For the first time since the NHL paused its 2019-20 campaign, Kyle Dubas and the league’s 30 other general managers have some sense of clarity on what a return to play might look like, if not when it will come.
The league announced Tuesday that a 24-team playoff will commence whenever that return is deemed acceptable — the format pitting Dubas’ Toronto Maple Leafs against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a qualifying play-in round, after which they’ll face one of the East’s top four superpowers.
The Maple Leafs GM joined Tim & Sid Tuesday to reflect on how the league’s plans impact him and his club. Here are a few notable moments from the conversation:
On what he’s heard about players’ families being involved in the NHL’s hub cities:
While much about the league’s return-to-play plans have been set, key issues remain in flux — one in particular is whether players and team personnel will be allowed to have their families with them upon reporting to the hub cities, or whether they’ll be asked to be apart from their families for the months-long duration of the 24-team playoff. What’s the latest on that front?
Kyle Dubas: “It’s hard to say. We’ve all been with our families now for 76 days or 77 days or whatever it’s been, so I know thinking of not being with them, just speaking of my own case, it’s strange to think about. You’ve certainly grown accustomed to operating in a totally different way. So, I would say that with things changing so rapidly — think back to where we were three months ago — if you progress this a couple of months ahead, we have no idea where we’re going to be in terms of testing or vaccination or therapeutic applications that can help deal with the virus. My hope is that we’re at a place where, as things progress in the tournament, that families would be permitted.
“I know it’s been brought up and discussed from the players, and I know that the league and the [Players’ Association] are both certainly looking into solutions on it. And I know that in the end they’ll do the right thing, so we’ll see what comes up from that.
“But my hope would be, especially as things get deeper into the tournament and the moments become a little bit more special for the players and everything that they’ve worked towards, that at the very least the players are able to have some family members there, as select as that may be.”
On the challenge of the 24-team playoff, and whether its championship would be considered illegitimate:
Given the forced break from tradition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, any champion who lifts the Stanley Cup in 2020 will do so having marched through a different path than the champions of the past, who won via a traditional regular season and post-season. So, would winning the Cup via the 24-team playoff mean winning with an asterisk?
Dubas: “For us, it means we have to win up to 19 games to win, which I think is a great challenge — and I think certainly ends any discussion of whether it’s a legitimate competition, when you have to win more games than you did previously. For a team like ours, I think that that increases the challenge. I only really think of our team in this context, but in my opinion, for us it’s probably what we need at this stage in our growth and in our development, because we know that the challenge is going to be massive and that the obstacle is much bigger in terms of having to win more and defeat more opponents, and it starts off with an extremely dangerous challenger right away.
“… I think people can say whatever they want, and it won’t make a lick of difference to us, and to our fans and certainly not to the staff and players. And I would guarantee that the other 23 teams that are going to be going into this competition will feel the same way, I think because of how difficult it’s going to be, with the lockdown at the end of the season, and then right into this competition after a training camp. I think the amount of how difficult this is going to be for the players and the coaching staffs and whole organizations, to be able to — in July and August, when the conditions are probably going to be much hotter and much more difficult — I think this is probably going to be one of the more difficult championships to win.
“And if people want to — whoever wins in it, whichever one of the 24 teams wins it — I think anybody that takes a shot that it’s illegitimate, especially when 85 per cent of the season or whatever the exact percentage of the season was already played, I think that’s, frankly, stupid. And that’s probably the best way I can put it.”
On the shortened regular season cutting short Auston Matthews‘ bid for the Rocket Richard Trophy:
While much of the regular season was in the books, the loss of the tail end of the campaign affected not only the playoff picture — with bubble teams not getting the chance to play into a post-season spot — but also the marquee league awards, with players missing out on the home stretch of games to add to their production. Dubas lamented how that latter point impacted one of Toronto’s brightest stars.
Dubas: “It was disappointing though, with Auston, not having a chance to really challenge for the Maple Leaf goal record held by Rick Vaive, and ending off one goal behind Ovechkin and Pastrnak [for the league goal-scoring lead] at 47. Auston had a great year for us and it would’ve been nice to see him continue to push down the stretch, especially as we had guys like Morgan [Rielly] and Jake Muzzin coming back from injury — I think that only would’ve aided that push for him to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, and it would’ve been a great accomplishment for him, and well-deserved.
“So that’s the only one disappointing part of it for us, is that Auston doesn’t get a chance to go for the Maple Leaf single-season record nor the Rocket Richard, but I think in his case, we can expect him to be in that race for a long time in his career as a Maple Leaf.”
Listen to the full interview with Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas via the video at the top of this post.