The first word out of the executive’s mouth was “Tampa.”
During a keynote address to about 150 students at the Ivey Sports Management Conference on Friday, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was asked by host Elliotte Friedman which team poses the greatest obstacle to his club.
“Tampa was very, very good,” Dubas said in London, Ont. “Tampa, I don’t think they played as well against us, but in watching them in other games, they’re the best team. It’s a matter of just trying to find a way.”
Dubas had previously mentioned that his focus in constructing these Leafs — who trail the runaway Lightning by 16 points heading into Thursday’s rematch at Amalie Arena — was to build a group that could survive the highly competitive Atlantic Division, ruled by the Bolts for a season and a half.
Toronto actually outplayed the Lightning in the rivals’ first meeting, outshooting them 49-21, but lost 4-1 on Dec. 13 due to a heroic performance by Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“We came out with a lot of jump,” John Tavares recalls. “We were kinda on top of them all over the ice, which led to a lot of opportunities. Drew a lot of penalties. Lots of shots on net.”
Tavares lumps his team’s effort against Lightning in with October’s 4-2 win in Washington, the California road sweep, and the 4-0 shutout of Vancouver earlier this month as the Leafs’ most complete performances.
Next to Tampa, Dubas — forever watching, studying — named Boston and a pair of Pacific Division powers as threats he sees rising to the fore.
“San Jose, we were fortunate against them. They weren’t playing very well at the time [mid-November]. Our game on the road was one of the better games. I thought it was a great game. Boston’s been good,” Dubas said.
“Vegas was outstanding. We won the game, but we didn’t deserve to win the game.”
With its No. 1–ranked power play (29.1 per cent), top-six penalty kill (83.7 per cent), stellar goaltending, depth of scorers and playmakers up front, and prolonged window of relevance, it’s no secret the Lightning are the closest facsimile for what Toronto aspires to be.
“You look at that team, there should be five, six all-stars,” Jake Gardiner notes.
Any roster tweaks Dubas makes in advance of February’s trade deadline will be made with the Bolts in mind.
Tampa is on pace to finish the season with 129 points, more than any other team in the salary-cap era.
“Hopefully they can slow down a bit and others can come up,” Dubas said. “They’re very good.”