Kyle Dubas joined Leafs Lunch on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the status of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen’s World Junior golden goal, Josh Leivo’s call up to the Maple Leafs, and more.
We were talking about the evolution of the game, and we were talking about how big hits have always been a part of the game, but reacting to big hits has really changed. When you have star players getting hit the way certain star players get hit – it used to be fights all the time, it still is, but it feels like that’s kind of moving in a different direction. Do you sense that, that the way the game is policed continues to evolve and continues to change?
Kyle Dubas: What I’ve noticed this year, in the American league with the Marlies, any hit of any substance at all draws a scrum or a fight or somebody getting jumped, whether it’s on a star player or not. I heard just recently, you guys were talking about it before, there’s not the season-long type of retribution storylines that come with it… We have Viktor Loov on our team, and you guys were talking about Scott Stevens. This is not comparing the two whatsoever, but Viktor is well known for his ability to hit in open ice, which he does better than anyone I’ve seen in the American league this year. It always leads to, right after the hit, having a scrum and him getting jumped. That’s the way that it’s gone in my experience this year with the Marlies.
From a development point of view, and you’ve had the benefit of being a GM in the OHL, which is similar to the AHL, it’s two fold: You have young players that are somewhat vulnerable in terms of where they’re at and in terms of being able to handle things, and you’re trying to help them understand it. And then you have other players – you talk about Viktor – who are going to deliver those hits. How do you, on the one hand, try to help your players and say, “listen, we’re going to look out for you,” and on the other hand tell Viktor Loov, “you gotta keep doing that”?
Dubas: It’s interesting. I think the way we look at it – the younger players and the more skilled players on our team, who have the puck more, that are therefore going to be more susceptible to receiving a hit of any type… We try to use Viktor’s ability and what he does to teach them, “Hey, these are men that you are playing against now. If you’re not aware of who is on the ice and you’re not aware of where you are and you don’t get your eyes up and get looking around, these are the type of hits that you’re going to receive.” Viktor, he’s not a dirty player at all – his hits are all clean, he had one last year that was borderline that he was suspended for, but all the rest of them have been open-ice, clear, hard hits, with the chest as the principle point of contact and all that. Some of the guys that he’s hit have been injured for a couple of weeks, and for our players we try to educate them and say, “here’s the risk that you could take if you’re going to play with your head down, and if you want the puck all the time – which we do – this is what the risks are.” We try to educate them as much as we can. In Viktor’s case, it is a big part of his game, but he’s also an excellent skating defenceman who can skate the puck, plays on the penalty kill, and does a number of other things, so it’s a part of his skillset that we certainly don’t want to go away, but he also needs to be educated on the fact that, whenever he delivers one of those hits, there’s usually someone that’s going to be coming after him.
William Nylander is going through the concussion protocol. I believe yourself and Sheldon announced yesterday that he will not be a part of the road trip, but you’re looking to get him back relatively soon. But with this hiccup in the schedule, and this injury and everything that can come with it, how might this affect the plan for him the rest of the season in terms of the Maple Leafs, in terms of the Marlies, in terms of the World Championships if it gets to that point? How might this affect the way you might choose to use and place William Nylander?
Dubas: I think everything with William right now is just placed on hold. He’s incurred an injury which we are going to be extremely cautious with and most conservative with in terms of his clearance to return to play. We need to follow the steps in a very conservative matter, and make sure he is absolutely 100% healthy and not at any undue risk when he returns. Especially in his case as a young player, there’s not going to be any type of pushing to come back sooner or earlier. He’s 19 years old, he’s got a lot of runway in front of him in terms of his potential and his career, and the onus is on us to do what’s right for any player that is injured that is that young. They all want to come back very soon, and they all want to come back and play, but it’s up to us to continue to do what’s right for William. We’re doing that, and he’s making progress, and I think we’re happy with where he’s at, but that’s right – he’s not going to be on the road trip and won’t be playing on the road trip, and we’ll continue to revisit it every day.
What about Kasperi Kapanen? Do you think that experience of going over to Finland and scoring that big goal can kind of catapult him to being a more dominant offensive player?
Dubas: I think so. He was showing signs before he went to Finland to join his country and play in Helsinki. He was showing signs at our level. He got off to a slow start, much in the same way he did at the World Junior tournament. I know Craig called some of the games and was outlining the exact same thing. He got off to a slow start with the Marlies, he was really sick – he got the flu at the beginning of the year – came back and was playing okay. Then he got injured in Utica early November and was out a couple of weeks. When he came back from that injury, he had really begun to take off. He was playing much like what you saw in the later stages of the World Junior tournament – playing with speed, had the puck on his stick a lot, driving the defence back using his speed and his shots, and starting to produce for us. He had 10 points in 17 games when he left, and I think he comes back certainly on a real high having scored such a massive goal. Very few players know what that’s like, to be in a tournament of that magnitude in your home country and score in overtime, an overtime gold-medal winning goal. He’s been in a great mood since he’s been back and I’m excited to see him get back rolling and continuing to progress with the Marlies. I think we’d be kidding to say that that goal wouldn’t give him a certain increase in confidence.
You guys let him stay over there in Finland for a few days. How many times do you think he got into the gym?
Dubas: I would have to say zero times. I think he had more important things in terms of celebrating that with his friends or family. It’s not really a big concern for us. He stayed over only an extra two days, which, whether they won or lost, we would’ve done. He’s a very young player, he’s one of the youngest players in the American league, and he’s been away from his family since August. It was a good idea, I think, to have him stay and spend some time with his family – he’s got three younger siblings and they look up to him a lot. Having been with Team Finland, he wasn’t really able to see them over the holiday break and now he’s back over here in Toronto. That wasn’t a huge concern for us. It was doing what was right for him and his personal life as well, and letting him enjoy that moment. He’s been back and working hard here since Saturday, which has been good.
I’m going to jump over to Josh Leivo, who’s had a really good year. He’s had a taste of the NHL previously. How important is it for the young players – going back to the development part of this – to be rewarded and for the other players to see that, “okay, if we’re doing the things we’re asked to do developmentally, there are rewards at the end of it.” How are the guys feeling, and yourself included, about Josh being up with the Leafs?
Dubas: I think, especially in the last month, Josh has been our best player. He’s got so much potential. He’s one of the best players in the American league with the puck below the tops of the circles in the offensive zone. He’s got a great ability to escape checks and dig the puck out from behind the net and get to the front of the net. Now he’s starting to take big steps where we’ve asked him to, which is in the defensive zone wall and in defensive zone coverage and being able to skate the puck through the neutral zone and come back through the neutral zone and be on the right side of defending. He’s done everything that we’ve asked, and that’s helped him to become a dominating player for us of late. When James was injured on Saturday night, the discussion was quite easy. He separated himself from the pack with our team in terms of earning a recall with the Leafs. I think it was important for our group, the young players seeing it. The recalls up to the Leafs so far this year have been more American league veteran guys like Rich Clune and Mark Arcobello, who have been great players for us, but we’ve got a really young team, and I think it’s a really important thing for our younger guys to see that, even though we are young and we are going through a process here with the Leafs where everyone is preaching patience, that if we do all the things that are asked by the management and coaching staff that are on us everyday, that we are going to get that same opportunity to go up and play with the Leafs as well. Josh, from about a month ago on, has done every single thing that we’ve asked and he’s an All Star in the American league. I’m happy and excited for him because he’s done everything within his power to maximize his potential this season. Byron Froese would be the other one – he came down and did everything that was asked. I hope it serves as a message to our younger players on our team, that if you do that, no matter what your age or experience level is, you’re going to get that opportunity up top.