Asked if there was one player who surprised him during training camp, Mike Babcock paused.
“Ooh, I’m trying to go through all [the names],” said the Toronto Maple Leafs coach, followed by another long pause.
“No, not really.”
Babcock joined Prime Time Sports on Monday afternoon, two days before his team officially opens one of the most anticipated seasons in franchise history. The Leafs take on the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
“What we’re seeing now is our players are good,” Babcock told hosts Bob McCown and John Shannon on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. “It makes it harder for the guys trying out. It makes it harder for the young guys who are on the [Toronto] Marlies to make the team. The bar is set differently.”
While no player surprised the head coach, he was able to learn more about star centre John Tavares, who signed with the team this past summer, a move that rocketed expectations of the club.
“I learned more about how much of a hockey junkie he is,” Babcock said. “What a professional he is. How committed to his craft he is. How he understands the process. As talented as a player he is, one of the greatest things he’s bringing to our room is he is a guy who wants more and who has been through some struggles. Who understands what it takes.”
Babcock said veteran forward Patrick Marleau is in the same category, adding that the pair bring a “sense of urgency” to the team that young players simply don’t. Tavares is set to play on a line with Mitch Marner, while Marleau will skate alongside Auston Matthews. Two youngsters paired with two veterans, something Babcock views as important.
“Those are good mentors,” he said of Tavares and Marleau. “They are good people. They love hockey. They love conditioning. They live good lives.”
The coach also offered his thoughts on a few other subjects:
“We’re fortunate that we’ve put ourselves in a position now to have a good five to seven-year run,” Babcock said. “With our contracts, with our use of our players with the setup we have. We really believe we’ve got multiple opportunities [to win]. That’s what you need to have success.”
Babcock praised the hockey sense of the 25-year-old defenceman, who was signed out of Russia in May.
“What I really like about him, his head’s up all the time,” said Babcock, noting that Ozhiganov should improve once he gets more reps on NHL-size rinks. “Makes real good passes. We haven’t seen his shot yet but he’s got a cannon. He’s got a real good stick defensively.”
The coach was also impressed with Ozhiganov’s ability to navigate training camp despite obvious language barriers.
Listen to the full interview in the audio player below.