TORONTO — Thrown a curveball while speaking to minor hockey coaches over the weekend, Kyle Dubas didn’t blink.
He remembered every pertinent detail about the decision that defined this year’s World Series, right down to the fact that Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell had given up a single to Austin Barnes immediately before getting removed from a do-or-die game where he’d been dominating in large part because of data that Major League Baseball’s biggest overachievers used all year.
Only Dubas viewed Tampa’s loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers differently than most occupying a seat in the court of public opinion.
“They trusted the way that they’ve done it,” he said. “I think that if they had left Snell in and gone away from what they have always done, they might be a little more forgiven by the public and by the media because it’s more of a conventional way of losing, but I don’t think that they would ever forgive themselves because it would have been getting away from the way that they’ve always (done it).
“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, and at worst you’ll be able to have the chance to change as you get into the future.
“And so in the end I think they did the right thing.”
When trying to decipher the comings and goings of the Toronto Maple Leafs, this is an important view to consider. It’s an opinion informed by serious research and on-the-job training.
Under Dubas, the Leafs have become a data-driven organization and they’ve also accumulated some playoff scars.
Intellectually, the general manager who celebrated his 35th birthday on Sunday is a patient, process-driven man. But after watching his team fail to win a playoff series in each of the last four years, he’s spent this unusual off-season reflecting on urgency.
He didn’t see nearly enough of that in the August return-to-play qualifier against Columbus where he felt the team’s talent should have allowed it to dictate terms. In Game 1 and the deciding Game 5 of that series, he thought the Leafs felt things out too much. It’s a trend he traced back to aspects of the consecutive first-round losses to Boston that came before it, too.
“We were on our heels and waiting to see what would happen in the game, rather than going out and attacking the opportunity,” said Dubas, speaking with Ron MacLean as part of the Leafs’ annual coaches clinic.
“I think part of it is maturity, I think part of it is experience, but I think both of those things go into mindset and what the mindset of the group is,” he added. “We have to stop waiting. We’re waiting for our potential just to happen and we have to start going out and exercising that and making it happen and forcing the other teams to respond to us.”
This has already been communicated to players.
In the emotional days after the loss to the Blue Jackets, management chalked the stumble up to immaturity. But Dubas has come to view it as something more. As much as he believes in the importance of adding Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and others to help boost his dressing room, he is looking to see an even deeper change from within.
No other NHL team is investing $40 million in four forwards — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — and none stands to benefit more from having their stars embrace the greater good.
“There’s so much focus sometimes placed on bringing in one or two players and the impact that they can make but the reality is if that level of competitiveness and grit and toughness, as we term it, is going to permeate through the locker room it’s going to be through the maturity of the group that’s already there,” said Dubas.
“Our core group I think really embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms as all young teams do with young superstars. Players have to go through this. There’s so many examples from all over sports and all over different types of businesses. Then we’ll really reach our full potential.”
There’s no grey area in how that looks. The Leafs have a clear set of benchmarks in mind.
“It’s if there’s a 50-50 puck, do you desperately want to win that puck every single time? And are you willing to be the first one on the puck? Are you willing to go to the difficult areas of the ice with and without the puck and be successful?” said Dubas.
“Are you willing to endure the physical duress that’s going to come on to you if we’re going to go as far as we want to go? And do that every single night through the regular season, but more importantly in the playoffs, and be able to score the way you have to score in the playoffs and defend the way you have to defend in the playoffs, and that gets built over time.”
Dubas said that players have been given individual physical targets to hit for a training camp that could start up in the next few weeks. He wants that to be a springboard for a more productive regular season than the ones that have come before it.
Looking back, the GM sees a troubling pattern. Toronto could have avoided the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the 2017 playoffs with a win at home in the last week of the regular season, and could conceivably have held home-ice advantage against the Bruins for Game 7’s in the years following. And in 2020 the Leafs could have fared much better in the RTP had they found more consistency.
The internal expectations are high for Toronto’s spin through the all-Canadian division.
With a full season of Sheldon Keefe behind the bench, there will be changes in approach. Dubas said there’s already been a fair amount of discussion with the head coach about the likelihood of dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen for games like Tampa did while winning the Stanley Cup.
Keefe shares something in common with Rays manager Kevin Cash, who Dubas described as “the best manager in baseball.”
“His ability to build a trust and relationship with the players and know that they’re going to get very clear direction from him,” Dubas said of Keefe. “Sometimes it may not be easy things for them to hear, but he’s not going to shy away from having those difficult conversations.
“And he’s going to have his opinion and his strategy backed up with video and data and objectivity, rather than just what his gut feeling is.”