On whether he has been “pleasantly surprised” in Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown:
I think we’re all pleasantly surprised. I mean, you go into a season and you’re hopeful after all the discussions and the analysis on his game and the summer training. Obviously you need your best players to be your best players, and Kopi and Brownie have been our best players. I don’t know if we’re ‘surprised,’ I think we felt – probably you guys included – that they were capable of it based on their past performance, but certainly happy to see where they’re at.
On what he saw in Brooks Laich that resulted in an NHL contract:
It was kind of a unique situation in training camp this year. We went to China for a week, and Brooksie was one of the guys that stayed back and played games while were away, and he was injured in training camp. But when we got back, we did play a game in Vegas and we had a lot of young guys in our lineup, so we counted on him an awful lot and we thought he was terrific in that game. We had to make some decisions quickly. We didn’t have a contract for him at that point, but he agreed to stay around and practice with the team, and we liked everything about him. I don’t think you can have enough good, quality veteran players that are good pros. They come to the rink every day and work hard and get better. He still skates well, he’s good on faceoffs, I think he plays a 200-foot game. But just having a veteran guy that’s a well-rounded 20—foot player that has a great attitude is a reason we wanted to keep him around. [Reporter: What does that say about him that he was willing to hang around and practice without a contract?] Well, number one, his number one choice was to try and play in Los Angeles. That’s his home, and he still wants to play. He still has a lot to offer, he kind of fell out of the league there when he was here and was anxious to get back. Feels like he’s still got a lot to prove and still got a lot to give. If you get to know Brooksie, he’s a quality individual, so it’s not surprising.
On the challenges presented by Toronto:
All kinds. If you look at Toronto, they’ve got a very exciting team. I think they lead the league in pretty much offensive category, and that’s not just the foo-foo stuff on the surface. If you look at the fundamental analytics, they’re number one in just about every category. They’ve got some high-end players that can beat you one-on-one, but structurally as a team they’re as good as any team in the league. Very opportunistic, very quick-strike, play a fast game. It’s an exciting challenge for our hockey team. It’s probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced to date, so we’re excited to see our group and how they respond.
On any lineup changes:
We’re not sure. We’ve had a lot of guys coming in and out of our lineup. We’ve had a lot of continuity probably on three lines up until Jeff got hurt, we’ve had a lot of continuity on our back end. We have pretty much had one forward come in or out every game, and we’ve had a lot of guys that can play center. That’ll be a game-time decision.
On how long it takes teams to instill committed defensive identity, given Toronto’s youth and the success he has had in his tenure with Los Angeles:
I’ve known Mike Babcock for a long time. I’m sure he’s been demanding it from day one. The problem is you’ve got guys that are coming in here that prior to getting into the National Hockey League, they’ve never had to play without the puck because they have it all the time, so it’s not that they can’t do it, they’ve never had to do it. It takes time. Even if you look at Los Angeles, the process that we went through with Kopi and Brownie and Drew, I don’t think people realize that don’t get to see them play all the time just how committed they are without the puck and how good they are and how much value they place in it, and to me, that’s the big challenge – getting players to put as much value on the defensive side of the game as they do the offensive side of the game, and it takes time, but quite honestly it doesn’t take an enormous amount of time. I think it’s a philosophy that every coach in the league believes in, that it’s important to winning. So, I don’t see it taking a long, long time, but it is a process. It’s a process you go through where the team has success, maybe makes the playoffs, maybe doesn’t have success in the playoffs, but then you really get a picture of how hard it is and what it takes, and I think that’s usually when it sets in.
On the importance of having a fun atmosphere within the dressing room:
Well, I think it’s important. The human spirit is maybe sometimes the most important thing. Hockey’s a game of emotion, and if you don’t have it, you’re probably going to have a tough time winning. Let’s be honest, I think the fact that we’ve had success early on, it’s easy to have fun. If you lose games, it’s not very much fun. But our challenge all along to our guys is we want to have fun and we want to enjoy the game, but we want it to be accountable fun. We want to be able to have fun while we’re working and not goofing off and not working, and our guys have really embraced that idea and they’ve been terrific at it. So, we’ve had success, they’ve worked hard, and they’ve really enjoyed the process.
On any extra measures to ensure players aren’t distracted by friends or family in Toronto:
We go through our preparation like we always do. I think it’s important guys come home and they get a chance to see their family. It’s a great opportunity for guys to do that. I think it’s maybe more of a concern if it’s the guy’s first time going through it, but all these guys have been here multiple times. The guys have been here on the NHL stage, they’ve been here on the World Cup stage, Tanner and Tyler and young guys like that have all been through it. I think it should be an exciting time for it, but I think it’s our job as coaches to put the focus on the game, the preparation for today and the opponent that we’re playing. There hasn’t been any extreme, extra measures to do that, but I think the focus of the group and leaning on our leadership to make sure our team is ready has been there.
-Lead photo via Kevin Sousa/NHLI
-Two quotes withheld for today’s morning skate report