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Mike Babcock begins grooming Toronto Maple Leafs' future

Mike Babcock said his most important job is to make his players better men. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

TORONTO -- Class is in session for a cherubic Toronto Maple Leafs roster representing the next phase of the team's rebuild.

Called up earlier this week, prospects William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman are getting their NHL feet wet now, which was always part of the plan post-trade deadline after the front office jettisoned a number of veterans.

The current NHL roster now has 10 players who played in the AHL at some point this season.

They're in the hands of professor Mike Babcock. The process of adjusting to NHL life can be overwhelming for these prospects at times. It's a steep learning curve.

"You got to learn to win, you got to learn to compete," the Leafs head coach said Thursday in explaining that apprenticeship. "The guy across from you feeds his family. When you first arrive in the league, you don't have a wife and kids. Then you do have a wife and kids, and when you do have a wife and kids, you understand what responsibility is, so you want your job and you understand how you compete for your job. When you're a kid, you always think you're going to get the puck back. Once you get older, you know it's too hard to get it back, so you hang onto it all the time. There's lots to learn. They're works in progress. But it's got to be a night on every night."

Babcock often compares NHL life to family life, the values and lessons of both worlds often crossing over in his views and beliefs.

On Thursday, he was asked after the morning skate by veteran Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno about a statement he made last week in which he said his No. 1 job was to make his players better men; No. 2 was to make them better players.

"One hundred percent," Babcock reaffirmed Thursday. "That's the big thing. It wouldn't matter to me if you're 32 or 42, I believe [in] people doing right every day. And I believe the essence of who you are and the measure of who you are as a man is being a good human being. There's no slipperiness about you, you're honest every day with your effort and how you treat people and the respect you have for the game and for your family, all those things together. The more good people you have on the team, obviously talent is a part of that, but the more good men you have, when you have a certain talent base, the more you win. I'm a big believer in that. So, we're going to have good people here, and we're going to have good players."

There's no question this next phase for the Leafs is more about teaching and parenting than anything else. The NHL's highest-paid coach is being tasked with grooming these kids into players and men, to create the culture on and off the ice that's been lacking in these parts for, well, a long, long time.

It's a tall order.

But again, Babcock can dip into his own personal life as a father of three to help shape his approach at the rink.

"I think your approach changes with every person you coach," he said. "They're at a different stage of your life. One thing that's happened to me is that I've got kids as old as them or older, kids that are athletes and who want to do well. I understand how people need to be spoken to and talked to, but I also understand what accountability is and doing it right. People that love you in your life, and this the biggest thing for me, you hear about a players' coach, what does that mean? The people in your life that love you and care about you, they make you better. And sometimes they have hard decisions and hard discussions with you. But they make you better. Sometimes you don't like [those discussions]. So what? They make you better."

The apprenticeship has begun for Toronto's future core. It will not be easy under Babcock, of this we are sure. And not every player over the course of this rebuild will be tough enough to stick around, either. Babcock is demanding. But those who do make it will be better for it, both in life and in hockey.