Refreshed from a family summer vacation to Hawaii, Kyle Dubas exemplified Tuesday’s post-Labour Day, back-to-work spirit.
As he made the media rounds and appeared in lengthy sit-downs with both national sports networks, the Toronto Maple Leafs GM sounded enthusiastic about the upcoming campaign — save for that "one outstanding item" on what began as a rather cumbersome off-season agenda.
In listening to more than an hour’s worth of question-fielding, the main takeaway we glean is that the bridge deal is the most likely path for Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs to escape the troubled waters separating the partners from a deal.
"I’m hopeful that we’re closer by virtue that they know where we’re at, and we know where they stand," Dubas said on Tim and Sid, reminding that the goal is not only to get his restricted free agent into the opening-night lineup but on next Thursday’s charter to St. John’s, where the Leafs kick off training camp.
"I’m very optimistic. That’s 100 per cent our hope."
Dubas explained that the difference between Marner’s stalemate as opposed to William Nylander’s at this time last September was that Nylander was dead set on a long-term contract.
Nylander became "entrenched" in long-term security, according to Dubas, whereas Marner’s situation is different. More flexible on term, presumably more difficult on dollars.
A nice raise now. Knock the next one out of the park once Toronto’s cap flexibility improves and the league ceiling is raised by gambling revenue and the next U.S. network windfall.
Dubas says most available term lengths are on the table from the Leafs’ perspective. So it may be simpler for the sides to find their common ground on a two- or three-year bridge.
Some more reasons for optimism: Despite obvious fatigue with this unsolved issue — the GM mentioned multiple times that he first broached extension talks with Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, way back at the 2018 Combine — Dubas took the high road in praising Marner the person, stressing Toronto’s position has always been to hold on to the player for the duration of his NHL life.
Ever consider a trade during this summer of uncertainty?
"It’s certainly not something we want to explore, and we haven’t," Dubas said.
Sure, "a few" opposing managers called to kick tires, but it was more along the lines of, "Would you ever consider moving him?" And: "Well, if you ever get to that point…" Nothing serious.
Dubas also said he has no sense from Ferris that Marner wants to be moved and would be "shocked" if a few of these elite RFAs haven’t put pen to paper by this time next week.
While the hard numbers being offered back and forth remain a guessing game, Dubas was wise to tackle the elephant in the room head-on Tuesday (and Ferris wise, too, to steer clear of reporters’ requests), getting the jump on training camp’s most pressing narrative.
If there was any shade thrown, it was at the notion, explored by Camp Marner, that the Leafs’ leading scorer is considering training over in Switzerland instead.
"I don’t worry about that," Dubas said. "I don’t think we’re going to be moved by the Zurich Lions, frankly. No offence to the Zurich Lions."
The time for playing games is almost up.
Soon, there will games to be played.
Here are some more takeaways from Dubas’s media tour on Tuesday.
• More than three-and-a-half years have passed since the Maple Leafs had a captain. That could change this season.
"We’ll see. I think a lot about it," Dubas said. "I’m a lot more close to saying yes now than a year ago on that front."
The heat endured by the club’s most recent captain, Dion Phaneuf, has cautioned the current regime into ensuring it makes the right choice. Dubas stressed he’s looking for "someone calm and stoic and ready at all times." Someone prepared to face the daily wall of media in a demanding market.
To these ears, that description aligns most with the two alternate captains remaining from 2018-19: Morgan Rielly, 25, or John Tavares, 28. The latter served as the Islanders’ captain prior to joining the Leafs last season and has the longest contract on the team.
"We’re fortunate," said Dubas, trying to not tip his hand. "We do have a number of guys who can fill that role now or in time."
• In wooing free agent Jason Spezza to a one-year, league-minimum contract, Dubas was careful not to promise the veteran too large of an on-ice role. The Leafs were up-front about getting Spezza to buy in to the role of fourth-line centre, with the flexibility to slide up the lineup in case of injury (and, presumably, keeping William Nylander on the wing) or in special situations.
• Dubas did not anticipate the swirl of suspicion that surrounded his non-guarantee of head coach Mike Babcock’s return on locker cleanout day. The GM suggested that, in the future, he might choose to simply not answer the question. It’s Dubas’s philosophy that it is reckless to make such impactful decisions when the wound of losing is so fresh. With time to reflect, Dubas believes that although the end result was the same in ’18 and ’19 — a seven-game Round 1 loss to Boston — Babcock’s Leafs did take a step and were much closer to winning that series the second time around.
• The GM’s conservative estimate is that roster players Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Zach Hyman (knee) will both miss October as they rehabilitate from surgery. Despite the obvious lineup holes those injuries create, the Maple Leafs will not risk re-injury. April is the month that matters. As a result of Dermott’s rehab, Dubas is calling for a "heck of a battle" for the fifth, sixth and seventh D-man slots on opening night.
• As fun as it is for fans and media types to debate the length of the Maple Leafs’ window to realistically vie for a Cup, Dubas maintained there is never any discussion internally about the length of that window.
"It’s so hard to predict," said Dubas, citing the seven-year gap between the Crosby-era Penguins’ championships and the delayed breakthroughs of Washington and St. Louis.
The GM is building toward "as many chances as possible to contend," and with the unconventional likelihood of tying up more than $30 million annually on just three forwards, the onus falls on Dubas to continually fill out his roster with affordable veterans (Spezza), under-the-radar steals (Tyler Ennis), European imports (Yegor Korshkov) and develop entry-level studs through the Marlies system (Rasmus Sandin).