In his end-of-season availability, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas discussed his continued faith in the Leafs’ core, the team’s defensive progression, its inability to score enough in the playoffs, the criticism Mitch Marner has received this season, and his abiding belief that the team an allocate $40 million to four forwards as part of a Cup-winning roster.
If you look at the team on the balance, what do you think the biggest shortcoming of the team was this year?
Dubas: The way that we started the year was a disappointment. We were 25th in the league when we made the coaching change. I think the biggest disappointment of the year, if I had to pinpoint, would have to be that we showed, at multiple times throughout the year and in single games and even in stretches of weeks or months, what we are really capable of. We just were not able to string that together consistently over a prolonged stretch of the season, and certainly not in the playoffs.
From my perspective, you are most disappointed in the fact that we did not capitalize and play to our potential as often as we could have. You want to do it for 82 games a year and you want to do it for 16 wins in the Spring and win a Stanley Cup. It’s not realistic to think it is going to be that way every single night, but I think what we need to get to is that it’s as often as humanly possible to rise to the level we want.
It’s not a dream in terms of how we can play because we showed it multiple times throughout the season this year. It’s just the fact that we could not do it as often as required to reach our potential. That would be the most disappointing factor for my end.
What will the process look like in the days and weeks ahead as you start to make decisions for next year?
Dubas: It is one that we have already started on this morning. Similar to last season or every season that I have been in management — whether it is here with the Leafs or going back to he Soo — as soon as the season is done, you want to have a discussion. Right now, it’s with Sheldon, Shanny and myself for a full review of everything that we do, our roster, our staff, how we play, the way that we operate, and ourself ourselves the difficult questions that need to be asked when we don’t reach our potential.
I would say it would be the same even if we do. There are always ways that we can improve and get better. We will meet with the various heads of the different departments and go through each of their performances throughout the year, and then about a month from now when we get Ford Performance Center back from being inside the bubble, we will get to work again there for the players who want to attend the off-ice portion of that and we’ll roll along.
It will be a very thorough process and one that is fuelled by the way the season ended. We’ll get ready to go into the draft and free agency and sooner than later, next season.
What gives you the belief you can build a winning team with four teams eating up half the cap for the foreseeable future?
Dubas: I think the players who we have committed the salaries to are all extremely talented players. They all produce. They are continuing — especially Auston and Mitch and William, who are all very young — to improve and get better.
Throw aside William’s season with the contract situation, each year, he took steps for us both in his production and the way he went about producing and where he was producing from — at the net front, taking on various different roles.
Auston, obviously with scoring 47 goals, took a massive step this year. Sheldon can probably — as he did before Game 5 — comment on the defensive stuff a little bit more.
Mitch is coming off a 90-plus point season and had his season this year hindered by the high ankle sprain in November.
I think those players are just going to get better and the value we will get from those contracts will continue to be strong.
John is John. He has been one of the best players in the league for over a decade now and will continue to roll along.
Given the situation, it falls on me to continue to build around that group and roll from there with it. I don’t know if the question is particularly about the depth, but if I look in our division, in terms of outside the top four, if you look at the other teams and how they are built, the rest of our lineup scored between 90 and 100 goals if you limit it to those guys. That is right behind what Tampa got outside of their top four and well ahead of what Boston got out of their top four highest-paid guys.
You can verify that if you like, but I think we will be fine with those guys because we know they will step up and produce. It will be on me to fill around the edges of it.
Is there a part of your vision, then, that you feel needs an adjustment?
Dubas: I don’t find myself transfixed on one thing. You all think that I have one way of going about things and it is never changing, but I think anybody who knows me or works with me would tell you it is pretty much the opposite. Every season, regardless of what the outcome has been — whether at different levels we have won or have been in the playoffs and fallen short — there has always been a full review of where we are at.
The vision for me always has to be changing. I don’t think any business or any team that just has one vision or way of doing things and doesn’t change is going to be successful in the long run. They might get lucky, but it is not a way to go about having sustainable success. I think the moves that we have made over the last couple of seasons have indicated that it is not just all about one thing here. That will certainly be the review that is done now with regards to where we are at and where we are going.
I am not someone that is stubborn with that. The goal will be to get us into a different position next year, certainly, to the point where we are making progress and sustaining ourselves as a contending team year in and year out.
When you look at the heights the team did achieve for months or weeks, and then the games where it didn’t happen — in the playoffs and regular season — how much stock can you put into the heights that this team can get to? How much do you put into the stuff that kept this team from being a team that was automatically in the playoffs, a team that lost in the five-game qualifying series?
Dubas: I think it is all a part of it. You can’t ignore either end of it. You can’t point to the very highs and the excellent games that we played at various different stretches and say, “That is who we are.” You can’t point to the lows and say, “That is who we are.”
In the end, the standings don’t really lie. We were, at the time of the pause, the third best team in our division and the eighth-seeded team in our Conference, which I would say is well below what our potential should be. That was from October 2nd through to March 11th — that was what we were.
I think you can point to the highs and the lows and you largely end up somewhere in the middle. The middle isn’t good enough. We’ve already started working here today. It is stuff we have to improve upon. As I view it, that starts with me and the job I do in continuing to work to improve the club and everything that we do.
What gives you the faith that this core can eventually get over the hump after four years of disappointment?
Dubas: I think the core has changed over four years. The thing that gives me the faith is the fact that I would love for the progress to be linear, and I would love for every year we win one round, then we win two, then we win three, then we win the Stanley Cup. I’d love for us to win the Stanley Cup two years ago, and then win it every year. But in life and in athletics and in business, unfortunately, progress never really follows the straight line that you want it to. You have ups and downs, and you need to manage them.
When you look to our team or to other teams in various other sports — and I am not going to name the teams and then have everyone say we are comparing ourselves to those teams because I don’t think that is a fruitful exercise — there are lots of teams that go through significant ups and downs on their way to getting to where they all want to go.
In trying to study it and learn as a young person in this position, and trying to learn from what other teams have done in the past to be successful and where they’ve eventually broken through, they know when the core has the character and talent to do it. They stick with it. They try to continually alter what goes on around it and make moves to help it if you can, or alter it if it is the perfect move for the group, and continue to build on the progress that comes — not overreact, even though that may be what people want when things don’t go as smoothly as you envisioned.
I can point to countless examples in different sports where the teams that do that and stick with it ultimately get rewarded. That is certainly the temperament that we will take as we navigate through this.
With the 70-game season and then the pause and then the five-game series, how difficult is it to evaluate compared to other seasons?
Dubas: I actually think this season gave us a unique opportunity to better evaluate just with the pause and the interactions that had to take place within, then the different phases the league built in to get back to playing, and then being in the bubble with the players for two weeks — which is obviously not nearly as long as we wanted it to be. I think it gave us a unique opportunity to evaluate more just in terms of the chemistry of the group and the contributions that different players make that you might not otherwise see as clearly when you are not as close or are not around each other as much.
I thought this season gave probably a very unique chance we’ll probably never have again as we hopefully get back to some sort of normalcy. I thought this season gave an even better opportunity to evaluate where we were and where everybody was within it.
With the money tied up in the four forwards, how are you going to improve the blue line properly, and get a player of a Seth Jones type? There seems to be an imbalance there. How do you get around it moving forward?
Dubas: I think the point about depth stands in terms of what we expect from the guys beyond the four that you mentioned — whether that is Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev, Kasperi Kapanen, Alex Kerfoot. With Engvall and then Robertson and Barabanov — different guys like that — coming along, I think we like the depth group we have there.
When it comes to defense and how we get a guy like Seth Jones, we have to pick in the top five, which is where I believe Seth Jones went to Nashville, or we have to trade — going back to the Nashville and Columbus trade — Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones. That is the way that we can acquire someone like that. Those types of trades don’t come along all too often, as evidenced by the history of the league.
I think Columbus is fortunate to have Seth. We have Morgan and Muzz here that we have a lot of faith in. I am not going to get into comparing the different players. Seth Jones, as he showed last night in the series against Tampa and all season, is one of the best defensemen in the league and a great player for Columbus.
We are always looking at everything as it pertains to improving our team. I know that the defense takes a lot of heat, but if you look back at the series and the goals that they scored and the number of scores that we allowed, we allowed 12 goals and two of them were empty netters in five games. My feeling is, if we can allow two goals a game or 2.5 a game in the regular season, that would bode well for us.
We didn’t score in the series. We scored three goals at even strength. If we don’t score, we are not going to win. That applies to every team. I was happy with the job the defense did in the series. If you look at the goals, there are one or two you could hang on the defense in particular, but that is not a lot over a five-game playoff stretch that includes overtime.
I think we need to score more, we need to continue the progress we made on defense under Sheldon as a team, and if there are opportunities to improve our backend, that’s where we spent a lot of our assets in the past two seasons — trying to continue to improve it and roll from there.
Was there a lesson you took away from the Tyson Barrie trade that you might apply to future big trades?
Dubas: I think certainly, at the outset of the season, as Tyson would tell you — and I saw his comments earlier today — he didn’t make the impact that he would’ve liked to. The lesson to take from that is just on better aiding players with their adjustment into the organization. From late November on, he got back to being himself. Especially when we had some injuries on the backend, in particular the stretch where Morgan, Jake and Cody were all out at the same time, he stepped up and provided sound leadership and strong play from the backend and also got to be himself offensively with his production there.
When it comes to looking back on what could have been done better with Tyson, I think certainly, aiding him… After knowing that he has played his whole career in one spot and had great success there, that he is coming to a new situation in a new Conference, what is learned there is helping someone adjust a lot better and help someone be themselves much sooner.
In making that trade, he was not the only piece of it. I would even say the same would apply to Alex Kerfoot and his adjustment. I don’t think we helped those players adjust as well as we could’ve from the outset, and that falls on me. Especially Alex, once he got settled into the Return to Play segment in the playoffs, he started to show the things that we saw as a staff when we acquired him and his potential to be an excellent player for us as we continue to roll along. I’ve got lots of confidence in him playing to his capacity. He showed that here late this season.
What kind of player do you want Mitch Marner to become next season?
Dubas: Just what he is now. I don’t get the criticism of Mitch Marner one bit. I really struggle with it. He is a guy that plays his ass off every night. He’s got tremendous skill, tremendous intensity, plays every situation for us, makes a ton of plays. Everything that he does wrong, people jump all over him about. I don’t how or why it is that way, but if Mitch Marner is the player that he has been and he continues to grow and mature and do what every player does when they go from 22 to 23 to 24 to 25 and just gets better and better, we would be thrilled.
Mitch Marner is a high-end player in the NHL. We don’t want him to be anything other than that. If that is what he is, that is what we love and we will continue to love him for that. I don’t know where this all started with the criticizing of Mitch Marner, but to me, it is among the more idiotic things I see done here.
Is Mitch Marner an untouchable for you, would you say?
Dubas: I am aware of it because I’ve been asked about it today, but I don’t know where it came from and where the negativity towards Mitch comes from, but if we are going to win here and have success here, Mitch — his talent being one thing, but who is as a person being the other part — is going to be pivotal to us winning.
The dumbest thing we could do is irrationally… We are still talking about a player who had just under 70 points in just under 60 games, which would put him over a full year to again pass 90 points, and he is 23 years old. I think it would be stupid on my part and crazy [to trade him], not only for what he does on the ice and his talent level and how hard he plays, and the fact that he plays in every situation against the other team’s best players and produces at a high clip.
Probably just as importantly, there is what he brings off the ice — his energy, his spirit, the work he does in the community, which is incredible, and he was our nominee for the King Clancy award, which we don’t take lightly here. It was hands down that he was going to be our nominee because of the amount of stuff that he does in the community.
He is a local player that has come up with our organization and been an extremely productive player for us, especially given his age. He is only going to continue to get better. I think this criticism he is taking now will be made to look very ridiculous and every year beyond. I don’t think it is warranted now.
With regard to us moving Mitch Marner: It is not going to happen.
Jason Spezza has said he is interested in coming back. He thought it was a great experience. You are also up against the cap. What is your general thought about that?
Dubas: We are not up against the cap contrary to everyone’s belief. We’ve got a little bit of space and we’ve got restricted free agents only to sign back. As has been much discussed, we took care of our core parts previously.
I think the way that we’ve tried to structure this is that you never know what is going to happen. You tend to think the cap is going to go up, but just in case it stays level — in our case, it is going to stay level for a few years — you try to plan it out to give yourself options. We’ve got the RFAs in Dermott and Mikheyev, so we will get them taken care of using the mechanisms that the league provides for both and have discussions with their people.
With regards to the rest of the roster and the cap, I think we’ve got a lot of flexibility and various things we can do to continue to adjust and adapt and roll from there. We do have some space. We can create some space in other ways as well. We will be able to be flexible. It will be on me to be creative and build that structure in a way that sets us up moving ahead.
Do you have to re-evaluate how you evaluate defensemen given that the fixes that were put in place this season did not meet the desire results, at least in the regular season?
Dubas: I think we are always evaluating everything all the time. When we fall short of our expectations, I first always look at myself and where the process of how we got to certain places has let the organization down. Regardless of whether everything had worked out perfectly or not, I would always evaluate everything that we do and have the difficult questions asked of me and ask them of myself.
In terms of the defensemen that played on our team this year, we brought Muzzin and Holl in. They obviously have both played very well for us. They were brought in in almost opposite circumstances — one in a major trade, another signing years ago from the ECHL.
When it comes to the other trades. I already gave my answer on Tyson, but the other player we brought in was Cody Ceci. It was part of a more complex trade with Nikita Zaitsev and everything that happened with him requesting a move. I know Cody is much maligned at times and he certainly doesn’t have the same level of puck skill as a lot of the others, but I think he is a player that, as we continue in hockey to track players and their contributions defensively, will be looked at much differently as those different things become much more public — not unlike they have in baseball or basketball with the defensive value of different players and their impact on the game. I was happy with Cody as well.
How much can a player alter your evaluation of him for better or worse based on a five-game series? Is it too small of a sample size, or is it telling because of the spotlight?
Dubas: In reflecting back on the series just a couple of days after it ended, from my perspective, I thought the group from Game 1 to Game 2, and then obviously within Game 4 coming back at the end, continued to show an increased ability to do so. I don’t know that we’ve shown that in the past. I thought we showed that throughout the year. The lesson to take from it from that perspective is the capacity to recognize that when you have a team on the ropes or when you have the momentum going in your direction, there is a certain way we need to conduct ourselves and a certain way we need to play in those circumstances so that we don’t put ourselves into a deciding game.
Specifically, I thought our Game 1 performance left a lot to be desired offensively. Of course, the performance in Game 3 where we were up 3-0 and the way we began to play when we were up at that point, and giving them momentum and life and the win… It is easy to look at Game 5 and say it was lost in Game 5, but if we are being truthful, I think it was lost in Game 1 and then in the way that we finished Game 3.
You referenced numerous times that the team didn’t meet its potential. Is it possible that you and Brendan and the staff have misread the potential of this group?
What do you make of Frederik Andersen’s season?
Dubas: Fred had, I think, a .935 save percentage for us in the playoffs. Certainly, in the season, he had the one stretch there just before he got hurt there or right after where he was, like our team, in a little bit of a rut. As the season was coming to an end — I mean before we went on a break, before the pandemic began — Fred was playing his best hockey for us for sure. Right before the stretch where we went on the losing streak in November and even during that stretch, I thought he was excellent as well and really gave us a chance to keep winning games and collecting points even when we weren’t really playing that well at the end of October and early November.
Two games that particularly come to mind — against Vegas here at home, I thought they really outplayed us and Fred gave us a chance and gave us a point. Against Philadelphia on the Saturday night right after, and even when we went on the losing streak, he continued to provide solid goaltending. At the end of the season, before the California trip in Florida and then on the California trip and then here against Tampa, at a pivotal time for us, I thought he played exceptionally well and was very good in the playoffs here.
I am sure there are stretches, like with everybody on our team, that he would like back in the season, but at the end of the year, when we were going down the stretch and into the playoffs, I thought Fred played really well. He is a proud guy and he has been a strong player for us now with our group for four years. He is a key part of our team.