Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Kyle Dubas, addressed the media at his end-of-year availability, discussing his evaluation of the coaching staff’s performance this season, Mitch Marner’s contract situation, Jake Gardiner’s future, the special teams letdown in the playoffs, and areas for improvement going into the offseason.
There is never a non-hockey day in this city. How do you approach the challenges of the cap given who you have to get under contract to remain competitive and move up a notch, possibly, next season?
Dubas: It is disappointing that the summer is going to be this long. As a family, we were talking yesterday and it was the first time in seven years, I think, that whatever team I was primarily involved with has been done in the first round. That part is certainly disappointing and not a feeling we want to get used to.
I think everyone in the room knows the business we have to tend to over the summer and how imperative it is to continue in the development of our program. We will get to that right away here. Obviously, we’ve got to make some more strides in terms of adding to our prospect pool again, the development of our existing prospects here, and a lot of that will be tied up in the Marlies’ playoff run, getting ready to roll from there, and getting ready for the draft.
I’ve said a lot to our scouts this year that the drafting part when we were picking one, four or eight — in those picks — those are the picks you have to… There is no room for error there. The only way we can sustain this and keep this moving forward is by, when we don’t get a first and we are picking in the second or late in the first, we can make hay. That will be our focus here in the next couple of months for sure, in addition to the contracts.
In regards to William Nylander, how did the contract negotiations affect the season that he had? How will that affect how you go about resigning Mitch Marner?
Dubas: I think, frankly speaking — and we’ve talked about the Nylander situation here at length — the blame for the situation going that far has to go to me. I don’t think it set William up to have a good season. I accept that. Looking back on it and how we handle our business and go about it, I think, in the end, if you are looking to assign the blame to someone, it has to be to me because we didn’t get it done to start the season or to start training camp. We didn’t get it done to start the season and we didn’t get it done until there were three minutes left or whatever there was left. It’s not acceptable. It didn’t set William up to have success.
As I said, the other contracts are going to be priority #1. I can’t use the excuse of, “I didn’t start until May.” I had a full runway with the rest of them. We have to do good contracts for the organization and for the marketplace, and we’ll get right to that. When you are looking to assign blame, it should go to me, and me alone.
Nazem Kadri has missed eight games in the last two playoffs through suspension. Can you trust him moving forward to not see red in those critical moments?
Dubas: I think, when we talked to him, his temperance was a major point. He is an excellent player for us and he brings an element that we don’t have in abundance. Yes, he likes to defend his teammates and he plays very hard and everything of that nature, but we need him to be available. As you see, the suspension goes from three games last year to five games. I don’t think, if he continues with that sort of behaviour… The suspensions are not going to decrease.
He needs to find that balance between playing extremely hard and defending his teammates and being available to the group. I don’t think anybody feels worse about it than he does. I just saw his comments before we came in here. It’s a major challenge for him — character wise — and talking to him, with all of the things he brings to our group, we need to help him as well. It is not just on him. We need to do everything we can to make sure he keeps himself available and we’ll do that.
Do you expect negotiations with Mitch Marner’s people to be difficult given that the expectation is he is going to be looking for Auston Matthews money?
Dubas: I don’t know how they are going to go for sure. We were talking to Darren Ferris at the beginning of the season and I’ll call Darren in the coming day or so and begin to see how he would like it to proceed and how Mitch and his family would like it to proceed. Listen, Mitch has had an excellent season and he is a massive, massive part of everything that we are doing here both in terms of his talent and ability, which has shown to be among the best in the league, and in terms of the joy and the leadership he brings to the club each day. It is priority #1 for us and we’ll get right to it.
Were you satisfied with the coaching in Game 7?
Dubas: In Game 7… I mean, with anything, when you are evaluating a micro-event, you start to get in trouble when you are running a franchise. I know everyone would like me to give a condemnation or a massive vote of support for one single game, but when you have an 89-game season and a years-long track record, I think it is best, when making the decision as an organization, to focus on that. I thought our coaching staff did a good job this year with our group in Game 7 of the series. I thought we started fine. We allowed the goals and then we played really well in the middle of the game. In the third period, we couldn’t gain any traction. I think that falls on everybody starting with me — not the coaching staff, not the players.
What is your relationship with Mike Babcock like? Is the job secure? Are you comfortable with his coaching style and how he deploys players?
Dubas: Mike and I talk every day, sometimes longer than each of us wish, I would imagine. We have an ongoing discussion every day. Whenever anything happens… We didn’t reach our expectation this year. There are a lot of teams in the league that it didn’t. We can only focus on us and our situation here. We didn’t reach the expectation we set out at the beginning of this season. We had 100 points and we went to Game 7 against the Bruins in the first round, so it is tough to say that it was tangible progress. I think anyone watching this series would say we played a lot better than the team did the year before, but we have to continue to improve everything that we do.
It starts with me improving the job that I do: Contracts. Drafting players. Signing players. Our development system. Every single thing in our organization. It is up to me to work with Mike to continue to have him improve and his staff improve. I think that is one of the best parts about working here, is that there is not anyone staunch in their stance that what we are doing is great and we can’t change it. We know we have to improve and get better. That is the exciting part about it.
Can you be sure or are you decided that Mike Babcock will definitely be a part of this team next year or Nazem Kadri will definitely be a part of this team next year?
Dubas: I think the way I look at that is that Shanny has to decide on me first and do an evaluation of me, which I think any organization would be best to do. Once that is done, we evaluate everybody. We could win the Stanley Cup and it would be the same discussion of evaluating where we are at and are we content and are we moving in the right direction? I think with how fluid the situation is, I wouldn’t give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization, starting with me. We will do what we think is best and we will let you know when we know, but that is my expectation.
If you are blaming yourself for the Nylander thing, what could you have done differently to avoid that?
Dubas: When I look back on it and evaluate it, I think starting the discussion earlier with Lewis… We talked first at the draft, which was 40 days or so from the time I got [announced as GM] — maybe less than that, call it a month. Not being more adamant that they get back to us in the summer and just kind of saying, “It’ll all sort itself out,” and resigning ourselves to that, it is a lesson learned from my end of it. I think that is what I would do differently: Meet with them sooner and stay on them more rather than just wait for them to get back to us and hope it was going to bridge the difference and it ends up going to December 1st just before five o’clock, unfortunately.
How important is it to get Mitch Marner’s contract done before July 1st?
Dubas: I think it is imperative for all of the other facets of our team. Mitch is priority one, so without an answer on Mitch, we are going to kind of be at a stalemate, right? It is a top priority because we are not going to jump around and chew up our cap space we may need for Mitch with fringe signings, either, right? It is important. We just have to get to work on it and get it done.
What is the situation with Jake Gardiner?
Dubas: With Jake, to me, I remember as I told him this morning, when I first came here, I knew his relationship with… I don’t want to say the media, but the view of him was so polarizing. Some people thought he was great. Other people thought we shouldn’t sign him. I remember when I first started and Dave Nonis was the GM, we were talking about a one-year deal. I was in the Soo and I didn’t watch the Toronto Maple Leafs every game, but I thought Jake was good and had potential.
One of the things that is a bit sad for me, particularly about Jake, is that Jake has been a driving force in having this team — from 2014, the first day walking in here, until now, it is a night and day difference. I know everyone is disappointed today, but from where the team has been then to where the team is now, it is a night and day difference. There are three players who have been there the whole time, and Jake is one of them. As I told him today, his contributions and what his legacy is with the Toronto Maple Leafs, people try to tie it to small, tiny events like the earlier question about Game 7 and what this means and that means, but Jake has been such a huge part of turning this franchise around. I don’t think one game or series of games should judge that. In time, the way people view Jake will be so positive and people will realize the contributions he has had to the group.
When it comes to his status, it goes back to how much room we are going to have once we get to the situation with Mitch. Then we’ll be in touch with his people.
Are you as confident in your vision in the team as skills-driven as you were earlier? Has your conviction been shaken at all by what you saw in the playoffs about missing certain elements?
Dubas: I don’t think so. I think what I saw in the playoffs, if you had asked after Game 2 and they obviously had a certain way they wanted to play that game and they handled us pretty easily, as the series went on after Game 5… I thought we played so well in Game 5 going into their building. If there is any game throughout the year that symbolizes the way that I would like our team to play consistently, it would be Game 5. Going into Game 6 and 7, they then adapted and took out two of their heavier, grittier guys and injected more speed and skill.
I think my conviction in terms of the vision has not been shaken at all. I do think that, like any team, as our guys get older and bigger and stronger, they are going to naturally become heavier and grittier and as they accrue these scars and scar tissue from experiences like this, I think that directly impacts them in terms of the way that they deal with it mentally. I thought our players throughout the year, and even in the series, did a great job of when things weren’t going well, being able to dig in and push back.
Game 6 here, we didn’t play well for 30 minutes and then in the third, we were able to push back again. Game 7 there, they were up 2-0 and we stemmed the tide and started driving play their way and almost tied the game. I think we are seeing steps. I wish there was a switch we could flip to get there, but it is only going to come through experience. That is how I view it.
Three years in a row, you lose in the first round. If there are any similarities in those three years, in all three series, you lost the special teams battle. Is there something from a player point of view, a coaching point of view, or a management point of view that can fix that problem?
Dubas: I think, from a management point of view, certainly. I think I can do a better job of arming our roster and our coaching staff with players that can help us in each of those facets. I think our power play has been very good in each of the regular seasons that I’ve been here and produced in the playoffs. I want to see it continue to improve and adapt. With the talent that we have and knowing the job Jim [Hiller] does with it, I’ve got a lot of faith there.
I think the blame should go to me for the penalty kill. I think I could’ve done a better job of finding guys that could provide depth to help the coaches in that regard. I think if there is blame to go around for that, it should go to me.
To that end, is there one position or style of play that you think you can address or be better at to take that next step?
Dubas: It is interesting because you look at teams… It’s something I’ve thought a lot about since we were eliminated on Tuesday night. You look at these teams that suddenly break through and you think Washington a year ago — people commonly say, “Other teams were so much more talented.” You see Chicago break through from the very beginning. I wish there were a formula and a way to know exactly what position or what it may be. I think the best thing to do from my position — I know that I have to do a better job and continue to improve and help our players and our group. That is all I can really commit to. I think I’ll take some time here rather than be rash and analyze everything and honestly say, “Here are those things we can improve around the edges — that extra 1-2 % that we can improve upon,” and then go about addressing that. Hopefully, we meet under a different set of circumstances 13 months from now or more, we hope.