn way more. I’ve done this for years, but it never was ever in the media. Now that I work here, everything’s in the media, so I’m way more careful about what I do and how I do it.
You mentioned not seeing Mitch. Was that a conscious decision based on what happened with William? Do you think that had an impact?
Well, it was a conscious decision on the fact that what we talked about as an organization and management team and how we’re going to handle this and basically what their people asked for. So everybody’s different lots of times. And I think, especially as players get older, it’s not the same thing anymore. When you’re at the age that our guys were (when they were negotiating new contracts), I think that’s more of a situation and you just don’t want to ever be perceived as — I want him on the team! I don’t care what they make. It makes no difference in my life. Everybody in this league makes a lot, so that doesn’t affect me at all. What affects me is whether they’re playing or not playing. I would’ve got together with him, but the way it worked out it’s fine, he’s here, and we’re rolling.
Back-to-back 100-point seasons. Playoffs three straight years. Game 7s. Do you think it’s fair that your job security is a question, based on where the team was and what it is now?
That’s (the media) that say that. So my perception isn’t that at all. But there’s a buzz every day. Like, the year-end meeting, at the year-end meeting and then you go to the media at the year-end meeting, I know I’m not talking for three months — hopefully, it’ll be just two months — so whatever’s said is said. It doesn’t much affect me, to be honest with you. This is what I know is that when I came here they get no points. Now, we get a lot of points. Now, we’re an upper-echelon team. All we’ve done is win. I’m only a part of that, but I’m part of it. I can feed my family. I’m OK. I’m gonna be OK no matter what. But in saying that, I came here for one reason and that was to win here. Hundred percent, that’s what I plan on doing.
So you don’t feel personally like you have to prove something?
No, I think I have to prove something every day. So I come here and try to win every day. But that’s what I’ve done everywhere I’ve gone: just win. So, we’re gonna win here, too. Now, some people are impatient. That’s what I think (the media) get paid to do. But the reality is we got kids that have come from being drafted to now be (the) core of our team. They’re growing up. And, I like what we’ve done. Do I like that we lost last year in Game 7? No. I would’ve liked to win in Game 6 and advanced. We didn’t win in Game 6. We didn’t advance. I think it’s part of the battle scars you go through. If you look at all the good teams that have won, they’ve gone through it, too. We just want to do it quicker than everybody else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m impatient, too. I’d like to do it (quicker), too. But I also know there’s a process. Steady on the rudder and keep going, just doing your job.
After last year, Kyle (Dubas) mentioned in his postseason address the need for the organization to evolve and adapt. Personally, how do you look at that? Were there things you said ‘I can do better,’ moving forward?
I think you do that every year. What’s interesting to me is that sounds like it’s a new thing. I’ve been coaching hockey since 1988 and that’s what you do is you keep getting better. Scotty Bowman’s the best lifelong learner I know. You keep getting better. I think probably even in (the media) business to keep your job you gotta get better, you gotta evolve. Perception and reality are often different. My favourite clothing is Carhartt. No one ever sees me wear it; I’m wearing a suit behind the bench. What people think, or the perception and who I am, they don’t have a clue. The reality is we go about doing our job the best we can. We try to get better each and every day. I always say to coaches, in the summer once you’re by about July 15 ’til the end of August, that’s the best time to reinvent yourself every year. So whether that be the books you read, the people you talk to, who you visit, the coaches you meet with, the new coaches that come on your staff, the new players, the new sports-science people, whatever you can do to evolve and to get better, that’s what we try to do. But that didn’t just happen this year. That’s happened every single year and will continue to happen.
Was there one thing this summer that you said, I need to do that differently?’
Well, there’s lots of things each summer that I say to myself, “We gotta do this better” 100 percent.
Is it specific stuff? Is it special teams? Is it deployment?
It can be lots of things, but I’m not sharing them with you. You’re trying, but I’m not (telling you). But the reality is this goes on every single year. I think (the idea that), oh, it’s the same old team. Nothing’s the same. We changed half our roster. We changed our people. We changed the coaching staff. We’ve changed so much that it’s not even funny. But the other thing that happens is the players change. They grow, and they mature, and they get better. And someone leaves, and we get a new guy and there’s a new mix and a new dynamic. And you’d like to control everything. You really would. But you can’t. So what you do is you do the best you can. Right now we’re in a feeling-out process. So for me to project what’s going to happen — I can’t project what’s going to happen. What I do know is we’re going to come here every day, we’re going to work really hard, we’re going to get better each and every day, we’re going to evolve, and we’re going to be a team that fans can be proud of.
You’ve worked for Ken Holland, Lou (Lamoriello), I think Bryan Murray. What’s it been like working for a boss who’s younger, and like 20 years younger?
I think Lou was 20 years older than me. I think Bryan Murray was, too. I think Kenny Holland was about 10, maybe eight (years older), I can’t remember exactly. To me, it hasn’t been any different (with Dubas). Your relationship with your manager is so important, and each guy you build a relationship with. And probably in your fourth year, you don’t remember what it was like in your first year and your 10th year you don’t remember what it was like (before that). But what I do know is this is: Tim Speltz was my general manager for six years in junior. He works for the Toronto Maple Leafs. We’re lifelong friends. Bryan Murray is not with us anymore. We’re lifelong friends. Ken Holland and I, lifelong friends. Lou Lamoriello and I are lifelong friends. And in the time we’re done, Dubie and I will be, too.
I cherish the fact that you worked with those people and you worked under duress at times. But not only did you enjoy them, you enjoyed their families and you enjoyed your job and you enjoyed working. That didn’t mean you agreed all the time! Actually, tons of time you didn’t agree and I think that’s the most healthy part of it. You all come from different walks (of life); what we try to do here is we got a bunch of different people who think differently. So when I hire (Dave Hakstol); so I’ve known Hak since he was a player for Red Deer (in Junior A). I’ve known him a hundred years. I’ve not known (Paul McFarland) as long, but I’ve known him a while now. When you bring these people in, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get all their ideas. Rich (Rotenberg) in sports science, our new strength coach, you’re trying to get all their ideas.
It’s like you’re just a sponge.
Well, you’re trying to get a better idea every day and you don’t care whose idea it is. And I can’t remember which one was Paul MacLean’s idea or Lorne Henning’s idea or Tom Renney’s idea or Brad McCrimmon’s idea or Todd McLellan’s idea or Joel Quenneville’s idea or Claude Julien — I’ve worked with tons of coaches! — or (Ken Hitchcock)’s idea or which manager. If they can help us win that’s what we’re doing. I’d like to tell you I have a ton of original ideas. Most of my ideas, I call it R&D: rob and do. I see something, tweaks in my mind, I steal it. That can be from soccer. That can be from football.
One of my buddy’s kids is an NFL quarterback settling in. So now I’m big into the NFL, and watching the coaches coach the quarterback, and now I get to talk to the kid and I find out the information about it, and how they deal with it, and what’s good for me.
And then, soccer. I’m into soccer because my daughter was playing pro soccer again this summer and I’m watching that and seeing how they deal with this. So, there’s so many different sports, so many different things that you can draw from. I coach a board of a venture-capitalist company. So, multiple CEOs; I’ve been doing this for years. Well, you meet all these CEOs, and you hear their pitch, and they got a hundred ideas. And when you’ve been in one business a long time, the cross-pollination between other businesses — they’ve got great ideas — so you take from them and you go with that.
I guess what I would like to say, when I’m done coaching, I’m still going to be a lifelong learner. I’m still gonna be in the pursuit of knowledge and trying to get better. My kids are 26, 24, 22. If you think they’re not whacking me every day about, try this new (thing) and this is a new idea and they’re all really educated and doing new things. So you’re always getting ideas, and I think it helps and it keeps you young.
Do they convince you to get any apps or anything like that?
(Laughs) I tell you what. I get so much information a day. No one’s read more stuff sent to them by their kids than me.
Was there any thought of letting the players vote on a captain?
Yeah, you know what, what’s interesting about captaincies, it’s really interesting to me. When you name a captain, if you do it right, the players think they picked him, the owner thinks he picked him, the manager thinks he picked him, the coach thinks he picked him because it’s obvious to you. It’s all the same guy. I have a strong feeling in the end that’s what it’ll be like here.
You get asked a lot about ice time, especially in the playoffs last year. I wondered about your philosophy during the regular season. Are you keeping those minutes to around 17, 18 for those big guys to keep them fresh for the playoffs? Is that a sports-science thing? Is that, I have all these good players, I can play them less?
Well, you know what’s interesting about ice time because there’s three or four guys in the league that people pick and they say you want to play his minutes. But then when I look at the team that got all the points, I look at them, they manage their ice time. Why? Because they have depth and they can. So I think there’s two parts. The other thing about ice time is I looked back at (that playoff series). I actually dug out a sheet. I dug out the seven sheets about managing ice time and (the media is) telling me about the ice time (for Auston Matthews). And then I went through the whole thing and I actually looked at even the last game when the ice time was what people are talking about, I looked at how many shifts (he had).
He had more shifts actually in Game 7 than he did in some of the other games.
(Pause) So, sometimes if you’re me you just — whatever. Anyway, what’s next?
Is there anything that you use now — stats, analytics — that you wouldn’t have used five years ago?
Lots of stuff wasn’t available to us, and it is now.
Has it changed how you coach?
When I started in the NHL there was one laptop for a coaching staff. So, Greg Carvelwould run it for us, and I had Lorne Henning and Paul MacLean (as assistants) and we’d get it off one. And then we all got our own. And then we ended up hiring two more video guys. And then we got a guy who videotapes practice. And then we got an analytics team. And then we got a guy who does our analytics, we use our analytics team, we got an outside company doing it for us as well. So, I would say, we get all of it, but then we say to ourselves: What leads to winning? So we analyze the whole league over a number of years and say: ‘Who won? Why did they win? What’s fluff in articles? And what’s substance?’
So do you think the perception of you as not embracing analytics is wrong? I’ve always thought you’re more into that stuff than people would think.
Well, you know what, I don’t know what people say.
I can tell you.
I’m not interested, really, or else I’d read it. What I would say to you is that we do everything we can, and more, to have all the information and then we decide. Yeah, I don’t think we’re missing out on information or opportunity to use it, or saying no. But if we investigate something and we do all the research on it and we try to use it and it doesn’t work, or it isn’t validated, we’re not using it, we’re moving to the next thing. But there’s gonna be something new this year, or four or five things, and it’ll continue to evolve like it always has. But we were doing tons of this stuff before they called it analytics. Just think about it: There’s way more people working in hockey because we got the name, analytics. So there’s going to be something else next and we’re just gonna keep evolving. But I don’t think we’re going to be behind.
Last one. Do you think you need to show more flexibility? Like, I can give you an example.
Marleau and Brown in the playoffs, playing with William, the line wasn’t going — maybe changing something there would’ve helped. Do you think little things like that you can be less, I don’t know, stuck?
Well, you know what’s interesting to me is I think we’re very flexible here. I think we move people around all the time. If you think we didn’t do something that you thought we should have, that’s your opinion. We got a whole management team here, we make decisions based on that. We gather information every single day. I’m going to do what I think is right. And I’m going to gather all the information and we’re going to make the decision. I’m not going to canvas (the media) to see what you think.
That’s one thing I think we misunderstand is you’re playing Player X because you think he’s going to help you win. It’s not because you love this guy or anything like that.
It has nothing to do with that.
I think this guy is going to give me the best chance to win that night.
Yeah, a hundred percent. We love our players, don’t get me wrong. We love our players. You love ’em all. Now, sometimes they can’t necessarily do what you need ’em to do. But what you try to do, and even right now and in the summer you have napkins — we don’t have napkins as much anymore, you have computers and you send things back and forth and you’re going through things and you think a combination is going to work. Lots of times it doesn’t work. So you change it around. Our plan last year when William Nylander came back was to play with Auston. When it didn’t work, we tried to make changes. When we got it going the way we had it going we thought it was going pretty good. Even in the (playoff) series, we thought we had things going pretty good. We thought we played pretty well. In the end, we didn’t win, so you get second-guessed. I’m a big boy. I get all that.
It doesn’t seem fair sometimes does it?
I think it’s really fair.
But it’s one game.
This is what I would say to you is: We’re big boys, we know what we do for a living. It’s not affecting my life. I’m leaving here and I’m going to talk to my wife. I’m going to talk to my kids. I got a great life. I’m so blessed to coach hockey for a living, so blessed to be in Toronto. It’s just — I don’t know.
There’s other things.
I think so.
This interview was edited for clarity.
(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)