Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas addressed the media on Tuesday, discussing the team’s recent 9-9-2 stretch, progress on contract extensions for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the approach to the trade deadline, media and fan treatment of Jake Gardiner, and much more.
What is your take on the way the team is playing right now?
Dubas: I am not concerned. I think that earlier — just speaking on a personal level — in my own career, just going back to the Soo, you used to — and my wife could really attest to this — go up and down and every loss was the end of the world and every win was the greatest thing ever. Experience and just going through the years have shown that these types of things are really a great opportunity. We had some teams back in Sault Ste. Marie and also with the Marlies that didn’t really encounter any rough stretches during the season at all, and then you get to late in the year and in the playoffs where things are hard, and the team hasn’t had any experience in dealing with that.
I think especially with our group being a younger group where the core of the guys is young, it’s just a great opportunity for them to show how they can lead the group out of it and develop their own leadership. I think we’ve had some games where we’ve played really well and the puck just hasn’t gone in, whereas earlier in the year we had some games where we didn’t play very well and the puck was going in at those times. In life and in hockey, it all seems to balance out sometimes. Most of the times it’s during the season, other times it takes a few years, but you usually come out even. I just think it is a great opportunity for our whole group now.
William Nylander said the other day in Florida that he’s never experienced anything like this. What do you make of the way he’s played and the way he’s handling it?
Dubas: I think the way he is handling it is he is handling it very honestly with everybody. I don’t think… when you miss that much time — when you miss two months — and you come back, it’s difficult. It’s hard to catch up. That is what I and we have tried to tell him all the time. It’s not going to be an overnight process where he is going to go back to the player he has always been. We have to remain patient and he has to continue to stick to his own development plan. And he’ll do that. He works very hard. He is a very good young person. I’ve got a lot of faith that he’ll work his way out of it. It may not be on the timeline that everybody wants, but he’ll get there and we are excited to help him do that.
Do these challenging times impact the team’s long-term mandate as it approaches the trade deadline in a month’s time?
Dubas: No, I don’t think so whatsoever. I think we’re happy with, overall, where the team is at. I know you can sort of get immersed in the short term both when things are going great and when things are going not to the level you expected them to as far as wins and losses, but it’s a good time to reflect on how the team is playing, where the team is at, what we can improve on. It gives the group a good time to reflect on how we can rely on each other and pull our way out of it. It’s a good time. It’s a great opportunity. I’m excited for Wednesday, for sure.
With or without this recent stretch, are you comfortable with the state of the team, getting close to the trade deadline?
Dubas: I think I am comfortable with the makeup of it. I think the group and the job the coaches have done the whole season, right from day one of training camp until now, and the players… We talked about that when William first came back, how the group has handled various different things like Auston being out, William being out, and now we’ve Fred out as well. The way they’ve hung in and handled those things, if you look where we are at in the standings overall, you still have to be very happy with that. I think they’ve earned the right for us to explore ways that we can continue to make the team better. We are trying to do that and if there are things that are fair that we feel fit for us in the short and long term, we’ll continue to explore all of that.
Do you sense urgency that there are two players key to this team that are still on entry-level deals and you do have the cap space the cap space this year that you might not have next year to add at the deadline? Is that something you have to be cognizant of?
Dubas: Is the question that next year we won’t have the same luxuries?
Yeah, that there is a window this year that is afforded because Auston and Mitch are still on their entry-level deals.
Dubas: I totally understand the question. Our hope is that our window where we are in contention and can continue to get better expands for many years — as many as humanly possible. I think we do have some space now and we can improve the group. Like I said, we’ll continue to look to explore all of those avenues to do that. You are right — we may not have the same cap space at the deadline in the future, but I think that is where we will be expecting our development model and our program here with some internal development with our guys [to help out].
Any progress on extensions for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews?
Dubas: I think with Auston we continue to have very healthy dialogue with Judd Muldaver and Jeff Jackson. When it comes to Mitch, I think Darren Ferris has been very overt in his stance on it publicly. When we have further update, we’ll be letting everyone now.
How beneficial would it be to get Auston done before the deadline just to have some long-term vision for the team?
Dubas: I think as much as clarity as you have on any… I don’t want this to come off as anything other than reality. If we knew were all of our players will be and all of our situations, it would help us prepare for a number of factors, but they are very big personal decisions for the players and I don’t want it to come off as we are putting pressure on them to do so. It is a life-changing decision for any player that is signing a long-term contract — not just the two of them, but for many others, as it was for John in the summer and others who have resigned or signed here. Yes, it would be, selfishly beneficial for me, but for the players, I think they have to make sure they are fully comfortable when they are going into any arrangement and that they’re fully happy and ready to do so.
The team is 9-9-2 in the last 20 games since getting Willy and Auston back in the lineup. Is there any correlation with a let down since getting all the talent back in the lineup?
Dubas: I don’t know. I haven’t really looked at that. When we analyze it, we are more looking at our overall season. In that stretch, we have played some of our best games. If you go back to December and work your way all the way through, we’ve had some games where I don’t think we’ve played to our potential. I think all of the players and coaches and myself all recognize that, but we’ve had some games where we have played extremely well, be it the Tampa game last week or the game in Tampa that we lost previously, the Boston game here… sometimes the scoreboard goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m very encouraged by that.
I think, as it pertains to the rest of it and not playing our best on certain nights, I think everyone recognizes that the mantra here this week from the players and coaches is that they just need to work their way through it and out of it. At the same time, we can be encouraged by the way that we performed against some of the best teams in the league since the date you referenced.
How concerned are you about Jake Gardiner’s confidence level right now and whether it will impact any plans you had for him in the offseason and a contract?
Dubas: Right now, I am just worried about Jake getting back to 100% health. I don’t worry so much about Jake’s confidence level. Jake is Jake. He is very mature and very intelligent and able to handle everything that comes his way very well always. I think he has been an excellent player for the organization. He has been here as long or longer than anybody.
The one thing I would reiterate is how important he’s been to turning the organization around. I think for the fans and media alike it would be nice for them to recognize that and to be supportive. Jake is a player that has the puck a lot. When you play hockey and you have the puck a lot, and you try to be creative and you make skilled plays, from time to time, they’re not going to go your way. With Jake, the positive far, far outweighs the times when it doesn’t go right. That’s why we like him and that’s why he’s been so important for us over the last number of years or since we’ve been here; five years.
When it comes to the trade deadline and possibly adding a player or two, is it your preference to add a player with term versus a rental? Are you sticking with that? Is there a market there for that kind of player?
Dubas: It depends what you are willing to pay, right? That would certainly be our preference, to have somebody that we know is going to be a part of our group for beyond this season, but if there are players that we think are expiring this season who can help our group, we won’t necessarily shy away from that, either. It’s just finding the right people and players that can come into the locker room and help us.
Do you feel like you have the prospect capital to make that kind of move?
Dubas: I have a real smartass answer to give you, but I won’t tell it. Frankly, I see we have some discussion about the way that some of our prospects are rated and where our system is at, and I just think that the analysis that is done is so littered with recency bias. Basically, anyone who played in the World Juniors is rated very high and anyone who didn’t, for whatever reason, is rated much lower because they haven’t been… It’s easy to see people at the World Juniors. We had Sandin there and he rises up the chart, even though he got hurt there. Our others who weren’t there are not. Even though they’ve played better than they have previously, they’re down. I think other teams in the league recognize that. I think the consternation regarding our prospect pool is just a little bit ill-informed.
I can tell you that based on the calls we get from other teams asking about a litany of players within that system. I feel we have the prospect capital both to develop very good NHL players to help us out and to make trades if we need to. We also have all of our draft picks and then some. I think we are very well suited to do whatever we need to do when it comes to moving out various elements of our club to better our club now.
What is the trade market like? How many calls are you making or taking — that sort of thing?
Dubas: I thought you were supposed to know that more than me… I think everyone is just kind of doing their job right now, calling around and making sure you’re aware of what is happening. It picked up there a little bit and now it is sort of slow. We are going into this break and various teams have pro scouting meetings and different things happening. I think after the break or even heading in, it will start to pick up again and then come to its peak by the 25th.
Mitch’s growth this season — was that sort of to be expected considering he was going to be playing with Tavares all year? Or has it taken you by a little bit of a surprise?
Dubas: I think Mitch… the one thing I really like about Mitch and that we as an organization love about Mitch is just how much he loves hockey and being a Toronto Maple Leaf. He comes to the rink everyday with just such an unbelievable — and everyone can see it when he’s on the ice — energy and disposition about him. In this past stretch, it has been fun to watch him continue to evolve. It doesn’t affect him whatsoever. He comes in, even in the dog days of the season, so happy and excited to be here. It lifts the group. Anyone who has as much talent as he does and works as hard as he does and loves hockey as much as he does, you’re going to continue to see continued growth in him. I wouldn’t say it is a surprise whatsoever. His impact on the team is immense and he is a fantastic player that we are very fortunate and proud to have as a Maple Leaf.
Where he might end up as far as point production at the end of the year — does it complicate things when you are trying to sign him and Auston?
Dubas: No, I think lots of teams are dealing with that. These younger players are coming in and if you look across the leading scorers in the league, they are all… There are some people who have been in there for a decade or more, it seems, that are kind of the stalwarts in terms of production in the league, and then you have younger players who are making a stronger push, not just here but in other teams throughout the league as well. I think it is exciting for the NHL. It is exciting for us when you see this new wave of players start to lead the way.
Dubas: I think there are lots of players down there that are on the cusp of coming out. Just to relate it back to the earlier question, Trevor Moore has come up here and played very well. Calle Rosen has played extremely well down there as a number one defenseman. Both of them have signed extensions. If you look at the rest of the roster, we’ve had some injuries down there. Borgman has just returned from injury. Liljegren will be back soon, as will Sandin. Those are kind of our top prospects there and they’ve been out.
Up front, the job that Sheldon in combination with Scott Pellerin have done with the group, I think there are four, five, six forwards that we can be confident in calling up now and knowing that they can fill in, much in the way that Moore did. For us, it is imperative that the team continues to develop talent down there. They’ve done a wonderful job doing so, even if they are not the most heralded prospects. They have come in and been very good players for us and we are very excited about that next group that is going to continue to come. You see their development as young players continue to improve and that is impacting the success of the team, even though the goaltending there has been unstable. It has kind of stabilized now. They’ve had some injuries. I think it just speaks to the job that Sheldon and the development staff have done in righting the ship there. It’s exciting for us for sure.