TORONTO — In his first half-season as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Kyle Dubas engaged in a contract standoff that kept William Nylander away from the team for more than two months.
He saw No. 1 centre Auston Matthews sit out 14 games with a separated shoulder and No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen sidelined for eight games with a groin injury.
And yet, despite those absences and a rough stretch since the Christmas break, the 29-17-2 Leafs remain one of the top teams in the NHL. It’s left Dubas thinking that he owes it to his players to make a concerted effort to bolster the roster ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
“The way that they’ve hung in and handled those things, and if you look at where we’re at in the standings overall, I still have to be very happy about that,” Dubas said Tuesday. “I think they’ve earned the right for us to explore ways that we can continue to make the team better. So we’re trying to do that and if there are things that are fair, we feel that fit for us in the short and long term, then we’ll continue to explore all that.”
It’s no mystery that his top priority remains bringing in some defensive help, although Dubas didn’t get into those kind of specifics in what was billed as his final Q-and-A session with reporters before the trade deadline.
The rookie GM would prefer to stay out of the rental market and instead acquire players with term left on their contracts — a desire complicated by an uncertain salary cap picture next season with Matthews and Mitch Marner still in need of new contracts.
Dubas continues to have dialogue with the Matthews camp on an extension, but has stopped negotiating with Marner at the request of his agent, Darren Ferris, who would prefer to wait for the summer.
In a perfect world, he’d like to have the Matthews contract wrapped up ahead of the deadline. That would give the Leafs GM a clearer long-term picture when making decisions on trades.
“If we knew where all of our players would be and what our situation was, it would help us prepare for a number of factors,” he said. “That said, they’re very big personal decisions for the players and I don’t want it to come off as we’re putting pressure on them to do so. …
“Yes, it would be selfishly for me beneficial. But for the players I think they have to make sure they’re fully comfortable in going into any arrangement when they’re fully happy and ready to do so.”
Dubas addressed a number of topics during his 14-minute availability with reporters, from the team’s recent struggles to Jake Gardiner’s confidence to Nylander’s slow start to a stern defence of the Leafs prospect pipeline.
Here’s a transcript of what else was said:
How concerned are you with the recent 4-7-0 stretch?
“I’m not concerned. Just speaking on a personal level, earlier in my own career going back to the Sault, and my wife can attest, I used to really go up and down. Every loss was the end of the world and every win was the greatest thing ever. Then the experience and just going through the years have shown that I think that these types of things are really a great opportunity. We had some teams back in Sault Ste. Marie and then also with the Marlies that didn’t really encounter any rough stretches during the season at all and then you get to late in the year and the playoffs when things are hard, and the team hasn’t had any experience in dealing with that.
“I think especially with our group being a younger group, where the core of the guys are young, it’s just a great opportunity for them to show how they can lead the group out of it, and develop their own leadership. I think we’ve had some games where we’ve played very well and the puck just hasn’t gone in. Whereas I think earlier in the year we had some games where we didn’t play very well and the puck was going in at those times.
“In life and in hockey, it all seems to balance out. Most of the times it’s during the season, other times it takes a few years, but usually you come out even. I just think it’s a whole opportunity for our whole group now.”
You’re 9-9-2 since Nylander and Matthews returned. Is there any correlation with getting more talent in the lineup?
“I don’t know, I haven’t really looked at that. I think when we analyze it we’re more looking at our overall season and in that stretch we’ve played some of our best games. If you go back to December and work your way all the way through, we’ve had some games where I don’t think we’ve played to our potential. I think all the players and the coaches and myself, we recognize that.
“We’ve also had some games where we’ve played extremely well — the Tampa game last week, the game in Tampa that we lost previously, the Boston game here. Sometimes the scoreboard goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m very encouraged by that. I think as it pertains to the rest of it, again not playing our best on certain nights, I think everyone recognizes that.
“The mantra here this week from the players and coaches is that they just need to work their way through it and out of it, and I think at the same time we can be encouraged by the way that we’ve performed against some of the best teams in the league since the date that you referenced.”
Do the recent struggles impact the long-term mandate?
“No, I don’t think whatsoever. I think we’re happy with overall where the team is at. I know you can sort of get immersed in the short term, both when things are going great and things are going not to the level that you expect in terms of wins and losses, but it’s a good time to reflect on really how the team is playing, where the team is at, what we can improve on. It gives the group a good time to reflect on how we can rely on each other and help to pull our way out of it.
“With myself and Mike [Babcock] together and then Mike and the players together with his staff, it’s a good time. Like I said, it’s a great opportunity and I’m excited for [Wednesday’s game against Washington], for sure.”
What do you make of the way William Nylander is playing and how he’s handling his lack of production?
“I think the way that he’s handling it is he’s handling it very honestly with everybody. I don’t think he was — maybe when you’ve missed that much time, you missed training camp and you missed two months, and then you come back, it’s difficult and it’s hard to catch up. That’s what I’ve and what we’ve tried to tell him the whole time, is that it’s not going to be an overnight process where he’s going to go back to being the player the he always has been. So we have to remain patient and he has to continue to stick to his own development plan and he’ll do that.
“He works very hard, he’s a very good young person and I’ve got a lot of faith that he’ll work his way out of it. It may not be on the timeline that everybody wants, but he’ll get there and we’re excited to help him do that.”
Do you feel this year provides an opportunity to be aggressive at the trade deadline since Marner and Matthews are both still on entry-level contracts?
“Our hope is that our window where we’re in contention and continuing to get better expands for many years — as many as humanly possible — but I think we do have some [cap] space now and we can improve the group. Like I said, I think we’ll continue to look to explore all those avenues to do that. You’re right, we may not have the same cap space at the deadline in the future, but I think that’s where we’ll be expecting our development model and our program here and some internal development of our guys [to help out].”
How concerned are you about Jake’s confidence after being booed by home fans and whether it will affect being able to re-sign him next season?
“Yeah, I’m right now just more worried about Jake getting back to 100 per cent health [because of back spasms]. I don’t worry so much about Jake’s confidence. Jake is Jake, he’s very mature, very intelligent and able to handle everything that comes his way very well, always. I think he’s been an excellent player for the organization, he’s been here as long or longer than anybody, and the one thing that I would just reiterate is how important he’s been to helping to turn the organization around.
“I think that the fans and media alike, it would be nice for them to recognize them and be supportive. Jake is a player that has the puck a lot and when you play hockey and you have the puck a lot and you try to be creative and you make skilled plays, from time to time they’re not going to go your way. But I think with Jake the positive far, far outrides the times when it doesn’t go right. That’s why we like him and that’s why he’s been so important for us over the last number of years.”
Did you anticipate Mitch Marner’s offensive growth in his third NHL season or has it taken you by surprise?
“The one thing that I really love about Mitch, and that we as an organization love about him, is how much he just loves hockey and loves being a Toronto Maple Leaf. He comes to the rink everyday with just an unbelievable — and everyone here can see it when he’s on the ice — he’s got such a great energy and disposition about him every day. Even in this past stretch it’s been fun to watch him continue to evolve. It doesn’t affect him whatsoever.
“He comes in, and even kind of like the dog days of the season, he’s so happy and excited to be here and it lifts the group. I think anybody who has as much talent as he does, that works as hard as he does, that loves hockey as much as he does, you’re going to see continued growth in him. I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise whatsoever. His impact on the team is immense and he’s a fantastic player that we’re very fortunate and proud to have as a Maple Leaf.”
Do you have players in the AHL who could help out the Leafs later this season?
“I think there’s lots of players down there that are on the cusp. … Trevor Moore has come up here and played very well, Calle Rosen has played extremely well down there as the No. 1 defenceman and both of them have signed extensions. But you start to go beyond that and look at the rest of the roster, on defence we’ve had some injuries down there: [Andreas] Borgman has just returned from injury, [Timothy] Liljegren will be back soon, as will [Rasmus] Sandin. Those are kind of our top prospects there and they’ve been out.
“But up front, the job that [coach] Sheldon [Keefe], in combination with Scott Pellerin, have done with group, I think there’s four, five or six forwards that we’d be confident in calling up right now and knowing they can fill in, much in the way that Moore did. For us it’s imperative that the team continues to develop talent down there, and they’ve done a wonderful job of doing so even if they aren’t the most heralded prospects. They’ve come in and been able to [produce] very good players for us and we’re very excited about that next group that’s continuing to come.
“You see their development as young players needing to improve and that’s improving the success of the [Marlies], even though the goaltending there has been unstable. It’s kind of stabilized now, and they’ve had some injuries. It just speaks to the job that Sheldon and the development have done in righting the ship there. So it’s exciting for us, for sure.”
Would you rather add a player with term than a rental at the trade deadline?
“Well I think it depends on what you’re willing to pay, right? That would certainly be our preference, to have somebody that we know is going to be a part of our group for beyond this season, but if there are players that are expiring at the end of this season that can help our group we won’t necessarily shy away from that either. It’s just finding the right people and players who can come into the locker room to help us.”
Do you have the prospect capital to make that move?
“I have a real smart-ass answer to give you, but I’ll shy away from it. We have some discussion about the way that some of our prospects are rated and where our system is at and I just think that the analysis that’s done is so littered with recency bias. Basically anybody who played in the world juniors is rated very high and anybody who didn’t for whatever reason is rated much lower because they haven’t been — it’s easy to see people at the world juniors. We had Sandin there and he rises up the chart, even though he got hurt there and our others who weren’t there are not, even though they’ve played better than they were previously, they’re down.
“I think other teams in the league recognize that. I think the consternation regarding our prospect pool, I just think is a little bit ill-informed. I can tell you that based on the calls we get from other teams asking about a litany of players within that system. I feel we have the prospect capital both to develop very good NHL players to help up out, to make trades if we need to, and we also have all of our draft picks and then some.
“I think we’re very well-suited to do whatever we need to do when it comes to move out various elements of our club to better our club now.”
What’s the trade market like?
“I think everyone’s just doing their job right now, calling around and making sure you’re aware of what’s happening. It picked up there a little bit and now it’s sort of slow, it seems, going into this break. Various teams have pro scouting meetings and different things happening. I think after the break or even heading in it’ll start to pick up again and then it’ll come to its peak by the 25th.”
Are you looking forward to that?
“I’m excited, yeah.”