Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas met with the media at the Scouting Combine on Thursday, discussing the draft, Nikita Zaitsev’s trade request, the status of contract negotiations with Mitch Marner, the amount of trade talk, and the competition for jobs he’s anticipating at camp next Fall.
You don’t have a pick in the first round.
Dubas: Not yet [laughs].
What are the chances that you might?
Dubas: Well, I think we’ve got talented players, so if we really wanted to get one, we could probably make it happen, but I don’t even know how likely it is. I think we are focused right now on going into the draft with just the 53rd pick and rolling from there.
How useful is this combine knowing a lot of these players will be gone by your pick?
Dubas: They’ve expanded the range to 100-some players now. I think for us, especially, it is really useful because we are spending some private time with some of the more higher-end guys just to do our due diligence and we are using this to try to drill down deeper on some of the players we think could be there where we pick. It is a wide expanse of players at that stage, but it has been good. It has been fun.
We say to our scouts all the time, “When you are picking #1 or #4 or #8, even last year, making those picks count is going to be pivotal to continuing our run here for when we can push it through and be where we want to be.” It’s finding another player like Rasmus Sandin late and later. Our scouting staff is going to become even more important and then our development staff. These are all important drafts for us for a long time.
Roughly how many people do you expect to interview when you are here? Do you go and talk to Hughes as well?
Dubas: I know Jack just from him being around Toronto and obviously his father Jim. I’ve talked to him a few times, but I think there is not a huge probability we will land him, but you never know, it could happen! [laughs]
In your experience, has it ever clinched it one way or the other? How much does the verbal meeting mean?
Dubas: I think we try not to put so much stock into it. We look at it as a chance to get to know the player and how they think. These players come from such a wide array of backgrounds. Some of them don’t speak English. Some of them are from the US development program where they are inundated with very NHL-style way of operations. Same with the major junior programs. Some are from college. Others are playing prep school where they don’t really do video or anything like that. You try not to overstate too much what you are finding out about these players in terms of the interaction and you’re trying to take into account where they’re coming from. But it’s just great to get to know the players and put faces to names and begin a relationship in case we draft them next month.
Where are you at in the process of trying to get a deal done with Mitch Marner?
Dubas: With all of our RFAs, we are having a healthy discussion with Mitch’s people, with Kasperi’s people, and with Andreas Johnsson’s people. We are continuing to work towards it. I am probably not going to give anybody as much as they’d like. The Dreger cafe got it kicked back up when it landed back in North America, which is fine, but there won’t be anything coming from us, I regret to inform everyone.
Does July 1st add pressure for you?
Dubas: I don’t think so. I think the system is what it is. It outlines everything as it can be. As I stated towards the end of the season, of course I’d like to have these done as soon as possible to have a real good view of where we are at, and we are working towards that and it’s our goal. We want all of these guys to play here for a long time. But there is a system in place and they are all free agents. The market has kind of born out where everyone fits in and it’s just trying to work around the edges of that to come to conclusions.
Does it prevent you from getting other stuff done?
Dubas: I think we can’t hold up our whole operation of our team, either. We can’t stop trying to improve our team because one of the three free agents situations is slow. Johnsson has a resolution mechanism there with arbitration. That one, one way or another, will come to a close in late July. Jarrett Bousquet has been very good to deal with here on it, so we will continue working towards that. We’d like to get them all done. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to the remainder of the players on the team for us to put everything on hold when we can be trying to improve the club.
There was a report today that you and Nikita Zaitsev are working on an exit strategy.
Dubas: I have been meeting with Dan. I met with Dan here. I don’t want to get too much into the details — that is up to Dan and Nikita on their end — but that will be our goal: To try to find a fresh start for him for his own personal and private reasons. I’ll leave that to Dan and Nikita to talk about.
In the case of what it means for our team, it is not any definitive thing where he is not going to be back. Especially as the year went on, and especially as he was paired with Muzzin, I think his value began to shine through a little bit more. His penalty killing, he’s a right shot, he plays in our top four, and he is signed reasonably for a long time. That is where that is at.
He seemed really happy a couple of years ago to get here and dedicated to being a Leaf.
Dubas: Yeah, he signed for seven years. I don’t want to speculate on their behalf. I think that is for Dan and Nikita to address if they want to.
It seems like a significant portion of the fan base is vocal when they perceive a player getting really greedy in their mind, whatever that is. William has gone through it. Are you worried Mitch might go through something like that?
Dubas: I hope not. I don’t really know. I don’t sense that. I don’t really know what the fans are saying about it. I think Mitch is a wonderful… Everything about him. Wonderful personality and player. Great energy and enthusiasm. I’ve told him and I’ve told Darren he’s the type of player — him Auston and Morgan — that should play his whole career here and roll on. William would be in that same bucket. I think that is what the dream is when you run a franchise — you want the players to play their whole careers, especially when they are core parts of it, and the rest is history.
On that note, I think one of the great things about Toronto with the fans is that you see the way the players — and they didn’t even necessarily play their whole careers in Toronto, like Wendel Clark and Darcy Tucker and obviously Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon — are revered and the place they still hold in the city. I think that is what makes Toronto such a special place. You are seeing it kind of come to light again with the Raptors and how amazing the city has been and how great of a place it is to play any sport, whether it’s us with the Leafs, the Raptors, the Jays, TFC. It is awesome.
You were a bit critical of yourself in terms of the Nylander negotiations. When you look at where you are at with Mitch, how have you handled it differently this time around?
Dubas: We have had a lot more discussion with Darren already than we had with Lewis Gross by this time last year. Lewis and I had discussions but we didn’t actually sit down until the draft in Dallas. That was a month from now. We are way, way further ahead on that. The discussion with Mitch and Darren has been going on dating back to last year at the combine on Mitch’s contract. They are totally different situations, but with that in mind and learning from that, it has been staying on it and not letting it slip and not letting anyone think we are not wanting to try to get a deal done.
Are you still confident you can get one done before July 1st?
Dubas: I am a very hopeful and optimistic person, so I am hopeful that we are and we will keep working towards that. That has been what is expressed on everyone’s end, so I think if everyone is in it that way, we should be able to get there.
Do you feel better, different or worse about the Leafs’ season given Boston’s success?
Dubas: A lot of people say that. A lot of fans say that especially — this could’ve been our year, look where they are now, we had them down 3-2. I think it takes some real manipulation of the space-time continuum to forecast that. They matched up that way against Columbus. Who knows how we would’ve matched up? I think our whole goal is we’d love to get to the spot where they’re at.
We’d love to be able to be playing right now. We’d love for the people to be lined up outside the arena two days in advance to watch the game outside. You see the Raptors and what is going on around them and how amazing the city is, and I can’t imagine what the city would be like if we were at… Well, I do imagine what it would be like if we were at this point. I think that is what is part of being in sports. You dream about that stuff all the time. You’re trying to make it happen for the fan base and the city and for everybody. I think all of that just makes you diligent and just working towards where you want to go in the future.
Have you heard from the Raptors managerially speaking?
Dubas: A lot. How they handle their business and how they’ve established their culture… I think the biggest thing is I think everyone wants it to be immediate here and their payoff has been now because they’ve been so patient with their group. They’ve made major moves when they’ve been right, but only after going through a number of years with the core group and giving them a lot of chances to get there. I know they’ve had their playoff heartbreaks against Cleveland and they never seemed to be able to get past Cleveland. I know people draw the comparison that we haven’t been able to get through Boston. Things change in the league and teams change. I think just staying committed to what our vision is will help us get there.
As you go into your second year as GM, how do you gauge the level of trade chatter as opposed to last year?
Dubas: It has been way different because last year I didn’t really have that run up from the end of the season until now. As soon as the season ended, you start going around to every team and making your calls and seeing where they’re at for the summer. Last year, at this event, it was really the first time I started getting immersed into what teams’ summer plans were. I feel I have a much better grasp of what other teams are trying to accomplish this year and I’ve had a year of building relationships with the other managers. I’m much more prepared. I feel like we have far more information and that’ll be a big help. I feel much better.
You didn’t give Mike a vote of confidence immediately. Where does that relationship stand now in terms of how you guys view the game and the team and how you want them to play?
Dubas: I think at the end of the year people will find that maybe I just won’t answer. I always like to take the time to analyze everything. Like I said that day, I want Shanny to analyze and evaluate me if I am going to be here, and for me to evaluate everyone else. That is all that I’ll do every season. I don’t know what I would’ve said in the past where I was previously, but even when the teams I’ve been with have won and been successful, you’re always evaluating everybody there. I just think it is smart business.
Since the end of the season, Mike and I have talked every day. We meet every day. We conveyed to each other very clearly where we feel the team needs to improve and continue to find a common ground we want to drive towards. It has been really, really good. I have no issues or concerns about that at all.
What is the dynamic going to be with the coaching staff? You have one more assistant to go. Sheldon is staying. Is it a different kind of pressure on Mike next season?
Dubas: No. I think it is good. I think having a change in that area is good. Mike is very excited about it. You can see that he’s had a lot of guys who have been his assistant coaches who have gone on to be head coaches. I think he always feels a duty to develop them and help them move on. With Paul, he was caught up there in Florida. They brought in Joel Quenneville, right? He wanted to bring in his own people. They had the second-rated power play last year. We were able to bring Paul in. He is a bright young coaching prospect and has done a very good job at the NHL level. Now we have another spot to fill. We are really thrilled for DJ. He did a great job for us in every regard. I think the change in dynamic will only help to move us ahead.
The players that you brought over from Europe — what are their chances of making the Leafs in the Fall?
Dubas: I think the one thing, and we’ve conveyed this to all of the players at the end of the Marlies’ season, is that with Hyman injured and with various constraints we are going to have, I think this is the first year I’ve been here where we feel good about the team but there is also going to be huge opportunity for a whole litany of those players that have been with the Marlies for two, three years plus Korshkov plus Mikheyev.
On the backend, with Dermott’s injury, you’ve got Rosen, Liljegren, Sandin, Kivihalme — who we signed — and Borgman is there. I think it will be one of the more exciting training camps that we’ve had in terms of battles for actual roster spots on the team. That’ll be great. We are going to St. John’s, which we are excited about. We will be there for quite a while and we’re playing an exhibition game there. I know it is still months away, but it is exciting to think about it and be ready to roll.