General Manager Kyle Dubas joined TSN Overdrive on Monday evening, discussing the Calder Cup win by the Marlies, the upcoming contract negotiations with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, preparing for the draft and free agency, and more.
Bob McKenzie just tweeted out that if John Tavares gets to the UFA shopping point – and it’s an if at this point – the Leafs have created a promotional video for John Tavares that may even include a cameo pitch or two from current Leaf players. Can you comment on that?
Dubas: I cannot comment on that, or any players that are under contract to other teams.
Maybe it would be a cameo of yourself lifting the Calder Cup above your head and your reaction. That has been making the rounds. You seemed very excited and we’re very happy for you. That was something else.
Dubas: I’m glad to keep you guys entertained, at the very least. It was an exciting night. A lot of those people I have worked with for a long time. It’s an exciting event and it’s a long journey through the year – nine months – with a lot of ups and downs with everything a part of the program along the way. And then it goes to a Game 7 situation. It was a great crowd and a great atmosphere. Just the way that the game went, it was an emotional game, with a controversial call in the third period and then the team puts it away. When you go up top all the way down, a lot of emotions run through. You see all of the people you’ve worked with – in some cases – for seven years, and you work towards that… It was an emotional event and an exciting event. So I was emotional and excited.
It must be difficult to keep the older guys engaged and happy playing in the American Hockey League. Guys like Colin Greening and Rich Clune – you really had a buy-in from those guys, didn’t you? For some of the older players that are kind of just hanging around, they’re not always the happiest of people, but these guys seemed to really buy in and really enjoyed and loved being Marlies.
Dubas: Every single day you came in and those two plus Vincent LoVerde, Chris Mueller, Ben Smith – who made up the veteran component of the team – you never, ever had to worry any day how they were going to come into the rink. You never had to negotiate their disposition with them and try to get them into a good mood. It was very clear to them from the beginning of the year what their role was going to be, and all three of them really, really embraced it and made my life and the life of the organization so easy. They were great with their efforts and habits every day, but beyond that, how they really took to the young players and people on the team and helped them on and off the ice every day… it was a very special group of veteran players and the best that we’ve had here. I was really happy for them because that is a big accomplishment for them to add to their resume as they continue to navigate their way through professional hockey and stay in it. Teams are always looking for players that have that on their resume. It was a great accomplishment for those guys, in particular.
How do you go about keeping Sheldon Keefe in the organization?
Dubas: Sheldon is under contract. I think that we’re probably pretty fortunate that it’s now June 14th when the Marlies won and the season ended. Teams tend not to want to wait that long if they have openings. I think we were fortunate that way with Sheldon this year, but I think that it’s becoming more and more clear as every day and every season goes by with Sheldon that he is going to be an NHL head coach at some point. He continues to evolve and improve year in and year out. For me personally, and beyond that for our organization, we want to be developing players. We want to also be developing people. If you’re the American league head coach, we want to try to get you to the NHL. The same goes for Assistant GMs and area scouting people – to continue to move them up. If someone comes into our organization and they do a great job for three or four years and another organization wants to elevate them, I think we’ve done our job and we’ve benefitted from having them. When that day comes for Sheldon, I will be thrilled for him, undoubtedly.
Do you think being the GM of the Marlies and now being the manager of the Leafs, having an inside track to putting that team together and seeing some of those young kids flourish, now you’re going to have the opportunity to make their dream come true for a couple of those guys… to keep some spots available for healthy competition at training camp as your organization continues to grow?
Dubas: The run that the team has been on and how long the team played gave everyone in the organization that otherwise wouldn’t have the luxury or the chance to see these guys. There are scouts that have been in our organization for a long time that know all of these players that were draft picks going back to 2012 and 2013 that played for the Marlies – whether it is a Garret Sparks or Frederik Gauthier or Andreas Johnsson – and they’ve known them for a long time. But it’s been great to be able to see everyone else in our organization get more and more familiar with those players. Certainly, as you do that and you see those players play the way they did through the American league playoffs and then in a really tough seven-game Final series, I just think it alleviates some of the concerns that maybe these guys aren’t going to be able to get done at the next level, where things are much more difficult and players are much better and stronger. It alleviates a lot of our concerns for our people internally. Now they’re more familiar with those prospects and, certainly, it bodes well for those prospects as we move ahead.
The NHL draft takes place later this week in Dallas. A lot was made during your hiring period with what happened with Mark Hunter and Mark not being with the organization anymore. He was a big part of the drafting process the last couple of years. That is over a month ago now. You guys have had some time to recalibrate and figure out who you are and what you are leading up to the draft. Do you feel that you guys are prepared for the draft, and what is your excitement level like for this weekend?
Dubas: I think the draft is always an exciting time. It’s an opportunity for every team to add new prospects to the organization that everyone hopes will turn into future Maple Leafs or whatever team that you are with. In our case, as things have taken shape over the last month and the way that we have navigated the month, it has given me a lot of time to spend with our amateur scouting people and particularly with our area directors and what have you to build our plans moving ahead. We’ve had the combine and then we had another couple of weeks thereafter where I was able to spend a lot of time with those people and change different things we wanted to change and then form our plan of attack. We had some meetings last night. We go into Dallas tonight and we’ll have meetings this week.
I’ve been really, really impressed with our group of scouts and how prepared they’ve been. We have Reid Mitchell here on staff and he’s kind of behind the scenes. He doesn’t get as much credit as he should, but he’s really been a driving force keeping us focused and pushing things ahead here. I’m very fortunate to have those people plus Brandon Pridham and Laurence Gilman internally, and it’s been a big help. I feel very good about where we are at as a staff right now because of the faith I have developed in our area people and in the people we have in our front office.
I’m looking forward to getting through the week. We’ve got a good plan for the week, and we’ll get to the finish line on Friday and Saturday. I’m excited to add some more prospects to our pool. This is an important draft for us and an important number of drafts as we move ahead here. We are going to need contributions from more and more younger guys as our core grows older and their contract statuses change.
What do you think of these development camps that happen right after the draft? Is that really necessary to put these guys back on the ice? Their seasons are ended and they’re young kids. They’ve got to train for a development camp? Are they that important, or what do you get out of those?
Dubas: The value for us is that, for one, it gets our development… in most other sports, the combine, in football, you can go out and have your people work or directly observe the player doing football things or basketball things. Here, at the NHL combine, it is an interview period with physical testing. Our development camp – we’ve kind of rotated back and forth. This year, we’ve eliminated the entire scrimmage portion of it. It’s not like we’re going to bring you in and you’re going to play seven days in a row. Last year, we did that and I kind of wondered at the end what we really got out of it by making the players go through that.
I see it as an opportunity for the players to get familiar with our development model and our development staff led by Scott Pellerin, and we can begin to work with them on their technical skills. It’s not anything that is going to grind them down and ruin their summer. We’ve got to be cognizant of that as well. It allows us to introduce ourselves as an organization. We’ve had Jamie [McLennan] come in before and have him talk about the media and how to conduct themselves with the media, which has been a great experience for our staff and players. It’s moreso the off-ice component than it is the on-ice, and also allowing the players to begin building a relationship with our development staff.
But we’re not going to make any broad decisions based on a player’s on-ice ability based on how he performs in small, technical skill stuff on the ice. We are one of the teams that have moved to holding our camp right after the draft, so we start next Monday here in Toronto. I think that’s just more to benefit the players; let them get into their summer routine for July and August, and our staff as well.
Until you get to that negotiating period next week, you can’t speak with anybody else’s free agents, but you’ve got a couple of regulars – a few regulars – that are up for new contracts in Bozak, JVR and Komarov, and even Polak has been a regular on this team for a number of years. It’s been difficult from the outside in terms of figuring out where these guys sit. We wouldn’t expect you to detail those plans, but is there anything you want to say to the fan base in terms of the likelihood of any of these guys potentially being in the fold next year or in years to come?
Dubas: We haven’t closed the door on anything here whatsoever. We continue to stay in touch with those players. Those players have all contributed a lot to the program here, specifically in the last number of years. They went through some difficult years, including the first two that I was with the organization. It has been great for me to see them help to push this thing ahead and have some success here the last couple of years in the regular season and get back to the playoffs.
I would never, ever completely close the door on anybody that has been a part of that. We just continue to stay in touch with everyone and navigate our way through the situation here. We are always looking to make our team better in any way we can, whether that’s with the people we have and bringing them back, or if we can get an upgrade somehow, someway we will look to that – whether it’s through internal progression or somebody via trade or free agency.
I think with where we are at in our progression as an organization, we aren’t closing the door on anything. Our goal is continue to get better every year here. That’s what we’re going to look to do. The message, I suppose, to the fan base is that that’s our sole ambition here. We don’t close the door on anything, whether it’s an incumbent or a newcomer to the process.
With Montreal and Arizona making a trade, sometimes you see other organizations that may open the door for a domino effect, almost. Do you expect more chatter to gain more and more in the week leading up to the draft because a trade happens on the weekend and now maybe GMs are in the mood for moving people around?
Dubas: I think that this time of year, certainly in the last number of years – maybe it’s some recency bias on my end – it seems like there are more and more big moves around this time every year as we go through. Certainly, two years ago now there was that massive flurry of trades within an hour. But this seems to be a time, I think, because of the structure of contracts with people and players and when different clauses kick in, that it seems to have a big effect on providing that exciting incident for people to begin exploring different trades, and they seem to be bigger trades than the ones that happen during the year. Certainly, the chatter is steady and it certainly has picked up from the time when I first started in early May. There is a lot more definitive direction for teams and I think we’re conveying that to one another. Everyone knows what each other’s needs are. You see that first trade Friday, and there is just naturally more trades anyway with the draft and free agency a week away. I think it’s an exciting time to be a fan or in the media because there is alot going on and it provides teams with the ability to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish, depending on where they are at in their progression as a franchise. It is exciting for all of us and we just have to continue to follow our process here and continue to look for ways we can make our group better day in and day out.
The contracts of the three kids – Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Nylander is an RFA, so in order for him to play for you guys, he’s got to sign a new deal. Marner and Matthews have a year left in their entry-level deals, but as of July 1st, they can sign extensions. If this isn’t the highest priority for the team, it’s certainly high up the priority list. This won’t be easy. This is always a debate throughout the league – what kind of money guys should be getting and what kind of term should come with it. You’ve got three of them. Are you rolling into this expecting it to be complicated, expecting maybe some egos to get bruised? How are you approaching these three contracts?
Dubas: One of them is expiring on June 30th and that is William’s. We’ll get all of them. I think the league in general, because of some of the things that have happened in the last number of years, they see July 1st – the day a team can begin extending somebody – as a deadline, as though we have to have it done July 1st or otherwise there is trouble. My way of doing it may not appeal to the masses, but I believe in extreme patience with these things. They are big decisions not only for us but for the players as well. I want to be sure that the players understand our vision as a team and are comfortable with it just as much as we are comfortable with them, which we obviously are. Things may not happen as quickly as people would like with big announcements at the outset, and that’s my decision – not anything to do with the players. We are eligible to begin discussions with two of them on July 1st, and with William, we know his contract is expired. We will get to work on all of that, and it might be a little bit too patient for media or fans, but that is the way that we’ll do it. All three are obviously very good players that we are excited about and will be good Maple Leafs for a long time.