TORONTO — Defence is a legitimate concern. Toughness and offer sheets? Not so much.
During an impromptu media availability Monday at the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ practice facility, general manager Kyle Dubas addressed a number of topics surrounding his club, which has bolted to an impressive 21-10-2 record despite prolonged absences from a couple star players.
Here are the eight biggest takeaways from the GM’s meeting with the media.
Dubas will not go shopping for physicality
There is concern the Maple Leafs — a group that, comparatively, eschews penalties and body checking — lack the sandpaper on the roster to survive a long, gruelling playoff run, where whistles tend to get tucked away.
Dubas said in constructing his roster — now free of rugged characters like Matt Martin, Leo Komarov and Roman Polak — he looks at the Atlantic Division rivals first.
“For whatever reason, that takes on a life of its own — the whole ‘toughness’ question. I look at Tampa Bay, they’re eight or nine points ahead of us now, and they built their team their way. I understand it’s at every level, whether it’s been Sault Ste. Marie or the Marlies, it’s been the same question,” Dubas said.
“I don’t buy it, myself. I know that there are a lot of pundits that say you have to have it, but I look at the teams that have had success, and I don’t think bringing in one big person is going to change our culture — and it’s not going to have us carry on with the process we’ve started.
“We want to have skill, we want to be fast, and we want to be competitive. I don’t really think that the way that the league is going that having someone that can come in and fight or anything like that is going to change that. We’ve got a way that we want to play, and we’re just going to carry on with that. In the end, people will judge whether it was effective.”
Dubas spends ‘zero percent’ of time worrying about offer sheets
So what if RFAs-to-be Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner are talented enough to stir up whispers of a potential offer sheet, a unicorn not witnessed in the NHL since 2013 and not effectively used to swipe a player since 2007?
Dubas insists that Marner and Matthews, with whom he opened extension talks back in the summer, want to remain Maple Leafs long term and that Toronto’s cap is structured to make that happen — regardless what surprises may arise.
“I look around the league right now and for whatever reason it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that’s going to be the target of an offer sheet. It seems interesting to me, but there’s about a third of the teams in the league that have a very highly talented [pending] restricted free agent — and some of them have more than one, as we do,” Dubas said.
“Our salary cap situation is set up that we could defend any of those threats with no worry at all. I know that they’ve become a huge topic of late, but I spend zero per cent of my time having any worry about that.”
Dubas intends to sign Matthews and Marner “as soon as possible,” wishing to avoid a repeat of the Nylander highwire act.
“We have to continue to work away with them,” Dubas said. “It [will] be our intention well before July 1 that we have an agreement and both players are here long term. One way or another, we’ll get to that point.”
Free agent Gardiner a ‘key part’ but not top priority
Jake Gardiner is on target to become the best offensive defenceman not named Erik Karlsson to hit the open market on July 1. He ranks second, to Morgan ‘Career Year’ Rielly, on the Maple Leafs in ice time (21:44) and is a favourite of coach Mike Babcock. He’s on pace for back-to-back 50-point seasons and, at age 27, is certainly due a raise from his current $4.05-million cap hit.
Dubas described Gardiner as “a key part” of the club. Extension talks are open, but with left-shot prospect Calle Rosen already earning a new deal and lefty Travis Dermott expected to progress, it’s difficult to envision Gardiner getting properly compensated after Marner and Matthews get paid.
“We would like [Gardiner] to be here. It’s not as simple as it sounds,” Dubas said. “You only have a certain amount that you can divvy up, and it’s trying to make that all work and keep our team on the right path moving forward.”
Surprise! Defence is Dubas’s targeted area of improvement
The GM pointed a finger at a mediocre defensive-zone breakout as the primary area he’d like to see get much better. Toronto has the seventh-most giveaways across the NHL (390) and leads in the league in wins while getting outshot (14). In other words, defensively, the Leafs are playing with fire and relying (too?) heavily on the performance of Frederik Andersen.
“Some of that falls on our forwards to get open and available, and on the defence to execute when they are open and available,” Dubas said. “It is an area we can make great gains and continue to improve as a club.
“If that isn’t something that’s happening as we get closer to the end of February, I think we’ll certainly look to improve.”
Liljegren doubtful for world juniors but could crack Leafs in second half
Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs’ 2017 first-round pick, appears unlikely to participate for Sweden at the world juniors as he recovers from a high ankle sprain. There is no timeline for his recovery, but we’re talking weeks, not days.
“It’s really unfortunate because he’d been having an excellent season with the Marlies: first pair, first power play, first penalty kill, producing well. Regardless of the Sweden world junior element, it’s disappointing for us because he’s a right-shot defenceman and he moves the puck very well,” said Dubas, before dropping an eyebrow-raiser. “So we’re looking for him to move it and challenge here this season.
“It’s certainly understandable that he wants to push to play for Sweden at the world junior, but I just don’t know that it’s going to be realistic.”
Sandin, however, will be an impact player at the holiday tournament
Dubas’s first draft pick as an NHL GM, Rasmus Sandin, has wowed as a teenage AHL rookie, putting up 10 points through 18 contests. The GM expects his fellow Soo graduate to be relied upon heavily by Team Sweden at the world juniors.
“Even this past weekend, as guys get injured or guys go through their ebbs and flows with their effectiveness, he’s kinda remained steady,” Dubas said. “For an 18-year-old there and a later first-round pick, he’s been outstanding.”
Too early to judge Nylander
William Nylander, who began his season as late as possible for a healthy player, is still searching for his first goal and is trying to find his legs on the third line. But Dubas is far from concerned that his $10.28-million cap hit (2019-20 only!) isn’t back to form yet.
“He had a great chance Saturday night, he had two assists in Carolina, played well in Tampa Bay. His points probably aren’t at the level he would probably like them at or that he’s used to, but I think he’s slowly starting to come along,” Dubas said.
“I know there’s going to be some challenges as a result of the way that situation went, but I think by the time we get beyond Christmas and into the new year he’ll be back to his usual form.
“I don’t worry about William whatsoever. He’s in excellent shape, excellent character person. He’s gonna end up being just great for us.”
Tavares even better than advertised
It’s not every day you commit $77 million and seven years to a player you never had a hand in drafting or developing, but Dubas says that point-a-game John Tavares — who scored his 20th goal as a Leaf Saturday in just his 33rd game — has surpassed even his lofty hopes.
“Until you actually go through a season and the process day in and day out, I think it’s tough to actually know what you’re getting and whether that person can live up to that. In John’s case, he’s surpassed our expectations,” Dubas said.
“His play on the ice and production speaks for itself, but it’s the other stuff that’s going on here in the locker room with our younger players that’s certainly been noted by me.”