Kyle Dubas met with the media on Friday, two days away from the opening of unrestricted free agency, to discuss getting Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson under contract, the latest on the Mitch Marner front, free-agent bargain-bin shopping, and the situation on defense.
When you mentioned eight days ago you were approaching the finish line, what tilted things towards the finish line to get things going for your next project?
Dubas: I think Brandon just did a great job working with their respective representatives. At this time of year, things are a little bit tense and different circumstances and elements come into it. To get everyone there at the draft, that adds to it as well. Brandon worked with [the agents] on Johnsson and Kapanen to get those signed and done and sent in today. We are obviously thrilled to be keeping them both. We are excited for the potential that lies ahead and us helping them get there.
What does it mean to have those two guys locked up for three and four years?
Dubas: I think it gives us real certainty that they’re locked in for more than just the one year. Andreas, as he said, bet on himself last season and took his qualifying offer. Despite a slow start, he had a great season. We love the competitiveness and joy he brings to the rink every day and the way he plays and has been a big part of things in the organization for a number of years. It was great to see him establish himself as an NHLer last year full time and obviously produce at a high level as he went up the lineup.
Kasperi has been with us now since almost exactly four years ago today. To watch him grow as a person and a player in his time here, where last year he finally cracked the team out of training camp and played full time for us and continued to be outstanding on the penalty kill, use his speed, move up and down the lineup, and do really whatever we asked of him — it was great.
Knowing we have the two guys locked in for more than just one or two years, it’s a nice relief for us. We hope, for them, it gives the ability to just relax and continue to reach their potential, which we don’t think either one is close to yet.
Was part of the timing with getting it done now that the free agency window is opening and all of that?
Dubas: We were trying to get them done really since the end of the season — even before, going back during the year and meeting with both groups. Both groups have been excellent to deal with on that stuff. I think both players — I’ll let them speak for themselves — were anxious to also get everything locked in and set. You’d have to ask the players whether they look at the salary cap at $81.5 million and whether that influences them to want to just get things done and not worry about it anymore or what have you, but regardless of that, we are thrilled they are completed and we are on to the next order of business.
Does that really help when you have certainty on their fronts when it comes to conducting other business that needs to get done?
Dubas: I think any time we have players we really, really like and we want to keep them for as long as possible… That was really the point of that. When you have certainty, you know exactly where things are going to fit relative to the salary cap, so you’re really not guessing anymore. You know exactly how much space you’re going to have for other initiatives you are going to undertake.
I think everybody knows our situation. We are not flush with cap space in large part because we’ve got some excellent young players we really like and we know where they fit within the league. We are trying to keep this all together and keep it rolling. Knowing where those guys fit in exactly really helps because it helps for you to say to other FAs… When you’re in this period where you can ballpark where you are going to be at, it helps us to give them definitively what range we may fall in, which is not very much at this point.
Where do things stand with your next order of business with Mitch?
Dubas: We continue to talk with Darren. We are continuing to have dialogue with them. I know it is a point of consternation within our fan base and publicly, but Mitch has been excellent throughout and Darren has been excellent in dealing with. We just continue to stay in touch here and hope to move towards an agreement. From the beginning, what we we think about Mitch is not up for debate. He is an excellent person, first and foremost, and an excellent young player. As I said, I am optimistic and feel good about where things will go in the future.
We are a lot closer to July 1 than we met last time. Is there any sense there might be movement for him that day?
Dubas: I think Mitch has and all of these players have their rights within the CBA. It’s still kind of interesting. Kasperi and Andreas signed, but aside from that, I know — being in Toronto — a lot of the focus gets placed on Mitch, but if you look throughout the league, there are so many players that are in this same spot. Depending on how you value players, they’re all elite young players if you go through the different markets. None of them seem to be on the cusp of signing or anything like that either. I know here a lot of the focus gets put onto Mitch, but this is a league-wide thing that’s happening with different markets and cap spaces and budgets and all sorts of things. It is not exclusive here. There is obviously a lot of chatter and discussion, but we just continue to plot along with our business and worry about that.
You often put a lot of signing bonuses in these deals with players. What is that philosophy or how does that factor into those negotiations?
Dubas: I think the way that it factors in is that in some cases, the players feel that they could be getting a greater average annual amount elsewhere, so some of it has to do with the present value of money and they are willing to forgo some of the average if the bonus structure is split up in various different ways.
We get it used against us a lot — the taxation part of it, and if you play elsewhere, you play in a lower tax bracket, and other teams use that. We are fortunate here because of our fan base and because of the coverage and because of our corporate partners, we are pretty fortunate in terms of the revenue we are able to draw in. To sit back and have the taxation argument used against us but then not be able to use any advantage we have would be foolish on our part.
That is the way that we try to do it. I hear people bicker about it and make comments about it, but other teams aren’t apologizing for using taxation or cost of living to aid their arguments, so I don’t think we should apologize, either. And we won’t.
Given your cap situation and the unknown commodity with Mitch still, how do you approach July 1st in your attempt to make the team better?
Dubas: I think we’ve got to save space for Mitch and that is totally fine. But I think regardless, if we were to have something done tonight, I think we would all… This year, we are going to be right tight to the salary cap, so we are trying to do some creative things on the edges with players that perhaps look at this as a legacy opportunity for them or look at this as a chance to rebound.
I think we’ve had some good examples of guys who have come into our organization — Tyler Ennis was a great example last year — and that’s kind of captured the attention of others. If you’re a forward, especially, you’ve got the ability to play with some excellent players, and if you are a defenseman, I think you look at the opportunity and the ability to compete. Especially in our marketplace, if you come in and perform, all the attention you are going to get is going to be generally positive at those pay rates and excellence.
We are just trying to dabble in that. We are not in any of the big-game markets whatsoever. We’ll just stay patient and find the right people and players that might fit for us on those minimum or close-to-minimum deals.
Did you make any progress during the interview period with any players?
Dubas: I don’t think we ever know for certain. We’ve had good discussions. Any player that we think may fit… You try not to be insulting, either. I think everyone knows our space is limited. They know when we call it is probably not the most lucrative call of the day. But we think our organization and the opportunity we can provide can give a good opportunity to certain types of players with where they are at in their careers. It has been interesting. I think we are a spot where guys who you would consider depth players or guys that are nearing the end of their career who want the chance to be on a competitive team in a great place to stay will look at. We will see what comes out here in the next couple of days and just stay on top of that.
Is there interest in bringing Hainsey back?
Dubas: Ronnie has been excellent for us. He’s played a massive role in our top pair and is a great partner to Morgan, and just off the ice and what he’s about and how that has added to our progression in our locker room. We would love to have that opportunity. It is going to be interesting in the next few days. His play with us and what he has done here may make the pricing of that a little bit difficult, but we hope to stay in touch with them, and at the very least, have the chance at the end to at least kind of take one last kick at it and see where it lands. He’s earned the right to kind of cash in a little bit as well, so I don’t know where that will all play out.
The importance of a Nikita Zaitsev and a right-handed D… is there still a possibility he could be a Leaf come training camp?
Dubas: We are not flush with right-handed D. We feel confident with what we have coming up, but we can’t afford to rush our prospects, either, whether it’s Liljegren or Hollowell or Jesper Lindgren on the right side. It is another summer of progression for Justin Holl getting stronger. He’s getting married and it’s a big summer for him on a number of fronts. We still have a lot of faith in Justin. It is trying to address that need in limited space. It is going to be a good test of creativity, so we’ll see how it plays out.