Babcock on Maple Leafs’ Rielly: ‘Is he a No. 1 defenceman?’

Mike Babcock felt the Maple Leafs just didn't have their feet going but won't accept excuses for them ending playing catch hockey, or 'losing hockey.' He also won't comment on the entertainment value of the game either.

If you’re searching for clues as to who will be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ core during their rebuild, well, Mike Babcock singled out three players.

The head coach joined Hockey Central at Noon Thursday for 13 minutes to discuss the first half of his first season behind the Leafs bench. He immediately singled out a trio of skaters — centre Nazem Kadri and defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner — as pleasant surprises this season. All three are 25 years of age or younger. Two will be negotiating raises this summer.

“They’re better players than I thought. They play harder. They’re more competitive. To me, that is the positive part,” Babcock said of his 27th-place team, the day after Toronto lost at home to Columbus, the worst club in the league. “We sure like some of the guys we have here and our prospects.”

As for the veterans, Babcock credited four leaders — Dion Phaneuf, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak and all-star Leo Komarov — with setting the right tone for the younger players in the dressing room and bringing the proper work ethic to the job.

The coach “absolutely” talks to the Leafs executive brain trust daily about how to improve the team and does have a say in terms of draft, trade deadline and free agency targets, but he reiterates that his job is to prepare the current Leafs to win the next game.

Part of the grand plan is to determine just how good Reilly can be. Babcock says the 21-year-old, a fifth-overall pick in 2012, is definitely a “real good” No. 2 defender but hesitates to predict top-dog status for the talented kid.

“Is he a 1? We’re going to watch together and figure it out. I really like him. He’s got huge upside,” Babcock said.

Now in his third season, Rielly leads all Leafs defencemen in goals (four) and is second to Phaneuf in assists (15) and points (19). He hovers around second or third in average ice time, but under Babcock has seen more than twice as much time on the penalty kill than on the man-advantage. Rielly barely killed penalties at all under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek.

“I love how he can get the puck to the net. I love how conscientious he’s become defensively,” Babcock said. “He plays against the best people. We haven’t played him on the power play on purpose. We will play him on the power play.”

One-Timers with Mike Babcock

On Jake Gardiner: “He’s a real good two-pair guy, getting better each and every day. More confidence. Goes back for the puck better. Stronger.”

On Nazem Kadri: “When you play head-to-head against the other [team’s] best players, when they getting running around the other night in L.A. and you’re running right back, and you’re greasy, I really like it. He might be the biggest surprise for me. I’m almost shocked how good he’s been — and competitive and greasy.”

On the Toronto market versus Anaheim and Detroit: “The Leafs fans’ support is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s so many people…. I’ve been very impressed with the fans. What I’ve seen is, if we work hard and we’re prepared, they’re happy.”

On tough love for Toronto’s goaltenders: “I believe that if my boss tells me the truth each and every day, and he doesn’t think I’m doing my job and he tells me, then I can fix it. I want to know where I stand. I think the goaltenders are part of the team…. We try to make them accountable like everybody else. I think that’s important.”

On the Leafs’ spot in the NHL standings: “When you gotta turn the newspaper upside down to feel good, it’s not a good thing.”