Kyle Dubas met with the media on locker clean out day to discuss the season that was for the Toronto Marlies.
How do you feel about the growth of your coach, Sheldon Keefe?
Kyle Dubas: I think this year was a really challenging one for Sheldon. His ability to transform himself throughout the year… a lot of people, I think in any line of work, have trouble adapting to get the most out of people. I thought Sheldon this year, with what he had to do from the beginning of the season – and I think particularly in the middle of the year – it was a group of players that needed a coach to be exceptionally hard on them. At this level, what I’ve seen is that it can go a number of different ways. In some cases, the players can grow really tired of it. Even though they may complain about it at times, it was a group that needed it. For me, it shows that we were able to climb – we were in last place in January – and win the division. We win the series against Albany, and then we’re down 2-0. Those are the moments where it’s easy: If you don’t like who you are working for, you can pack it in. But the players responded down late in that game and continued to make a series of it. It just didn’t go our way in the seventh game. That would be how I evaluate Sheldon. He had to change his usual style to get the most of this group and he did that to have success.
Can you tell us what kind of timeline Frederik Gauthier is on in terms of what he has to do to get back and how much development time he’s going to lose?
Dubas: It’s going to be significant. He’s looking to potentially return not until the Fall. It’s going to be very difficult. I know there was some shenanigans from their side questioning how hurt he really was, and it’s going to be, at a minimum, five months. That puts you into October. It’s going to be a big challenge for Freddy and his work in the offseason to really show an extreme commitment to it. We had a player last year with a similar injury. It’s a real test of character. Knowing Freddy, I think he’ll embrace it and pull through. It’s just really unfortunate with how well he was playing to lose him at that time. It’s a big setback for him heading into next season. But he’s a great person and I’m excited to see how he embraces it and responds.
How important is it for you and Sheldon in these meetings to be as honest as you can be with these players to let them know where they are developmentally, what the organization thinks of them, and how they have to improve?
Dubas: I think it’s imperative. Even for me, whether I was in the Sault in my first year – last year was a little bit different – you get into these meetings and you think it’s the last time you’re going to see the person. It’s like when you drop someone off at the airport. You don’t really want to be in a fight with them. You want to make sure everything is good and everyone is happy. I think that the players want to know. Players who have gone and left – and personally, I can only speak to that in the Sault or here – they leave and they find years later that they wish they would’ve known some of the things that they needed to work on. What we challenge ourselves as a staff on is to give them a precise plan. “Here is where you are falling a bit short. Here is what you need to work on. Here is how you need to do it.” Maybe the meetings aren’t as rosy. Everyone doesn’t walk out feeling as in love as when they started, but we’re here for the players. For us to make them better, that’s our goal. Very blunt meetings.
Is it hard to be blunt?
Dubas: I don’t think it comes to anyone naturally. It is hard. I don’t think anybody wants anyone to be upset with them, but as you get to know the players here, it’s not personal. You continue to hammer that home with them. It is about making them better. They appreciate that you’re willing to step up and say to them: “Here is why you didn’t play a lot. Here is why you’re not with the Leafs. Here is what you need to do.” And go from there.
What does it mean to look at the big club this season and knowing that this organization has impacted them?
Dubas: I think it means a lot. It helps Sheldon most. He can say to the players, “here is why we’re doing what we’re doing and here is the potential payoff.” I think the variety in the players that have gone up and graduated from here and become Leafs full time helps to serve the notion that no one is really given preferential treatment. You’ve got Zach Hyman, who was acquired in a trade from Florida, not a draft pick of the organization. Soshnikov was a free agent. You have your first-round picks that have come and gone. Connor Brown is another example of a later round pick. The guys that come in here and commit themselves to the process and really embrace the process of their own development and the resources have gotten a lot better. They’ve ended up graduating on. That helps to reinforce what we’re doing here. If you come in and you buy in and you don’t get caught up in, “I’m a winger and there is a lot of wingers,” and you take the attitude that you’re going to take advantage of it and develop as much as you can every single day, there is going to be a reward for you. Those players going up and having success just makes it a bit easier here.
How do you game plan not knowing how many of the guys are going to move on?
Dubas: You learn to fly by your seat of the pants and just ride the wave, man. Ride it well if you can. It’s really hard right now to project what the roster is going to look like. There is a desire to develop everybody to the best of their ability, but we’re also teaching the players that hockey goes until May and June. It doesn’t end in the middle of April. We are always trying to balance that here. You face a very stark divergence in priorities. You’ve got the young players who just want to play a lot. You’ve got other players that want the team to win. You’ve got older players that are scratching and clawing to extend their career and they want to win and there is value in that. You’re trying to walk that line. It is challenging and it is a great experience – not only for the players, but for the coaches and management who are here. In terms of game planning for the roster, we just try to make the most of what we get at the beginning of the season and work it every day. You all see the number of transactions that we go through trying to find the right mix and what works and what doesn’t. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun as well.
The draft combine is coming up. How important is that organizationally this year especially, given that you’re not in the top ten picks?
Dubas: I think that what you learn is there is a lot more work that has to go in when you’re picking 17th. There is a lot more work that has to go into the players that are there. There are many separating factors, whether it’s a combine performance, or what you learn about their character or who they are as people. All of that can end up separating players when you pick that low. When I’ve been here, this will be the third draft. We picked fourth and first. The first was fairly easy. When it was fourth, there were a few guys in the mix. You go through different topics. Now you have 17 or 18 or more people. Obviously, some of them will get knocked off early, but then you don’t know what your board looks like compared to other teams. Everything is important to try to make sure that, even though we’re picking later, we’re making good picks.
Who do you think on the roster made the biggest strides this year?
Dubas: To me, from beginning to end, I thought a lot of guys made a lot of strides. On defence, Travis Dermott took big, big steps in every regard — his commitment to the off-ice program, even dating back to last summer but especially during the year; his ability to bounce back from injury, as he had a fairly significant injury in late October that cost him seven weeks. He came back from that and really established himself as one of the best defence prospects in the league. It was exciting to see him.
Up front, someone that kind of flies under the radar quite a bit but had a great season beginning to end – if you’re measuring it that way, in terms of pure development – would be Andreas Johnsson. He had a real bad injury at the end of last year and was a bit sluggish to start the season. As it kept rolling on, I thought he was one of the most dependable players on our club and ended up producing really well for us. He doesn’t get a lot of attention or isn’t usually ranked highly in various discussions, but he is a real dependable guy and a real important prospect for us that put himself on the map with a great year.
How much would you say player development factors into the Marlies and their day to day?
Dubas: Every day, a lot. We’ve got a great player development staff led by Scott Pellerin. Between Scott, Mike Ellis, Darryl Belfry, Barb Underhill, and then we were really fortunate to have Stephane Robidas with us basically two of every four weeks… the impact they had on the players was massive. Sheldon and AJ [MacLean] did a lot of work on the systems and the tactical side of it. In terms of the technical skill development, it was largely tasked to those people. We had a lot of meetings in the summer to set up our plan for each individual player. We try to make it as individual as possible.
Their technical development — we’ll leave the systems and team part to Sheldon and AJ. Just the way that those two staffs come together – they’re together all the time – was a lot of fun to see. It’s been the third year now of that program. I think we still have a long way to go. I don’t think we do anything that is earth shattering in any way and we need to continue to push ourselves to be more progressive and help on that end, but Scott – I can’t say enough good things about Scott Pellerin and the job he does leading that staff and division. He’s been around a lot more of late and it’s just what he adds in terms of his personality and character, and also his expertise and how he is able to relate to the players is outstanding. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. You see the players that go up to the Leafs, — you hear them mentioned, whether it’s Barb or Mike Ellis or Darryl or Pellerin – it’s of huge personal importance to them. Even though everything comes back to the team, the individual work that is done there helps propel them to the NHL.
Do you encourage players to stick around here and work with the staff in the offseason or do you let them decide what’s best for them?
Dubas: Our building is open every day. They can use the facilities if they want to. There is no forcing them to. It is a real balance to strike. Do you want somebody here all the time, or to persuade them to stay here all the time? They’re human beings as well. I think that gets forgotten. The ones that are from Toronto it’s a bit easier. They can come and use our facilities and there is usually staff members that are around that can help guide them through. Whether you’re from Sweden or Finland or Minnesota or California, you’ve got to remember these are young people that haven’t seen their families for eight or nine months. If we just try to drill them into only being hockey players, they’re going to lose sight of who they are as people. When hockey hits a rough patch, then you’re in real trouble.
We have excellent facilities here and we have excellent staff in terms of sports science and player development. It’s all open for the summer for them to use. I think a lot of the younger guys have used the facilities a lot and have seen massive strides, whether it’s their strength and conditioning or with their on-ice development work. Guys who haven’t been here at all have also made big strides. It’s all so individual what your choice is. If you’re here just to say you’re here but you’re unhappy because you’re not with your friends or family, you’re not going to get the most out of it. If you’re away and not focused and locked in, then you’re not going to get a lot out of it. I think we have to trust the players and work with them to do what’s right for each individual player and it’ll pay off.