Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas joined James Duthie of TSN for an in-depth interview on how he is spending his days during the suspension of the 2019-20 season, his lessons and regrets about the season before the pause, the team’s pursuit of KHL forward Alexander Barabanov, and the odds of standout prospect Nick Robertson making the big club next Fall.
It’s one thing being isolated. Being isolated with a 2-year-old is a whole other thing, isn’t it?
Dubas: It’s been a lot of fun. It has been great. I think anybody that is a parent and that works is realizing that we don’t have this much time ever at home with our families. It has been a lot of fun that way. It is pretty fortunate to be able to have that.
You would’ve been playing the Washington Capitals on a regular game day. How much do you miss it?
Dubas: You miss it a lot. All of that said, I think you realize the gravity of the situation and how severe it is and how important it is for us to be doing our part. Every day you look at the calendar and it pops up in your phone, “Game against Washington Capitals,” or “Game against Ottawa Senators,” and so on and so forth. The more it goes on and on, the more you miss the games and the competition each day. I think that is so far on the backburner in regards to what is happening in the world. You gain a real appreciation and you feel real fortunate what you are able to do on a daily basis. It’s all good.
What do you miss about watching the team play?
Dubas: You miss being around everybody every day. You miss being with the coaching staff and around the players. With where we were at with the players, you really missing seeing the team continue to grow and the different situations we were in. It was a season where we had a lot of really good moments and a lot of really bad ones. I think the reality is, even having the time now to reflect on it more deeply, you realize the importance of going through those really rough moments and seeing the group continuing to respond as we continue to mature and grow. That is really how we viewed the year. Right now, it is missing seeing how the group would’ve handled this stretch and the run-up to the playoffs and then hopefully, in the playoffs as well.
China is about two months ahead of us, and the Chinese government announced today that basketball will not start. A lot of the leagues around the world have been watching China carefully and that situation. Is that just more indication of how difficult this is going to be for us to get this season in?
Dubas: It is so hard to project, right? I don’t think I have the capability of answering what the greater impact is on society and the world, and how — or if — we are going to be able to get things back up and running again. I think that we are certainly hopeful that is the case. One thing that I have learned interacting with the league officials is that the health and safety of the players and the staff and the fans are really paramount to them, and that will always be the number one priority.
Once it is safe to do so, I think everyone acknowledges and says we want to resume the season in whatever form that is and have a Stanley Cup competed for with integrity. I think we are all hopeful that we will be able to do our part here in Canada and the United States to slow the spread of the coronavirus and be able to resume some sort of normalcy. It is just a matter of how long that is going to be.
That integrity is such a key word. There are so many things being thrown around right now. There are best-out-of-fives if you started the playoffs right away, and all of those scenarios. Possibly no fans in the stands. In a hypothetical, if the Leafs are playing for the Stanley Cup and it’s in a shortened playoff and there is nobody there, do you think it would be strange? Would it even be right?
Dubas: I don’t know. What is right and wrong, and what feels right… You’d love to be able to assume you’d be able to return to exactly the way things were, but I think as the days go by and things continue to change in the world, the way things were is probably behind us. We have to get used to some sort of new normal, and that is only once we get past the continued increasing and spreading of the virus.
For the Maple Leafs, as it stands, you would love to be able to return with a full building and no concerns and no worries whatsoever and get into the stretch run, the team makes the playoffs, and you go into a Stanley Cup. You can build whatever optimistic model and vision, and I think that is important to do, but I think we are going to be venturing into a new sense of normal with the health and safety of everybody at the forefront. I know the league will do whatever is best to check off all the boxes along the way. That will be the key.
Darren Dreger tweeted that the Leafs and Arizona are frontrunners for 25-year-old Russian free agent Alexander Barabanov. What kind of player is he and what is his NHL potential?
Dubas: I think he is not tall but a very strong winger. He has a tremendous skill level and playmaking ability. We are interested in him and I think it is openly out there that we are going to compete for him and try to win this recruitment and have him come to Toronto. I think the thing we are relying on there is the job Senior Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito, has done with regards to developing relationships with European players and college players, and then having them be able to transition to North America or transition to pro hockey as seamlessly as possible. That is a tribute to Jim and the work he has done to build a relationship with the players and their agents and so forth.
Alex would be, for us, a fit because he is a winger that is a high-end playmaker and has ability but is also very strong and competitive. He has played in a great program in St. Petersburg. He is going to have to decide whether he wants to come to North America — if he wants to play in the NHL or remain there with a great team in St. Petersburg. If he comes here, we see him as someone that could step right in and contribute and make plays off the wing back to our guys in the middle or across the rink to our players that are high-end shooters. We like how competitive he is and how strong he is on the puck.
Ilya Mikheyev came in and did a good job for you this year. You signed draft pick Egor Korshkov. Maybe more than most organizations, there is this connection with Russian hockey and the KHL. Is there any explanation for your emphasis on that?
Dubas: I think the league there is a very, very good league. I think that they do a great job of really valuing the development of their players. There aren’t as many games, so they spend a lot of time on development. The season begins in early August or late July with their training camp and rolls to the end of April. I just think the players from there are playing at a very, very high level. They’re playing at a high level of pro hockey and they’re able to come over and step right into the lineup. I think a lot of the organizations there in the KHL do a great job. We’ve had players from Omsk, where Bob Hartley is the coach. We’ve had two players from CSKA Moscow come over and play for our team.
It is not just there. In Sweden, we’ve had Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman before he moved on to St. Louis. We’ve been able to have success in having those guys come over. It is sort of easy to identify where they are at in their career and then where they are going in terms of their ability to fit right into the lineup and what they can do.
I mentioned earlier Jim Paliafito, and he really does all of the legwork over there. He’s developed really good relationships with the players and the teams and the agents. It puts the players at ease about the fact that it is a massive change in lifestyle from growing up and living in Omsk or Moscow or St. Petersburg and then coming to Toronto. Jim really handles all of that for us along with Leanne Henderson in our office. They turn them over to our development staff and our coaching staff. Because of Jim, I think it’s just worked really seamlessly.
In talking about the future of the Leafs, Nick Robertson had such a great year with 55 goals in just 46 games this year for Peterborough. How do you describe such a quantum leap forward for him?
Dubas: His mindset and his work ethic and his tenacity is what I think really fuels Nick on a daily basis. I’ve never really come across a player at that age that has that same level of focus and attention to detail every single day and getting the most out of every single day — not only his attention to what he is doing at the rink and in the gym, but also how focused he is on his nutrition, his sleep, and making sure that his mind is always in the right spot.
He just turned 18 on September 11th, so he was one of the youngest players in the draft. When you have that mindset, it takes a lot of us a long time to develop and it can give you the ability to take massive leaps when you are still playing junior. It’s a tribute to everything that Nick does.
I think what we like most about him is that when you ask for feedback on where he is at, he is able to provide you with a laundry list of items he wants to continue to improve upon. I think the Peterborough Petes did an excellent job with him this year. He had a great start to the summer with the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth. In the Czech Republic at the World Juniors, he just continued to get better and better.
His goal-scoring is one thing, but how he is scoring the goals is the other — not just at even strength and power play, but a lot also on the penalty kill, including his 50th, which was shorthanded. We are really happy with where he is at. More than anything, you really value how he feels he needs to be better at everything. I think that separates him from other prospects at that age.
He is confident, too. He told Mark Masters he hasn’t ruled out playing for you guys next year as a 19-year-old. How would you handicap his chances of making that roster whenever next season is?
Dubas: I think it is going to be — Can he continue to carry that same mindset and work ethic through the summer? Can he really do work on the areas of his game that we feel he needs to improve? Given the way that he has handled himself so far and how he has executed on everything we have asked him to do, if he is able to work on those things throughout the summer at the same level he has worked on other parts of his game, we are going to give him every opportunity to take his best shot at it. We will play him with good players in training camp. We will let him run with it a little bit.
Looking back on this season, one of the regrets I have and a place where I went wrong is that I think we probably should have given him a few NHL exhibition games so that he had that under his belt heading into future seasons and played the long game a little bit more. That is something I look back on and regret because I think he did earn them. We just, at that time, felt that we were going to get to our pro guys and have our other players go back to junior. We wish we would’ve done that, but we will give him every opportunity this year. If the way that he forecasts it to Mark Masters is right, that would be great for Nick.
You are a precise guy. Can you give me three things you learned about this hockey team this year?
Dubas: What we learned is that we need to continue to hone in on our mindset defensively. Sheldon and myself need to do a better job at finding a way to have our team play the way defensively that we show we can when we are at our best. When I reference certain games, I am referencing the two games against Tampa at the end and the game against Pittsburgh when we came home after they kicked our butts in Pittsburgh the game before and we needed to respond. The team shows the ability to really clamp down and play great team defense. It is not about having one workhorse defenseman — even though we got Morgan Rielly back before the break — but defense is so much a mindset. It is trying to get our team to that level every single day, night in and night out. I think that is on us to set the tone and lead the way and really hammer home to the players how important it is.
Is there ever a point where you say that they are what they are — some nights they can, some nights they can’t?
Dubas: I think when you show it as many times as they did, especially at the end of the season after the coaching change… Our goals against in November were about 3.5 a game. Under Sheldon, they’ve dropped to three. There is a process we need to go through to get to about 2.5 per game, or hopefully lower, in the regular season, and that will kind of feed us into the playoffs. We are not anywhere close to where we want to go.
I thought, especially in the part of the season where Rielly and Muzzin were out, the team showed the mindset to be able to get there. Different guys had to step up. You had Dermott and Holl on the top pair. We were in Tampa and then back home against Pittsburgh where we really kind of stepped up and showed we can do it. I believe that when someone shows you they can do something, while all 82 games is difficult to do, night in and night out, the ability to do that — to me, it is purely a byproduct of focus and mindset on the defensive end and really valuing it. I think we have to build that valuation into our guys.
What else have you learned or regret?
Dubas: I think the other part of it — and I don’t think it is a regret — is that there is an excitement amongst the players and myself to go through a full training camp and season with Sheldon at the helm. In talking with him multiple times a day every day since, it is looking at the resumption of play, whenever that is, as an opportunity to really hammer home his principles. He came into the job, flew into Arizona the night before the game, had a morning skate, and we have been rolling since with very, very little break in the schedule. We had one three-day break right after the first set of games where we played in Colorado and went to Detroit the next Wednesday where he had two practices in a row to work with the guys. Having that is something we are excited about and realize we have to take advantage of.
When I look long-term on regrets, I think when you see the way Nylander has played this year, it always brings up the handling of the contract negotiation with him and kind of setting him up for a bit of a rough ride last season. You see the way that he has played this season and the way that he has grown and matured as a player and where he is producing from — kind of putting to bed any concerns anyone could’ve possibly had about him.
You call it a regret, but would that have meant giving him more money earlier?
Dubas: You never want to do that, but, right from the day of taking the job, really valuing getting that contract done… Who knows? It might not have been able to happen, but we kind of delayed having discussions. That was mid-May until we had very brief discussions with his representative Lewis Gross. Maybe if we could try to get something wrapped up by the draft that year and go through the summer without any issues… You never know. It is easy to look back and kick yourself on things, but those would be the three so far we can talk about.
Do you miss your golf right now?
Dubas: I never really golf this early. The golf season for me usually comes after our player development camp in July and ends in the first weekend of September. I don’t feel like I have missed anything yet.
People might not know how passionate you are about it.
Dubas: You kind of get rolling with it a little bit. I always say that I am going to do a better job when we have off-days during the season of taking my clubs. It always gets lost. Leo is starting to hit the ball around a little bit, whether it is baseball or golf. It was only hockey until about two days ago, and now we’ve worked in some other stuff. It is great. I look forward to getting back and playing whenever possible and getting the game back in the best shape as it can be, which is not always great.
A new NHLPA poll says 75% of players would be in favour of a more relaxed dress code like the NBA. Would you be in favour of that for them?
Dubas: It is interesting. If you talk to the players, you get the guys who I think would like that, and then you get the other players who thinks that it is one of the things that sets hockey apart from baseball, where they just kind of wear their jeans and a T-shirt every day, or soccer, where they wear their tracksuit off of the bus and into the stadium. I think it is one of the things that does set hockey apart. It is a great tradition.
I have a hard time buying into the guys wanting to relax. If you ever see our guys walking into the building, it is a whole show. They can say what they want, but I don’t think they mind the fashion side of it as far as I can tell. Whatever is decided is decided. I know there are some GMs that would like to do away with ties as well. I’ll let people with more experience at a higher level decide these things.
Apparently your father-in-law has one of the best DVD collections. What have you dipped into movie or show wise?
Dubas: Movie wise, it is hard to watch a movie with the two-and-a-half year old that goes to bed at 10:30 and gets up at 9:30. There is not a whole lot of movie time because he takes up a lot of our attention. We watched the Mr. Rogers movie, which was good. Curb Your Enthusiasm is always on a loop in our house, or The Office. Right now, we are into Ozark and the final season of Homeland. We haven’t gotten into the Tiger King phenomenon. Shannon watched a little and said it was very weird.