When is too much youth a bad thing?
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is trying to make that determination in the last days of training camp as he seeks a final configuration to his opening-night lineup. Toronto could have more than a handful of rookies on its roster when the regular season begins next Wednesday in Ottawa, the prospect of which causes pause for Babcock.
“In my history in the league I’ve rushed some players the odd time and then they end up back in the minors and to me that’s counter-productive,” Babcock said following practice on Friday afternoon.
“So we don’t want to err on the overexcited side,” he continued. “We want to err, I think, on the cautious side. And if we make a mistake at the start of the year [those players are] allowed to change your mind over 20 games in the American League and get back. To me, that’s the right mistake not the other way around.”
Long the coach of a veteran Detroit Red Wings squad, Babcock has never had a roster quite like the one he’ll be coaching this season. With Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev, the Leafs could start the season with five rookies and perhaps more if Connor Brown and maybe even Frederik Gauthier crack the opening roster.
Toronto could also have other inexperienced types: Connor Carrick has played 53 NHL games; Martin Marincin has played 150; Frankie Corrado has played 67.
Morgan Rielly will be the team’s No. 1 defender and he’s only 22.
It’s why those such as Matt Hunwick (31 years old), Roman Polak (30), Milan Michalek (31) and Brooks Laich (33) are all but certain to stick around.
Babcock is wary of having too much youth in the lineup at once.
Not only might those players be over-exposed, their development curve too could suffer in the long run. He wondered if some might benefit by starting with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League before stepping into “the National Hockey League when you’re ready to stay for good.”
The Leafs went in that direction at training camp last fall, leaving off Brown and Hyman, both of whom impressed in particular during the exhibition schedule. Those two, as well as Nylander and Russian rookie Nikita Soshnikov, went on to thrive in the AHL before joining the Leafs for successful late-season stints.
Babcock has been prodding his youngest players often following his return from coaching Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, demanding that they learn to play the right way.
He left the team’s third-to-last exhibition in Montreal on Thursday night pleased with only the smoked meat sandwich he consumed. Everything else in a 6-1 loss to the Canadiens left a sour taste, from the lack of pace and execution to the missing competitiveness in puck battles.
He’s been frustrated at times by the unneeded stickhandling and lack of good, hard drives to the net. His young players wanted points, he suggested, but hadn’t learned what it took to get those points on the NHL stage.
Babcock has repeatedly refrained that his youngest players needed to “learn how to play,” by which he meant that competition level.
“You’ve got to learn that when the puck’s there you’ve got to compete for it, like a pro does,” Babcock said, pointing to the ground and an imaginary puck there for the taking. “That’s how he feeds his family. He’s got three kids at home and he feeds his family by winning that battle.
“You’ve just been skilling your way around because you’re better than everyone else,” he continued. “One guy knows what compete is, the other guy has no idea because he’s never had to [compete]. Now, you can say well he’s very competitive; yeah, at the level they were at [before].
“This is a whole new level where men play against you.”