Mike Babcock on Nikita Zaitsev: “Any time you can find a guy in the summer that plays in your top pair, you’ve done something special”

Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Babcock met with the media after practice on Monday, discussing the team’s recent dip in play, William Nylander as a center long-term, the team’s “play fast, play right” motto, and Nikita Zaitsev’s first 54 games in the NHL.

As a coach getting your club prepared for every game, how challenging is it matching skill with will?

Mike Babcock: Well, I think the big thing is we haven’t practiced in a long time. It’s nice to have a practice. I’m not talking right after a game when you’re fresh enough to practice and get some tempo going so we can get our work level back to a rate that allows you to be successful in the league. We’re through two-thirds of the season, and we’re in a good spot right now, but the league gets better and better. If you want to continue to be in a good spot, we have to get better. We haven’t been as good night in, night out as we’re capable of being. So let’s find a way to get a little better.

You’ve been candid a couple of times about the coaching staff doing its part and needing to do more. Do you actually change anything though?

Babcock: I guess it’s like anything. We’re all in this together. When we play well, we all get the credit. When we play poorly, we all get the blame. It’s real important. We ask our players to take ownership, so why wouldn’t you as a coach or manager? Own your part. Our team didn’t get off to a good start last game. We looked lethargic. They won all the battles. They were better than us. What happens between our meetings and when the game starts that we’re not jumping? So we’ve got to get that looked after. It’s been an area of strength and then suddenly it’s not as good for us. Sometimes you start real good and the other team scores first anyway. I thought we played great against St. Louis the night they were in here right at the start. They scored and then they took over totally, but that first five or six minutes, we were on it. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have success and score first, but it sure gives you a chance.

When you get that final third of the season coming in, what do you see from the opposition in terms of ramping it up? Is it attention to detail? Is it energy? Is it both?

Babcock: Yeah. Especially with teams that feel they have an opportunity to be in [the playoffs], it’s for real. You want to play. April 12th is when the real season starts and you want to have an opportunity to be in that. You’ve got to earn the right for that to happen. There are lots of points up for grabs and the two most important ones are tomorrow night because it’s the one we’re playing.

Do you see a timeline for when William Nylander could start to transition to being a center in the NHL?

Babcock: I never thought about it much, to tell you the truth. Right now, he’s not doing that this year for sure. We’ll just kind of look at our lineup and assess that in the offseason and go from there.

How much is it a learning experience for these guys as the games get tougher and harder, that they’re figuring that out?

Babcock: For sure. It is for sure. I think anytime you get beat and the other team is better and quicker than you are, you get a chance to take a look at yourself and really assess yourself. You know, sometimes when things are going good, you think you’re better than you are. Sometimes, when things are going bad, you think you’re worse than you are. You’re probably somewhere in between. Let’s just do our jobs.

Do you feel you guys have a bit of a target on you because you’re in a playoff spot? More so than you might’ve been last year?

Babcock: 100%. I don’t think it’s a target on you. I think it’s just the league. They evaluate you, you evaluate them. You try to get ready for them, they try to get ready for you. Obviously, when you play better and you look like you’re organized and have a decent team, then teams get prepared for you. If you don’t, the coach can say anything he wants, but the guys are sleepwalking.

That Islanders team — they’ve clearly turned it around in a lot of ways. What are you seeing differently from them now?

Babcock: I never ever thought they weren’t a good team. I don’t think anyone really thought that. I mean, they have an elite, elite center in John Tavares. They have good players. Now, they seem to have gotten excited and gotten it going. They’re 6-2-2 in their last ten. We had a good game against us last time we played them. They found a way to win the game. We’ve got to find a way to win a game at home.

“Play fast, play right” is a pretty straightforward statement. Why do you switch those things up? Just a new message, something to focus on?

Babcock: I just came up with whatever we had on the wall — I can’t remember what it was — this summer. I’m always waiting each year for us to come up with a way of playing that is going to be something you can hang your hat on. I think, when we play right, we can play real fast. I think, when we don’t play right, it looks like snails out there.

Zaitsev, from game one to now, what sort of progress have you seen in his game?

Babcock: He’s a real good player. He’s a competitive, competitive, smart guy. A better defender than we could’ve hoped for, and ultra-competitive. Takes it very seriously. Wants to be great. I think any time you can find a guy in the summer that plays in your top pair, you’ve done something special. Now we need to find some more.