Kyle Dubas addressed the media on Monday afternoon, discussing his team’s start to the season, William Nylander’s play since returning, the overblown threat of an offer sheet on Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, team toughness, and much more.
On the team’s standing through 33 games
Dubas: We’re obviously excited about the record of the team. A lot of the credit has to go to the coaching staff and the players for the way that they were able to navigate that stretch without Auston and without William and continue to stay focused and get better and better. That leads to some excitement for the remainder of the year. I am happy with where we are at. I still think we have a long way to go and that is what we work towards every day.
On John Tavares surpassing expectations since the signing
Dubas: I think any time you engage in that kind of commitment to a person and you bring them in, you hear all these different things about them and you know they are a great person. You know that they can bring leadership with their preparation and how they play. But until you actually go through a season and the process day in and day out, I think it is tough to actually know what you’re actually getting and whether the person will live up to that.
In John’s case, he has surpassed even my expectations and our expectations of what he brings, not only on the ice but just as importantly, off the ice and how he can help guide our group and educate our young players and support our veteran group that is already here as we continue to move along.
He has been excellent in every regard. His play on the ice speaks for itself and his production speaks for itself, but it is the stuff that is going on here in the locker room with our younger players that has certainly been noted by me.
You read about all of these players in different sports and how much they put into maintaining their level of play. Especially when you are in a seven-year agreement with somebody, to know that they are doing that every day now and they are going to continue to do that — and that they have an aspiration to maintain that level for a long time — makes you feel pretty confident. With us, we are very happy that John is here and the way that he has performed thus far.
On Jake Gardiner’s contract status
Dubas: As with all of our pending free agents, we are having discussions with Jake. He is a key part. I think it is in the same spot it was a few weeks ago. We have some other matters that we have to tend to and that has been communicated to Jake as well. We will continue to stay in contact and work with him.
We would like him to be here. It’s not as simple as it sounds. You only have a certain amount that you can divvy up and it’s trying to make that all work and keep our team on the right path moving forward. I know that is not really the answer you were looking for in terms of quantifying where things are at with him, but that’s just the reality.
On the areas where management is looking to improve the team
Dubas: I think we are always looking to improve the team wherever we can. We would like to continue to move the puck better from our own zone. I think some of that falls on our forwards to get open and available, and on the defense to execute when they are open and available. It is an area that we continue to want to improve upon. I think it is an area where we can make great gains and continue to improve as a club. If that isn’t something that is happening as we get closer to the end of February, I think we will certainly look to improve.
Dubas: I think we’ve got a lot of young people still on the team. We’ve seen some of them make great strides of late. Whether it’s Andreas Johnsson and the way he has played of late, Kappy continues to perform very well night in and night out, and we are continuing to look for gains from Travis Dermott and Ozhiganov and others. I think there will be some natural improvement from them as the year goes on working with our coaching staff and our development staff. But it goes back to the point earlier just about being able to more effectively move the puck from our own zone and get the puck to forwards with control and have them get up the ice. That would be the key. I think that’s the area where we can make the most gains.
On Timothy Liljgren’s injury
Dubas: it is a tough injury to gauge in terms of the time line and it is really unfortunate because he had been having an excellent season for the Marlies on the first pair and the first power play and first penalty kill. He was producing well. Regardless of the Sweden World Junior element, it is disappointing for us because he is a right-shot defenseman and he moves the puck very well. We are looking at him to continue to move and challenge here this season. Unfortunately, this is going to set him back for quite a few weeks. I don’t know that he is overly close quite yet, and you can certainly understand that he wants to push to play for Sweden at the World Juniors, but I just don’t know if it is going to be realistic.
On Rasmus Sandin’s start to his AHL career and opportunity at the WJCs
Dubas: I don’t think Rasmus’ opportunity has anything to do with Timothy. I think he is going to get a huge opportunity regardless based on the way that he has performed as an 18-year-old in the American league. It has been outstanding, even this past weekend. He just continues, as guys get injured or guys go through their ebbs and flows, he’s kind of remained steady. For an 18-year-old player and a later first round pick, he has been outstanding. I know they are going to rely heavily on him, so that’ll be a great opportunity for him.
On William Nylander’s progress since returning
Dubas: I know that’s probably the right thing to do in media and if you’re scouting our team is to look and judge how he is doing and where he is going, but I tend not to do that with players who prove themselves in exhibition. That’s the way I look at his play of late.
He has had chances each game. He had a great chance Saturday night. He had two assists in Carolina. He played well in Tampa Bay. His points aren’t at the level that he would like them at or that he is used to, but I think he is slowly starting to come along. I think that was totally expected. In his case, I know there are going to be some challenges as a result of the way that the situation went. I think, by the time we get beyond Christmas and into the New Year, he’ll be back to his usual form and will continue to improve on the path that he’s had.
I don’t worry about William whatsoever. He is in excellent shape and an excellent character person. He is going to end up being just great for us.
On team toughness, size and whether it’s an area of need
Dubas: The way that I look at it is I tend to focus — and as an organization we focus a lot — on our division. When we go to play the top teams in our division every night, I look at that sheet that Steve [Keough] prints out and we’re usually bigger than the opponent.
For whatever reason, that takes on a life of its own, that toughness question. I look at Tampa Bay there, eight or nine points ahead of us now, and they’ve built their team their way. I understand, at every level — whether it’s Sault Ste. Marie or the Marlies — it’s been the same question. I just don’t buy it myself. I know that there are a lot of pundits that say you have to have it, but I look at the teams that have had success and I don’t think that bringing in one big person is going to change our culture and it is not going to have us carry on with the process we’ve started.
We want to have skill. We want to be fast. We want to be competitive. I don’t really think that with the way that the league is going, having someone that can come in and fight or anything like that — if that is what you are inferring — is going to change that. We’ve got a way we want to play and we are just going to carry on with that. In the end, people will judge whether it was effective.
On Mitch Marner’s leadership
Dubas: I think that the leads by just being himself. There are different ways that people can lead. What he does for our team every day is he has just a great joy and enthusiasm. I think everybody coming into the rink every day can probably feel, when they watch him, that he loves hockey and he has got so much energy and a great spirit about him when he goes on the ice. I think that is infectious, not only within the players on the team but within the staff. You love to have people like that around where they’re coming in every day bouncing off the walls and excited to be here playing hockey and being a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That is the way that I look at Mitch and the way that he leads.
I think he does an excellent job for us as a leader in that way. You don’t have to worry about what his disposition is going to be any day. He comes in and he’s rolling along and it adds a lot to our group, especially on the days where it’s a stretch like right now. We’ve been away a long time. We’ve had two trips. We’ve gone on the road and we’ve come back. We’ve had a long trip in between. There has been a lot going on, and he comes in and he’s the same every day. That spirit and that enthusiasm certainly infiltrates through the group and helps, especially at times like this. I don’t think that is a leadership quality that can be understated at all.
On the threat of an offer sheet on Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews
Dubas: I look around the league right now, and for whatever reason, it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that is going to be the target of an offer sheet. Seems interesting to me. But there is about a third of the teams in the league that have a highly talented restricted free agent, and some of them have more than one, as we do. I think if you think of it probabilistically rather than far-reaching scenarios where that may happen…. I think an offer sheet is completely permissible within the rules of the league, even though they haven’t been used frequently. But there are a lot of players.
I understand why it is a topic. There are a lot of restricted free agents coming up this year who are highly talented. I think we are certainly not alone in that. What I would say, as it relates to our team, is that our salary cap situation is set up that we can defend any of those threats with no worry at all. I know that they’ve become a huge topic of late, but I spend 0% of my time having any worry about that. If a team wants to go down that path with us, that is the way it goes. But our goal will be to continue to work with these players. The players have both stated they want to be here. It’s our goal to continue to work with those players and their agents towards an agreement.
On negotiations with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Dubas: Partially, they happen naturally. We continue to have discussions with Judd Muldaver and with Darren Ferris and both of those camps. It will be our intention to try to get those [done] as soon as possible. We do want to avoid the situation we were just in. We are completely in control of that this time in that there is no excuse… I can’t say, “I wasn’t doing this job a year ago.” We have to continue to work away with them and it will be our intention, well before July 1st, that we have an agreement and both players are here long term. One way or another, we’ll get that point.