Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas held a lengthy press availability on the eve of training camp after the club announced its Phase 3 roster on Sunday.
Some news this morning: After the release of the training camp rosters, Nic Petan was deemed clear to play by our medical staff. He had been a full participant in Phase 2 and was deemed fit to play this morning. He will be added to the roster and Mac Hollowell will be removed from the roster at this time.
Dubas on the draft lottery and his concern level about the flat cap
Considering the economic realities the league is facing with the cap being flat for the foreseeable future, is there even more pressure on this group to perform now?
Dubas: I don’t think so. I know that seems to be the narrative about the team and there is a lot of talk about it. If we were facing a situation where some of our core players are up at the end of this year and were UFA or had a large amount of leverage as some of our past players have had, I would maybe feel differently and say that we are going to have to make a major move and delete from our core. But with everybody signed going into the offseason, we are going to have some space to take care of our restricted free agents and potentially take a look at some UFAs.
I don’t feel that this season there should be any added pressure. I feel the players have an expectation and we have an expectation that we are going to be competitive. We are, of course, trying to contend to win the Stanley Cup. All of that said, I don’t look at the situation and say, “Because the cap is going to be flat, this is our only chance to do so.” If we didn’t have our core guys locked up for this year and next, I would maybe feel a little bit differently, quite honestly, but I really don’t. We’ve got everybody set to finish 2019-20 and then 2020-21, and we are going to have to see how different things progress and develop over that time. We have time right now to just continue to see this group develop and grow and get us to where we need to. We are excited about that.
A few months ago, you said the last thing you would want is to be in a position to get the first-overall draft pick. You still feel that way because you have a chance to win. But with the way the whole draft lottery went, one of the teams in these qualifiers is going to get a shot at the number-one pick.
Dubas: I think there are a number of ways to look at that. Certainly, if you lose out, you get a 12.5% chance at the first-overall pick and all of those eight teams get the same. The probability of losing and then winning the pick is still so low, relatively speaking, and it is so far away from where our franchise is at and what we are looking to do. We don’t really look at it that way.
I suppose it would help to quell some of the disappointment for the teams that don’t win in the qualifying round, but for all but one of those teams, after that lottery happens, if you don’t win, you are going to be awfully disappointed again that you fell short of your goal. Our whole focus is on getting our team ready to try to win 19 games. That is our goal here and that is the process we are about to embark on and look forward to.
Dubas on Phase 3 & 4 RTP protocols, life in the bubble, Toronto as a hub city
What do you think of what the NHL has been able to cobble together and how ready you guys are for it?
Dubas: I think the NHL has done a great job of adapting and trying to find a way to certainly recognize that playoff races weren’t over and to have teams that were in the race be kept alive. Despite the fact that, if the season had just ended on March 10th, we would’ve been in the playoffs and scheduled to play Tampa, I don’t think it is unfair that we have to play a qualifying round whatsoever because we were still supposed to have 12 games to either make up some group or secure our space. I think it is very fairly set up, even though we are one of those teams that has gone from playoffs into a qualifying round. The NHL has done a great job of building out its plan and trying to execute this as safely as possible while keeping in mind there are a lot of challenges that go with it.
With regards to our chances, like every team now, we are largely past some of the injuries that plagued us at the end of the season. Those players are due back in the Muzzins and Mikheyevs. We are excited about that and look forward to that. More than anything: When we made the coaching change in late November, Sheldon had one morning skate in Glendale to get the team up and running for a game that night. Now he has had essentially a full buildup with the coaching staff and then will have a two-week training camp to get the players up and rolling.
I think there is some good fortunate in it for us on that end as well and we are excited to see that — not only for the short run, but it is a great experience for Sheldon and will help us and help him.
This has been such a long and arduous process with so many ups and downs. Was there ever a point where you were dubious that we weren’t going to get to this moment?
Dubas: It’s been so unprecedented. I don’t even know the right words to use that properly capture everything that has gone on in the world since the last time we were all together in early March. As things have evolved and different things have happened — particularly as it pertains to the capacity to play — it is all tied to the controlling of COVID-19.
I guess I always felt optimistic and felt we were going to be able to find a way to return to play. I was hopeful that everybody that is impacted by it would find a way to put into practice different protocols to keep everybody safe — notably, the front line workers and people who were out there every day combatting the virus and providing services to our communities. I was fairly optimistic throughout.
At the same time, it is so different than anything else we have confronted, certainly in my time in hockey or in any type of work or in my life. I never really knew how it was going to go, but I am excited we are here at this point and we are ready to go with training camp tomorrow.
With respect to Toronto being named a hub city, do you consider that an advantage or a disadvantage for the Leafs?
Dubas: I could make a case for both. We are not really able to stay at home and we don’t even have access to our dressing room at Scotiabank Arena. On nights when we are the visiting team, we will be in the visiting team’s room. Five of the teams are in one hotel and we are in a different one with the team we are competing against to begin with in Columbus.
I don’t know. There is a big of familiarity to the facility and the rink, but there are no fans in the rink. We don’t have that advantage. We don’t have a game-ops advantage, either. As much as it is nice to be close by, I think there is also the challenge of the fact that your family is ten minutes away and, on July 26 when we move in, we are all going to be sealed away from them, even though they are not that far — especially if something were to happen with your family that you can’t leave for and was being dealt with very close to you, that poses its own challenges as well.
I don’t see much of an advantage. When it looked like it was going to be in two different cities, I didn’t think it was going to be an advantage for those teams that were hosting, either. We know the rink, but we are going to be abiding by such strict protocols and we are not getting any preferred treatment in terms of hotel or facilities. The league has done a pretty good job of keeping that very fair.
The only advantage is going to be that we don’t have a flight to get here. We’ll just take the bus or whatever form of transportation the league approves. That is really the only advantage. It is a chartered flight, so it is not a very big one, at that.
What is the backup plan if someone on the roster tests positive or is exhibiting symptoms?
Dubas: I think if we were to have any of those situations, and I don’t think that applies to only COVID-19 — the first and foremost thing is the health of all our players and coaching staff in general. If any of our people are injured or have any sort of illness — not just COVID-19 — we need to make sure they are taken care of. We would follow the same protocols that we are required to by the league and we would normally follow with our practices throughout.
How confident are you that all of the NHL can get from Phase 3 to Phase 4 in the next few weeks and actually pull this off?
Dubas: It is easier for us and for me to see the finish line from Toronto just because of the job that the Canadian federal government and Canadian provincial government and the city of Toronto have done. It is a bit easier for me and for us to be optimistic. I don’t know what it would feel like right now to be in a spot where the virus is running rampant and has become a big hotspot.
I am optimistic. I think our team will get there. Our players have bought in really well to the protocols. It is just a matter of… I don’t know about those other parts of North America and what their mindset would be, but I feel confident from our end that we will get there with the Leafs.
How will you prioritize the 52 people you bring to the bubble? How do you pick?
Dubas: Our priority, as we have set it out, is that we want to make sure that every roster player has a role. We didn’t want to have two or three extra guys at the bottom of the roster who didn’t really feel like they were close to playing or that we don’t have a lot of ice time for because of the restrictions placed on us.
It is not like in the usual playoffs where you are at home and have your team practicing and you can have your reserve group come out after and skate and work with your development people. We’ve got very limited time. We will probably end up taking into the bubble what I would project as 14 or 15 forwards, 9 or 10 defensemen, and three or four goalies — 28 or 29 players.
We will have the six person coaching staff, and just Shanny and myself from management. Every other staff member aside from the folks the league has said we need to take in are people we would deem as directly benefiting the players’ performance, whether it is medical, performance staff, or fitness staff. Our feeling is that we don’t want those people run ragged. We want to make sure we have ample support for those staffs, where their work directly impacts the players — specifically the medical and performance side.
Can you share what feedback you may have gotten from the players in Phase 2 about how specifically they used it and how ready it got them for this Phase 3?
Dubas: What was most impressive about our guys was that we had sort of been on them from the beginning. We think their fitness level is going to be really important for us as we begin rolling along here. That was something that we have kind of hammered home to them in every Zoom call and conference call we have had with the players. It was great to see them in a voluntary stage when they were in control of everything.
That has been a real positive thing for us. I have been very impressed, not only with the leaders you would expect from the group — whether it is John or Morgan or Jake Muzzin or Mitch or Fred — but all of the guys, even the players that played most of the year in the American league, and how much they pushed themselves and how they took advantage of the time here, especially when the skating instructors and the goaltending coaches were able to be put on.
Do you have any clarity on what will happen if a 4 p.m. game ran into triple OT? Would the later game start really late or maybe even the next morning?
Dubas: I don’t know how it is going to actually be. I have it pictured in my head like when I was scouting for the Soo or playing minor hockey, and you have one of those tournaments where there is a semi- or quarterfinal game that went into triple or quadruple or quintuple OT, and all of the players from the other teams are in their equipment kind of gathering — I know we have to socially distance — to watch the end of the game. You look like you are going to be there until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. in the morning. I don’t really have have anywhere else to go when we are in the bubble, so if we are in the rink until 1 or 2 in the morning, it won’t bother me at all, but I am not sure exactly what the plan is.
Especially because the schedule, particularly early on, is so tight with so many games — which will be great for hockey and hockey fans and the media — I am not sure what will happen other than we will have to bump it back until we can get it all finished.
Are you anticipating all of your invited players will be participating? What do you think of the players around the league opting out?
Dubas: I don’t think any of the players we have invited will be opting out. I haven’t heard that and I don’t have any inkling of that. The players have mostly all be here for quite a while now. They have all been here for at least a week, off the top of my head. I am just trying to remember who the last few were to arrive… but they have all been here for almost a week now.
With regards to the players opting out around the league, I think that was negotiated in as a part of it. I think it was a great thing for the league and the PA to do. If any of our players were to opt out for any reason whatsoever, we would be fully understanding. This is such a difficult time in the world. Whether it is just reasons of underlying health or just general family reasons, or whether you are just not comfortable in general, I certainly respect any of our players who would feel that way and any player in the league or staff member in the league who would feel that way, for sure.
On the 52 people you are bringing into the bubble, is it tough not bringing people like Brandon Pridham or Laurence Gilman? Given what they’ve done for the team, is it tough not bringing them with the team knowing they are not going to be share the experience in person?
Dubas: I’ll answer it in two ways. The league has been clear that, after the second round, the players will be able to have their families join them in the bubble in Edmonton. The negative part of that is that we are asking our staff, who are heading in on July 26, that they won’t be able to see their families for — I think — two and a half months. There is the part of how great it is to be going and to be a part of it day in and day out, but that is a very difficult thing.
I know this from personal experience having just spent almost four months exactly now — we have a young guy, Shannon and I — and it is going to be very difficult to leave on the 26th because of the bond that you form with them when you are with them every day. I think that has some difficulty.
With regard to the staff that are not going to be inside, we are trying to work very hard to keep them connected. I think you would especially feel badly if you got close to the end and it was the culmination of years of efforts… Whether it’s a Brandon, or Darryl Metcalf, or Reid Mitchell, or Dave Morrison, John Lilley, Leanne Hederson, Barb Underhill — some of these people have been here the entire time I have since 2014, and some of them have put basically most of their whole life into trying to help the Maple Leafs contend to win a Stanley Cup and win one day. The fact that they might not be able to be in the building when it happens, it is a difficult thing to talk about. But that doesn’t mean that, just because they aren’t there, their efforts aren’t going to be recognized, or that it in any way takes away from what they have done to get us here.
It is up to us as a team to certainly recognize these are unprecedented times — otherwise we would have everyone there that we possibly could — and we have to abide by these protocols to keep everybody safe and the community safe. Unfortunately, it means that people who have had a massive, massive hand in helping us get here are not going to be with us when we go in.
What’s your sense of what the quality of the hockey is going to be across the league?
Dubas: I have no idea! We are going to find out soon, though. It is so hard to predict. There is no experience that anyone has had. I guess you could look at some of the World Cups and Canada Cups for players that have come off long layoffs, but even then, those are August tournaments coming off of a May-June finish, depending on where you were in the standings. This is an August resumption after a March ending, so it’s almost a five month layoff for everybody in between games, with one exhibition game. I really don’t have any idea as to what it is going to look like. Our only focus is on making sure we have our team prepared as best as possible.
Kyle Dubas on Nick Robertson’s chances at making the final roster
Getting Ilya Mikheyev and Nick Robertson into camp — what do you feel their additions could mean to the roster?
Dubas: With Ilya, we know what we are getting because we have seen him play in the NHL. He adjusted very well to coming over from Omsk and not knowing the language. He and his partner put in a lot of work to learn English and become a part of the community. They are just great people and we are fortunate to have them as part of our program. Everyone saw what Ilya was capable of when he was healthy and playing for the team.
With Nick’s case, it’s a little bit more of an unknown. He is 18 years old. He had an excellent season in the OHL with Peterborough. He is going to be at training camp. He has been here through Phase 2 for the whole thing. We are going to give him every shot, like we are with all of the others who ended on the season not on our current roster. We will see where that is at. If he can force his way into the mix and onto the roster, that will be great. We are excited to see what he can do starting tomorrow.
How realistic do you think it is that Nick Robertson or any of the Marlies could make the team now that you are fully healthy?
Dubas: That is one of the things about this next two weeks. We are going to have some time to evaluate everybody and where they are at. I think the positive thing is that we don’t have 82 games here to figure out where we are going to go come the playoffs. We have one exhibition games in the first few days once we are inside the hub, and then we are off and rolling with things.
There is going to be a degree of latitude given to the players who have proven that they can contribute to our team and help our team win and have in the past. But if Nick or Kenny Agostino or Adam Brooks — or any of the players who have been with the Marlies — step up and are beating down the door at training camp, we are going to give them opportunity. We would like to give you an exact answer of how likely it is, but because of the unprecedented nature of this, it is a little bit more difficult. We are excited to see how it is going to unfold, starting tomorrow.
What would tell you Robertson is ready at this point given how young he is?
Dubas: The way he performs in practices and in the scrimmages and in the games. The way that we are going to have the camp set up, as you will see, especially as we get into the latter half of this week and next week, is to try to replicate game experiences as best we can. He will be given a chance to compete in those games. It is not a typical camp where, in the past, we’ve had 70 guys. Right now, we have 30 skaters and four goalies. There is not the ability to get lost as there is in a camp with 70 people. I think he will be noticeable. We will be watching him.
We are not going to spend a whole lot of time evaluating our top guys in terms of performance. We are going to be seeing where they are at in terms of conditioning and in terms of their capacity to handle the load and try to maximize their efforts — to build them up them to start the playoffs — and roll from there.
When it comes to our depth players and players I would classify in perhaps being in the third-fourth-fifth line, and the battle for spots… We are going to have to make cuts as we get compliant to enter the bubble. What I would say to all of those players: You’ve got a chance to make an impact. They are competing with one another. Nick is one of those players that is competing. We are not looking at this age or his status or anything like that. If he shows he can make an impact and play with older, stronger players, then he will roll from there.
It is not the three days of scrimmages in training camp and then into exhibition games. It is two weeks of a training camp. As we see at it and look at it now, it’s probably the way we prefer it to be as we move ahead as it allows us to look at our team specifically in smaller, more NHL-like numbers. He will have a chance to make an impact, and it will be up to him. With the way that he works and the way he prepares, I think he will be ready to give it his best shot, starting tomorrow.
Kyle Dubas on the team’s roster, camp preparation
Auston Matthews is, obviously, on the roster. Is he in Toronto and is he eligible to skate tomorrow?
Dubas: Auston is fit to play and was on the roster that was released this morning, yes.
What kind of Sheldon Keefe have you had about how to approach a best-of-five versus a best-of-seven? Do you attack it differently from a roster standpoint?
Dubas: Sheldon and I have had lots of discussions about a lot of things from about March 12 at 4 p.m. — whenever learned the season was on pause — onward. We have a continued dialogue all day every day with each other. It is just part of the relationship we have had for the last eight years now working together.
One of the major positives that we have with this is that Sheldon and myself, when we were with the Marlies, the first round of the American league was always best-of-five. We went through four years of best-of-five series. It was always different depending on who you were playing — two on the road and three back at home, if you were the high seed. We have a bit of experience together.
We are fortunate that we have dealt with a best of five before, and most of our players — having played for the Marlies — have dealt with them. There is always a little bit more urgency, but at the same time, if you are down one or two games, you are not as far out of it. One game can claw you right back into it. We are approaching it as getting our team as ready as possible for our first game on August 2nd.
What do you anticipate learning from this group from this whole experience? Do you have to take it with a grain of salt given the circumstances, or do you expect it to reveal even more?
Dubas: I think it is a great opportunity for us to learn a lot about our entire group. The season itself — it was such an interesting season with so much going on, whether it was coaching changes or injuries or some very memorable games both good and bad. The thing I think we learned about our group as we went was that we had some bad moments and we responded quite well. Recently, we had the California trip where we didn’t perform to the standards we had set for ourselves and are capable of, and we responded really well on home ice, especially in the first period of that game versus Tampa Bay and then we found a way to win it.
If you go back to the Pittsburgh mid-February games, we were horrible in both and then we come back against Pittsburgh and were fairly depleted, but we were excellent. We’ve shown the ability during the season to have better resiliency than we have in the past.
The thing that we are looking for with our group… This is so different. It will be a major challenge. It is an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup by being focused on what we are doing each day and our commitment to one another and the protocols in place to keep each other healthy and keep each other safe and our communities safe. If we are willing and able to get uncomfortable and accept some of the differences we are experiencing in the way we are normally doing things — and embrace those differences, embrace the un-comfortability of what we are dealing with — it is a great growth opportunity for our group.
I’ve been extremely impressed by the way that all of our players have handled Phase 2, which is a voluntary phase — how hard they have worked, what they’ve had the staff help them with, and their commitment throughout. I’ve seen signs of growth from the group, especially during the season and especially during this last phase. I know in the long term, that will payoff, and we are hopeful that in the short term, as we get back, that has a great impact on where we are going as a program.
What are your expectations for what a fully healthy blue line could accomplish?
Dubas: We are certainly excited to see it. I don’t look at the injuries as necessarily a negative thing. What they allowed us to do is allow us to see where Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are and see Justin Holl in a role where he grabbed the wheel with both hands and showed he is capable of playing big minutes in the NHL. They allowed us to learn about our prospects on defense that will help us at this stage in terms of depth and certainly in the future.
I think the injuries we had during the year were more of a blessing. They forced us to put guys into higher spots in the lineup, like Travis Dermott having to move up in the lineup when Muzzin went out at the end of February. We are pretty proud of the way that those guys handled it. Whether we are healthy or have some issues that cause our players not to be fit and able to play, we are pretty comfortable with what the group has shown and their ability to handle it.
How close was Andreas Johnsson to being able to come back? What do you think of the depth you’ve acquired? You are certainly going to need it as the series wear on.
Dubas: You certainly hope to not have to use it, but in the likelihood of how fast the games are going to happen, and such limited off time and having back-to-back games in rounds… If you look at the playoffs in the past, you basically use one more player per round as it goes on, if you look at it on average over the past ten years. Yes, we are going to have to use our depth.
The way that the season went allowed us to really give guys who were previously in depth roles or prospect roles — however you want to brand them — opportunity and see what they are fully capable of as it went on. I think depth is going to be paramount — not only the way that the roster shakes out at the beginning, but what we are doing as a staff and a team to keep our teams that maybe aren’t in the day one lineup rolling along and are active parts of everything. Especially if they are younger players, we can use this time for development as well, which is going to be huge not only with this short run but with the salary cap being flat, our development program is going to be paramount for us in the long run.
We are happy with our depth. We are happy with the different options we have as a group. We are excited to see how it is going to shake out beginning tomorrow.
Andreas was on a six-month timeline, so he would be somebody that we could expect to see — maybe, if all goes well with the end of his rehab — at the beginning of the second round of the actual playoffs, to be safe. He has done well with his rehab. He has done it in Gothenburg — he started here at the beginning of the pause and then went home — and it has gone very well. We are excited to see where he is at in a few weeks
Do you think the experiences from past playoffs will have any bearing on this, or is it just so out of the ordinary that it wouldn’t matter?
Dubas: I don’t know. I certainly think it is good. This will be our fourth series, if you take the Washington series in 2017, the two Boston series, and then this qualifying round. I certainly do think it’s great that we do have playoff experience and the guys know the ebbs and flows of a series and how it goes. The guys that have been in the American league with the Marlies have been in a lot of series and some of them were best-of-five, as the earlier question alluded to.
All of that is great to handle and to go back on for experience as we kind of work our way through it. None of us have ever been in a series where seven of us are staying in the same hotel and it’s like minor hockey where if the game in front of you runs a little bit long, you are kind of waiting for that game to end in overtime, or what have you. I think it is going to be a great experience. We are excited about it.
I never really envisioned looking overly forward to sitting in a rink and watching three games in the middle of August and spending your whole day there watching, but NHL playoff hockey and the ability to sit in Scotiabank Arena and watch three games in one day is going to be pretty awesome. I am excited for that, just as a hockey nerd.
Kyle Dubas on the Columbus Blue Jackets: “They are extremely hard working. They are a group that handles resiliency extremely well. They are obviously a very tight-knit group and are very talented. They have talent all throughout their lineup and have two good goalies”
The preparations for Columbus — do they begin full speed tomorrow?
Dubas: I think the preparation is to get our team in the best possible spot we can going into the entire tournament. We all know what we are going to get with Columbus — they are a very, very good hockey team. They obviously won in four straight against Tampa last year in the first round. They came back this year with a specific organizational culture and ethos about them. They are extremely hard working. They are a group that handles resiliency extremely well. They are obviously a very tight-knit group and are very talented. They have talent all throughout their lineup and have two good goalies. They’ve got two great defensemen and a great defense core, and a really, really solid forward group with great work ethic underscoring all of that, and great management and great coaching.
We know that they are going to be an extremely difficult opponent for us. All of that said, we have to take ourselves here first and foremost and then get ready for Columbus in the final days of it and make sure we put ourselves in the best spot to maximize where we are at as a group — not just to get ourselves ready for one specific opponent, but to make sure we are executing the parts of our training that can lead us to play the best we possibly can for as long as we possibly can. That will start with Columbus, but I think if we get too transfixed on the opponent and not ourselves and what we need to do to ready ourselves this week, we will be awfully disappointed.
We know they are a very difficult opponent. It is going to be a great test. We need to focus on the Leafs in the short run here and be ready to roll.