Just because he already tracked down the Russian Bear does not mean Kyle Dubas is done hunting.
The Toronto Maple Leafs GM made it crystal clear he’ll be scoping out another defenceman for his club’s playoff bid.
Meeting with reporters at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont., Friday to promote next weekend’s Heritage Classic, Dubas shot down the idea that an impact forward or a goaltender might be his priority.
That said, what price level, style, and handedness of defenceman Dubas will prioritize depends greatly on the readiness of Jake Muzzin, whose $5.625-million cap hit is currently resting on long-term injured reserve.
If Muzzin returns to action during the regular season, Toronto may only have a couple million dollars in wiggle room to add a player without subtracting from its roster. If consecutive concussions keep him out past April 29, then one would have to imagine a left-shot Muzzin replacement would be aggressively sought.
Do you pluck an affordable defender like Justin Braun from Philadelphia or Luke Schenn from Vancouver?
Or go big-game hunting for an established top-four blueliner like Jakob Chychrun, John Klingberg or Ben Chiarot?
“A lot of it is gonna depend on Muzzin’s health and where we're at. We still have quite a bit of flexibility to get creative and try to make something happen. But unless we get the news we don't want on Muzz, I think we'll just have the one move left in us here,” Dubas told reporters, 17 days out from the NHL’s trade deadline.
"It's not one of these things where we're going to try to wait and have him come back in the playoffs. A style of player like him, if he's healthy and he's good to go, we need to get him back in and play and get him in form before the playoffs."
Muzzin, 33, has logged 12 years of hard pro minutes and had been struggling by his standards even prior to suffering concussions in January and February. To expect him to take two months off and hit the post-season ice flying like Patrick Kane or Nikita Kucherov in their prime is a tough ask.
“It's not an imminent return, and we just have to be really careful with him. It's two concussions and in a very brief amount of time, so we're going to continue to be slow and cautious with him,” said Dubas, conceding his players need to tighten up in their own end.
“We’ve shown of late, especially against good teams, that we're able to defend really well as a group. And then when we let our foot off the gas a little bit, like on Wednesday night, it's ugly. And so that's going to be on our group to continue to work on that.”
Dubas reiterated that he’d prefer to make his next trade days in advance of March 21, just as he did with the Ilya Lyubushkin deal.
Don’t worry about our crease… nothing to see here
The solution to the troubling inconsistency in the Maple Leafs’ net since the calendar flipped to 2022 must come from within.
Dubas gave a firm endorsement of his tandem of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek, shutting down the notion that he’ll poke around a goaltending market led by rental Marc-Andre Fleury.
After getting caved in by the Buffalo Sabres 5-1 Wednesday, Mrazek’s save percentage dropped to .890.
Campbell has cooled off alarmingly from his incredible start. He’s back to his career average of .917 goaltending on the year and has admitted to mental hurdles. Nevertheless, Dubas is pinning his hopes to the duo.
“I think we tend to get a little bit game to game in this marketplace, and I'm not concerned about either one of them,” Dubas said. “They both have shown themselves to be good goalies, and they will be.”
The Maple Leafs have known for a while that prospect Rodion Amirov had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The hopeful young man has endured his first treatment and is in Germany, working out and skating when able. Amirov’s attitude has wowed the organization.
“You see how optimistic he is, how he's passionate about the fact that he's gonna fight it all the way,” Dubas said. “It's remarkable to see — and, really, quite inspiring. I couldn't imagine that happening. You never expect to hear that when you have a 20-year-old athlete.”
Dubas’s message to his most recent first-round pick: “Get healthy. We know he's not going to play here in the short term at all. He's not going to play this season. Certainly, the hockey part is not a huge concern for us right now at all.”
Security for Russian Leafs
In light of recent reports of threats and harassment of some Russian hockey players on this side of the pond, Dubas made a point to check in with Ilya Mikheyev and Lyubushkin and has asked them to keep communication open.
“Our director of security is around the team every single day on the road and at home,” Dubas said. “There have been no issues reported by them or anything with toward their families.
“So, we just need to monitor. They're members of our team, and we care about them and want to make sure they're safe and that we're taking care of them as best we can. Anything that comes up, they know to report it right away.”