In his media address after the conclusion of the 2020 NHL Draft, General Manager Kyle Dubas discussed his decision not to qualify Frederik Gauthier and Jeremy Bracco, the areas in which he wants to improve the team heading into the UFA period on Friday, how he plans to make the team “harder to play against,” and much more.
- The Leafs were not in on the sweepstakes for now-Senators goaltender Matt Murray, says Dubas: “That is not a market we were in with Fred and Jack here.” Murray moved for a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden.
- In the decision to let him walk as an unqualified RFA, the team saw Jeremy Bracco as both drowned out by the depth at RW on the current roster and overtaken by other wing prospects pushing in the organization — Nick Robertson, Nick Abruzzese, and Filip Hallander were mentioned by Dubas among those in the latter category.
- The team was undecided until close to the October 7, 5 p.m. ET RFA qualifying deadline on what to do with Frederik Gauthier, but it sounds like they had their interest piqued by other unqualified RFAs set to hit the open market and chose to let him walk. “We were probably just going to look for a bit of a change at that part in our lineup,” said Dubas. It sounds like the Leafs have been in contact with a few RFA-turned-UFAs already (Nick Cousins, who played his final year of junior under then-Soo coach Sheldon Keefe and final two under then-Soo GM Kyle Dubas, seems like one possibility).
- Dubas mentioned addressing the “bottom end” of the forward lineup, making the team tougher to play against, and wanting to improve on defense. He did mention optimism about the depth on the blue line (Dermott, Sandin, Liljegren, Rosen, Kivihalme, Rubins, Hollowell, Duszak were all mentioned) but clarified, “It is just [about] finding guys who are perhaps able to make an immediate impact on the backend in various different ways.”
- There was a telling answer about the need to open cap space that hinted the Leafs are thinking less “big splash” — in either UFA or trade — and more bargain bin hunting: “We don’t really have any contracts that we look at and say, ‘We need to get rid of this player, this player isn’t delivering on it at all.’ Some may disagree, and that is fine and fair, but we are pretty content with our group and where it is at. There may be some trades as we get closer to and can acquire players that have lower AAVs and can help us in different areas and then roll from there.”
- Another notable quote on Dubas’ plans to make the team harder to play against: “They may not be some of the typical names that everyone looks at and goes, ‘We know that guy is tough in the typical sense’ … We want players who are really competitive night in and night out, who make life hard on the opposition with their speed, pressure, and physicality — but they have to be able to play as well.”
- Asked about the perceived lack of size among the Leafs‘ 2020 draft class, Dubas reiterated his familiar refrains about betting on skill and swinging for home runs in addition to this interesting quote: “I would love it if every one of our guys was 6’2 or 6’3, but we can address that issue in free agency and trade.” The door is open there for his critics to ask: If it’s so easily done via trade and FA, why hasn’t it been done yet? On the other side of the argument, he has added a size/toughness element — in the form of players who can play — via trade with his previous Jake Muzzin and Kyle Clifford acquisitions.
- It might have been surprising a few weeks back if you were told the Leafs were not going to move any of their own picks for immediate help while actually adding two more draft selections, but certainly, adding 12 new prospects into the stable — including a 15th overall prospect — will give them the free rein to use some of the gun powder in the form of their 2021 draft picks in trades throughout the upcoming year. “Our next draft is 2021 and we have our first, our second, and if we can move those out for help, we won’t hesitate to do so,” said Dubas.
New Leafs assistant coach Manny Malhotra will be handling power-play duties on the Leafs bench, and the team believes Mikko Lehtonen can be a factor on the man advantage. “I am not sure what unit he will be on — that will be up to [the coaching staff] — but certainly, he’ll be able to provide some punch that way and also be able to defend as well,” said Dubas.
Dubas on the decision to let Frederik Gauthier & Jeremy Bracco walk, other non-qualified RFAs around the league
Can you address the decision to not qualify Frederik Gauthier or Jeremy Bracco?
Dubas: With Fred, he has been a part of the organization for a long time. He was a first-round pick going back a number of years now. He was an important part of the Marlies winning a championship in 2018 and then he became a full-time NHLer for us.
We just felt that, as we learned more and more about the different guys going to market and the different teams giving different players permission to speak to others, we were probably just going to look for a bit of a change at that part in our lineup. At the same time we, do right by Fred and give him the chance to explore the market as well. That was it with him.
With Jeremy Bracco, for us, it was just time to move forward and we wish him the best in wherever he plays next.
Why do you think things didn’t work out for Jeremy Bracco here in Toronto?
Dubas: I just think Jeremy was in a situation where, as a right winger on our team — and we saw this with the Kapanen trade — the way that he plays… Even with the Marlies going back to 2018, in the first round of the playoffs, he was up in the lineup and Sheldon tried to give him opportunities to stay in the lineup. When Johnsson came back from the Leafs after their Game 7 loss to Boston, Jeremy couldn’t find his way in, and he was beaten out by other younger players — not by older guys.
I think he is somebody who needs an opportunity at the top of the lineup somewhere. He wasn’t going to have that here with William and Mitch and our wingers. Going back to Kapanen, now you have Barabanov coming in. You have Hallander. You have Nick Robertson and Nick Abruzzese on the way.
He was going to have to go on waivers next year. It was just a situation of him being in an organization that had guys that were bossing him out. Now he will have his opportunity to go elsewhere and find a better fit for him.
Have you seen players who weren’t qualified that are likely to be of interest to you?
Dubas: Particularly on Fred, we were really undecided in the last couple of days. As different teams started to announce who they were going to be qualifying and who they weren’t earlier, we just kind of said, “Maybe we should just be patient and see a little bit what is going to happen with some of these guys.” That is what we decided to do with Fred. We were able to see on Monday, or whatever the day was, that teams start to announce those and a few more guys are going to be available. There are certainly some players that haven’t been qualified that are of interest to us.
There were a number of noteworthy players who were not qualified. Do you think the flat cap has anything to do with the higher number of RFAs becoming UFA? Did it play at all into your decision?
Dubas: It didn’t play into our decisions. I do think that, because it is hard to predict how arbitration awards will factor into the current economics of the game or whether they will just be based on the former comparable cases and precedents, it makes it tough to really know what the arb awards are going to be. With the number of dollars so tight, even with the variance between what may be the player and team submission — the projected numbers in both cases — you may not be able to handle that as a team as you go your way.
When you are going to a neutral arbitrator to decide that, it might be a risk you’re just not willing to take. If you couldn’t work out a deal with the player, it may be the case that you just have to let them walk and try to find a solution through free agency or trade. I certainly think that the economics and the situation in the world play a factor in that for sure.
Dubas on the team’s free agency plans
By 5 or 6 p.m. on Friday, what do you hope to have realistically accomplished by then?
Dubas: I don’t know is the answer. I know what we are looking to accomplish, but I don’t know if we will have done it by Frida at 5 or 6 p.m. There is no interview period. I don’t think everything is going to happen rapidly on Friday at Noon. It may take a few days. In addition to that, I just think the economic landscape is going to force things to lengthen a few days out and perhaps even a week. It may resemble something closer to NBA free agency or MLB free agency, where things don’t happen as rapidly right off the hop or at the starting gun at Noon. I think it might be a little bit longer.
We are looking to become a harder group to play against, particularly in the lower end of our forward group, and we are looking to improve ourselves on defense. We feel good about where we are in net. We feel really good about where we are at the top-end of our forward group. We feel great about our depth on defense and what is coming with regards to Travis Dermott continuing to develop, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Calle Rosen, Teemu Kivihalme, Kristian Rubins, Mac Hollowell, Joey Duszak, etc. It is just finding guys who are perhaps able to make an immediate impact on the backend in various different ways.
We are excited about it. It is a good opportunity for us. You just have to be prepared for anything. If things happen quickly, we will be ready to go. If it becomes a little bit more of a patient process, that is fine by us as well.
How do you go about making your team harder to play against? Is there a certain type of player you are looking for?
Dubas: I think what we are looking for — and I don’t know if it is going to be in a prototypical way — is that we want players who are really competitive night in and night out, who make life hard on the opposition with their speed, pressure, and physicality — but they have to be able to play as well.
They may not be some of the typical names that everyone looks at and goes, “We know that guy is tough in the typical sense.” We have done a lot of work in studying what exactly we want and what type of group we think would be able to compete at an effective level for our team. Sheldon and I have spent a lot of time on it and our pro scouting staff has spent a lot of time on it.
We have got a good sense of what we are trying to do. It is just a matter now of whether the market will allow us to and whether cap space will allow us to.
With the lack of trade activity around the draft outside of a few deals — Matt Murray to Ottawa, Lias Andersson to LA — do you think it picks up in the next few days?
Dubas: It is hard to say. There were far less than usual at the draft. I don’t think that has to do with the in-person versus virtual format of the draft. I think it is more to do with the fact that there were some trades earlier on — our Kapanen deal with Pittsburgh late August — and then not a lot of teams have a lot of cap space. The teams that do are handling it very judiciously, as they should. The free agent market, nobody really knows what is going to happen because of those same economics impacting it.
It is at a bit of a standstill. Free agency will probably aid that quite a bit in terms of starting to shake it loose. I don’t know what the trade market will look like, though, beyond that. Because this is such an uncertain time, we just have to be as prepared as possible for whatever may come our way in terms of opportunities or trades.
Would you like to increase your cap space ahead of Friday?
Dubas: Always. Brandon would appreciate that as well. Of course, we would. Going back to the question about trades, I am not sure that we would be able to do that without making a poor trade of players that we like. We don’t really have any contracts that we look at and say, “We need to get rid of this player, this player isn’t delivering on it at all.” Some may disagree, and that is fine and fair, but we are pretty content with our group and where it is at.
There may be some trades as we get closer to and can acquire players that have lower AAVs and can help us in different areas and then roll from there. We will see how that all plans out. Certainly, cap space is very important, especially as we look to improve our team. We will see what we are able to do.
Do you think GMs will be waiting for a big signing to open the floodgates and establish the market, or do you think a lot of GMs already know what guys are going to be going for?
Dubas: I don’t have a real true sense. Some teams have granted agents permission and players permission. Even for some of those players that have had permission to talk to other teams, the prices have seemed to push down a little already. I think agents — certainly agents that have a deep read of the market — are preparing for the fact that this may not be free agency as usual. It is because there is no cap growth and teams have their own internal RFAs to sign that they want to be a part of their team for a long time, so there just isn’t the money out there.
You might see a group sign very early Friday early afternoon or late evening, and then there could be a big group of players that are searching just for the best opportunity for their career and perhaps not dollars. I have no idea. I haven’t talked to teams about that, and any information we are getting about that is from agents of our own players or for those that have been granted permission from their teams to speak to others.
Dubas on the Leafs’ 2020 draft
Do you feel you were able to accomplish what you set out to do with the 2020 draft?
Dubas: We won’t know that answer for a number of years, but I think everyone feels good about it now. Right away, it gets turned over to our development department. These are very different times to be developing players. We are going to be challenged in that regard. We have got plans already for how we are going to handle it. Scott Pellerin and his staff will do a great job, and once the players get to the Marlies, Greg Moore, AJ MacLean and Rob Davison will do a great job with them there.
We were happy with the draft. We were happy with the haul of players that we came away with. Now it is up to us to develop them into prospects that can play in the NHL for us and continue at the same time to move into the next few days and get ready to improve our roster in any way we can.
Does it give you any relief that many of your picks currently have somewhere to play and get reps in?
Dubas: That really didn’t enter into our mind a whole lot, but it certainly, at the very least, gives us games of theirs to watch and be able to kind of build our database further on them. All of the picks we made are already added into our database for development and tracking and so on and so forth.
It is nice that nearly all of them are up and running. Even William Villeneuve in the QMJHL is, of course, up and running as well. We have quite a few of them that are junior or returning to junior or their college hasn’t announced what is happening this year that don’t have a certain place to play, but it is certainly appealing to us.
You made three trades — trading up, trading down, and then adding a pick at the end. What goes into that thought process?
Dubas: With the first trade back, our feeling was that we had a lot of players in that kind of cluster — especially as we saw how the round was going — and it wasn’t as predictable, certainly, as the first round in terms of where players were going relative to our own list and evaluations. As it started to get closer down to our pick, we felt we’d like to get another pick close by with 59 and 64. Ottawa was looking to move up. We were really happy with the outcome and to get Hirvonen and Niemela with those two picks.
With the pick in the fifth round for Ovchinnikov, we weren’t sure he would be there if we waited. It just comes with evaluating your list and who your other players are. With all of those other players in the sixth and seventh round, we thought it would be a good use of them because it allows us to get a player much further up our list. We made that jump with Bill Zito in Florida.
At the end, we had a lot of guys we liked still there. We had Ryan Tverberg in Toronto here that we really liked. He was still there, and there were teams that were looking to move back into next year, so we made that move with Boston.
All different circumstances, all dictated by the work our scouts had down throughout the year and the players they liked and felt we could get by doing those three separate things.
Were you surprised not to use one of your top picks this year in a trade for immediate help prior to the opening of the free-agent market?
Dubas: If there were an opportunity to trade those picks for players that we felt could help the team immediately, we would have done so. There just weren’t those opportunities there. As you saw, there was only one trade, and it was for a goaltender who is a year away from unrestricted free agency. It is a great trade for Ottawa and for Pittsburgh. That was about it in terms of trades for players who can provide immediate help. That is not a market we were in with Fred [Andersen] and Jack [Campbell].
Sometimes, that is the way the market goes. I know there were a lot of people who wanted to see that, but the reality is, we are going to head into the offseason. Our next draft is 2021 and we have our first, our second, and if we can move those out for help, we won’t hesitate to do so.
Do you completely disregard size when drafting? Where does it fit into the equation for you?
Dubas: We would love to have players that are very big and very talented. We draft a certain way, and if the player is a good player and they’re tall or short, it doesn’t matter to us. If a player is a tall player or a big player but they’re a bad player, they’re not going to suddenly become good because they are 6’4 and 225 pounds.
If you look back at our drafts or a lot of them in hockey, the guys that usually end up hitting later on are guys who were overlooked for some reason — size is an issue, skating is the issue sometimes. There are a lot of examples of players that were overlooked because of their size that end up becoming great picks in the second or third through to the seventh round.
I would love it if every one of our guys was 6’2 or 6’3, but we can address that issue in free agency and trade. We more look at the draft as our chance to really kind of strike with home runs and guys that can really become impact players. In free agency and trade, those guys cost a lot.
That is the way we set out to do it. I know that it gets a lot of chatter and discussion, but the reality is, none of these guys are going to make the team next year and be a part of the team next year. You already see with some of the picks that they have already grown quite a bit from the last time they were seen or measured by anybody because of the draft being a number of months later than it normally is and measurements now being seven or eight months apart.
These guys are going to grow. They are going to get bigger. Some of them may not, but they are very good players. The other thing for us is that, Amirov is not a small guy by any stretch, but Amirov, Hirvonen, Niemela, Ovchinnikov, and Rindell — they are already playing in men’s professional hockey at the highest level, whether it is Finland or Russia. We know what they are able to do in those leagues at those levels. Obviously, it is not the NHL, but it gives us a lot of positive thought about how they will be able to handle it.
They’re all young. They’re young people and young players. They are going to continue to grow and get bigger. That is sort of how we always look at that.
Dubas on drafting and signing Russian players, Mikko Lehtonen’s hot start in the KHL
You haven’t shied away from Russians in the draft. How does that help the Leafs distinguish themselves and find some hidden gems that some other teams seem to be scared of?
Dubas: I don’t know that other teams are scared of them. I mean, we play in a division against Tampa Bay, and they have some pretty distinguished Russian players on their club that helped them win a Cup — big time. I don’t know that there is fear.
One of the things that we talked about last night is our scouting staff in Russia and Latvia — Grigori Shafigulin and Olegs Koreskovs do a great job there, and Jim Paliafito, our Director of Player Evaluation, has done an excellent job of building relationships with clubs and agents and players in Russia.
We have enough players who have come over from Russia and we try to make the adjustment as easy on them as possible. The community in Toronto is great with welcoming them here. That is a real positive for us.
Mikko Lehtonen is off to a big start in the KHL. What are some of the positives he can bring to the team as a rookie?
Dubas: He has been able to start playing with Jokerit. They had a bit of a scare there early in the season where they shut down for a couple of weeks. They are back up and playing again. He had four points in his last game. We certainly feel that — especially coming over a few weeks before training camp and getting acclimated here having played for a lot of the year — he should really be able to be a power-play option for Sheldon and Manny Malhotra that they may want to deploy. I am not sure what unit he will be on — that will be up to them — but certainly, he’ll be able to provide some punch that way and also be able to defend as well.
We are excited about him. It has certainly been a benefit for us to see him be able to play in these games here for Jokerit. Jokerit has done a great job with him for years. It is nice to be able to work that out with Jari Kurri and their staff.