While Ford Performance Centre is still abuzz with players and coaches preparing for (knock wood) a 2020-21 NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have largely receded from the spotlight since making their bubble exit and free-agency splash.
So, it was with a keen ear we took in the Tim Hortons Toronto Maple Leafs Coaches Open House, a helpful series of conversations for aspiring coaches of all levels.
Fans who missed out on the weekend’s virtual event would be particularly interested in Saturday’s 60-minute Q&A session with host Ron MacLean and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas.
From Dubas’s take on the Rays’ controversial decision to pull Blake Snell in the (ultimately lost) World Series to his philosophy on rolling seven defencemen, there were plenty of Maple Leafs nuggets to chew on.
Here are eight points that grabbed my attention:
Leafs trading disappointment for determination
Dubas is optimistic that yet another post-season series loss — four consecutive one-and-dones for his young core — will result in fewer regular-season lulls and a more consistent resolve among well-compensated stars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.
“The guys are starting to realize they're not 18, 19 anymore. They're 23, 24. In the case of (John) Tavares, now you're 30. (T.J.) Brodie’s 30. (Jake) Muzzin’s 31. (Frederik) Andersen's 31. And you don't have forever,” Dubas stressed.
No wonder the GM focused this off-season on recruiting or retaining players who’ve been through the wringer: Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Jason Spezza and Brodie.
“Those guys have a real increased sense of urgency to them. Either time is running out on their career and they want to win — in the case of Spezza, Thornton and Simmonds — or they’ve faced great disappointment in the past, like T.J. Brodie and all the guys on our roster.”
Damn the critics! Yanking Blake Snell was the right decision
“Kevin Cash is the best manager in baseball,” Dubas believes.
The analytical GM says this in the wake of a Cash decision that, many argue, cost the Tampa Bay Rays the 2020 World Series — pulling red-hot starting pitcher Blake Snell during a must-win Game 6 because, historically, Snell’s ERA ballooned during his third trip through the enemy’s batting order.
Obviously, the outcome wasn’t pretty, and Snell was less than happy, but Dubas commends Cash for trusting the process that guided the 28th-highest-payroll team to title contention.
“I think if they had left Snell in and gone away from what they've always done, they might be a little bit more forgiven by the public and by the media, because it's more of a conventional way of losing,” Dubas said.
“But I don't think they would ever forgive themselves, because it would’ve been getting away from the way they got there and what their process is.”
Taking the road less travelled, in team sports especially, means facing friction and opposition.
“And when it doesn't work out, very quickly people will be jumping on you about how your unconventional way of doing things hasn't worked. But I think if you want to really know whether how you're doing things is going to be successful, you have to see it through all the way to the end,” Dubas said.
“So, it'll be second-guessed for a long time, not unlike (Seahawks coach) Pete Carroll in the 2015 Super Bowl against the Patriots. You know, just because the outcomes weren't right doesn't mean the decisions were wrong, or the process leading to the decision was wrong.”
'Shame on me for that': Underestimating the power of leadership
All those unquantifiable elements that compose a dressing-room leader — accountability, experience, wisdom, desperation, communication, character — are “hugely important,” Dubas believes.
And yet, installing and empowering enough of those leaders, the executive confesses, is something he didn’t value enough early in every one of his stops, be it in the Soo, with the AHL Marlies, or in his two seasons at the helm of the Leafs.
“Why, after the first time, I just didn't realize it and learn it then and then apply it every time moving forward, that's just a mistake on my end,” Dubas said. “Shame on me for that.”
Third time’s a charm.
That’s why Dubas re-signed a culture-setter like Rich Clune for a sixth go-around with the Marlies even though the 33-year-old hasn’t amassed more than four points in each of his past three seasons.
And that’s why Dubas gets excited raving about the hours of development, mentorship and friendship Spezza, Muzzin and Rielly are currently pouring into young players like Nick Robertson and ECHL star Justin Brazeau at Toronto’s practice facility as we await training camp.
Leafs exploring a 11-and-7 lineup
There may be a certain irony that a club carving its identity through its forward depth would consider dressing only 11 of them, but we fully expect coach Sheldon Keefe to at least experiment with a 7D lineup, which the Tampa Bay Lightning employed en route to the 2020 Stanley Cup. Copycat league and all that.
Fun fact: During the Marlies’ run to the 2016 AHL conference finals, Keefe called Jon Cooper to discuss his 11/7 deployment in Tampa’s rip to the 2015 Cup Final. Keefe was interested because the Marlies had great blue-line depth at the time.
With the additions of Bogosian (fresh out of Cooper’s system and an expert penalty killer) and power-play specialist Mikko Lehtonen, Toronto now has enough variety and abundance of defencemen that dressing seven makes more sense.
First, using only your top 11 forwards creates difficult matchups for your opponent, because either you’re weighting your top nine heavy or a first-liner (Matthews, Marner, Tavares) is getting double-shifted on the fourth line, making that group more potent than normal.
On the back end, it allows the coach to keep his D fresh and deploy the proper personnel for specific situations.
“Our feeling is that, whether it's in (Rasmus) Sandin or (Timothy) Liljegren as they continue to come up and get worked in, and the depth of our D lends itself to this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us use it from time to time,” Dubas said. “In the end, it will be Sheldon’s call.”
Morgan Rielly, ultimate team player
Dubas believes that once established NHLers become consistent contributors and start looking at their third contract, their minds begin to shift toward legacy.
Case in point: Morgan Rielly.
Last November, after Toronto’s coaching change, Rielly approached Keefe and suggested switching power-play units with the struggling Tyson Barrie, understanding it would be best for team as a whole to get Barrie’s offensive game and confidence going.
“He did one of the most selfless things that I've seen,” Dubas said.
“That spoke so much the character of Morgan Reilly and everything that he's about. Because as everybody knows, as a defenceman, if you're on the first power play — especially with the core group that we had there with Tavares, Marner, Nylander and Matthews — you're probably going to accumulate a lot of points.”
“You need players like that, that are always willing to put the team ahead of themselves.”
Managers and coaches root for players like that, and Dubas expects a healthy PP1 Rielly to have “all cylinders firing” in 2021.
Way back in 2013, A.J. MacLean was hired as an assistant to Keefe in the Soo. Naturally, Keefe brought A.J. to the Marlies, and they both joined Dubas in the AHL at the same time.
A.J. has long looked to his father, Jack Adams winner Paul MacLean, for guidance. After securing his primary bench target, Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra, this off-season, Keefe set his sights on the elder MacLean (via Columbus), with whom Keefe already had a strong relationship.
“Especially in our marketplace, Sheldon thought it was important to have somebody who's kind of seen everything and been through everything as a player and certainly as a coach. Paul has won and has been a part of more playoff series and playoff rounds almost than anybody, it seems, over his long coaching career,’ Dubas explained.
“In my experience being around Paul, nothing fazes him, nothing rattles him. And we thought that was a really important thing for us.”
Lifting the muzzle on assistant coaches?
This one is a little inside baseball, but may be of interest to someone besides myself.
Since Lou Lamoriello arrived in Toronto in 2015, the club has had a rather strict policy of permitting only the head coach, the GM and club president Brendan Shanahan to speak to the media.
Dubas held to that strategy when he took the reins, leery that any small difference between a head coach and an assistant coach’s message will get picked up by reporters and perhaps spun into a narrative of disconnect. That the magnifying glasses might come out, searching for friction.
“But I think with Paul and Sheldon, it might be a little bit different, easier,” Dubas said. “And I think certainly Dave Hakstol is capable of that as well.”
Great myth: The score-happy Leafs view defence as secondary
Thinking back to his formative years as a hockey mind, Dubas recalled sitting with his beloved grandfather at the Sault Memorial Gardens in the late ’80s. A key lesson was passed on and hammered home.
“If your defence can't stop the play, and if they can't move the puck to the forwards to get them rolling up the ice and begin transition, you're really going to lag and have a hard time competing,” Dubas said. “It's always something that I believe in.
“I know a lot gets said about our team, about our forwards and what they're paid and their potential. But, to me, the focus is and will always be on finding the right group of defenceman. And then leaving it to the coaching staff to develop the right defensive system that can allow us to make stops on defence and play as little on defence as possible.”