TORONTO – It wasn’t so long ago that Mike Babcock said of Mitch Marner: “I’ve never coached a kid that good that young.”
Yet there Marner was skating on the Toronto Maple Leafs fourth line on Sunday night. He seemed an odd fit alongside Matt Martin and Ben Smith – players not likely to amass 20 points in a season, much less the first 27 games of their NHL career.
To Babcock, though, this arrangement made sense.
“Well I’ve been just been watching the games,” he said.
No one gets let off the hook easy by the straight-shooting coach. Not even the kids.
Heck, Babcock looked out a sparse media gathering before Sunday’s game against Colorado and remarked that the absentee reporters should get canned for “half an effort.”
Marner’s stint with the lunch pail line lasted a little more than a period. Four even-strength shifts in total. That left him with a shade under his season average in ice time against the Avalanche, but there was a message built into the unusual assignment.
“I think there’s been a message going on for a bit,” said Babcock. “You know, that’s the process of growing up in the National Hockey League. It doesn’t go your way all the time. You’ve got to work hard every single day: practice, games, period.”
Slowly, but surely, the internal expectations for Toronto’s impressive group of rookies is growing.
After being carefully protected by the coach earlier in the year, we saw William Nylander recently get a stretch of games with the fourth line before Marner’s brief stopover there.
Those moves represent a reminder rather than a punishment from Babcock, who believes in challenging his players constantly. He is pushing buttons in hopes of seeing a response and, in the case of Nylander, he got a positive one last week after the 20-year-old winger was reunited with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman.
This is precisely why the Leafs so aggressively pursued him to oversee the rebuild. He may be demanding in approach, but there is a proven method behind it.
“Coaching them how to be not just good hockey players, but coaching them on how to be winning hockey players is a real process and one that Mike is a perfect fit for here in Toronto,” president Brendan Shanahan said last week in an interview. “That it’s not just simply good enough to be in the NHL. Mike has great experience at winning and turning a good team into a winning team.”
In some ways, he is almost coaching this season on parallel tracks.
There is the matter of the games immediately ahead on the schedule – San Jose is next up Tuesday at Air Canada Centre – but he’s also got an eye on the much wider picture as well. Matthews, Marner and Nylander have each made a sizeable impact as rookies this season, but their continued growth will help dictate if the organization ultimately gets where it wants to go down the road.
That’s why Babcock will push, when necessary.
“We’ve got a lot of young players that are playing prominent roles,” said Shanahan. “We also have a lot of players that were here when we arrived that have adapted very well to really a lot of new standards that are expected of them, and demands. Mike’s done a great job of making it very clear to players what their role on any given night is.
“So it’s not just about the rookies; it’s really about even the guys that have been in the NHL for a little while that have embraced Mike’s challenges.”
It helps explain the gentle kick Marner got Sunday when Connor Brown took his usual spot alongside Bozak and van Riemsdyk for a period and a half. Babcock called it “the right thing to do.”
Remember that he is coaching for tomorrow as well as today.
Upon reaching 1,000 career NHL games back in February, Babcock laid out his long-range plan with the Leafs: “Well I’ve got this year and seven more here. And then I’m going to stay for two more because the team’s going to be that good.”
To make good on that prediction he’ll need some of these kids to grow into pillars.
The foundation is being pushed into place now.