After the first day of unrestricted free agency, Kyle Dubas discussed the signings of Petr Mrazek, Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Kurtis Gabriel, Alex Biega, Carl Dahlström, and Brennan Mennell, the decision to extend a PTO invite to Josh Ho-Sang, and the moves the team still wants to make before the offseason is through.
Could you sum up how you feel about your roster right now? Do you feel it’s better than when the season ended?
Dubas: I think it is far too early to say how we feel about it in this exact moment. We still have a good amount of cap space. We are still waiting for the second wave of the forward market to sort itself out. I probably think it is a better question for me to answer in a few days or closer to camp just in terms of my expectation.
In terms of the players that we have here and the players that are returning, we are expecting major growth and continued development from them. We are going to continue to try to improve things and make them better here.
What is still on your to-do list this offseason?
Dubas: We will just continue to monitor that. We will also look at the bottom end of our defense group and continue to just monitor these forwards. There are still quite a few forwards out there even this afternoon. That is pretty normal for free agency.
I think we have a great opportunity here for a forward that maybe doesn’t get what they want in the first go around, looks at our group and what has been moved on in free agency, and now can look at this and say, “Geez, that is a pretty good opportunity for me,” particularly as a winger, to play with our forward group as it is currently constructed.
We will just sit back and wait. The right player will think this is the right opportunity for them. We would also like to head into the year with some cap space and let it accrue so we can stay flexible as we go through the season.
Do you anticipate anything coming to fruition in the trade market?
Dubas: Right now, I don’t sense that anything is imminent. Whether it is using our remaining cap space to sign a free agent in the coming days or whether it is through trade, we are going to continue to look at any avenues we can to improve the roster. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility for us.
You ended up signing Petr Mrazek. What was the goalie market like out there? There were a lot of teams looking and a lot of goaltenders available. What was it like wading through those waters today?
Dubas: There have been lots of talks and discussions about it. It is goaltending, so it is a hugely important position for everybody. We were fortunate going in that we already have Jack Campbell, who we feel very strongly about. We just felt that we needed to find a strong partner for him so that we can have as good of a tandem as possible. We felt we achieved that with Petr Mrazek today.
You see the AAVs of the different goaltenders that are coming in. There are obviously different terms and AAVs at the high end of the market. Expansion played a role in that with Ronnie drafting and signing Driedger right off the hop.
We just wanted someone with a good long track record of being a very good goaltender in the league. From that point on, it was trying to find the best value for us, which we feel we did with Petr Mrazek today.
What do you like the most about Mrazek?
Dubas: His track record of success. He has also been a very good tandem partner in Carolina for the last number of years. We like his competitiveness. We like the fact that behind the scenes, everything else about him checks out as being very, very strong.
When I spoke to him today after we got everything wrapped up and done, he was very open about how he sees himself in that partnership with Jack. It is about supporting each other but pushing one another. That part of it was important to us as well. We really like Jack a lot and we really wanted to find somebody that could also be a good partner for him and not be disruptive in that regard. That is why we went with Petr.
You know Michael Bunting from his days in the Soo. He had a lot of success in a small window with the Coyotes last year. What do you imagine his role will be with the Leafs this season?
Dubas: With regards to Michael, I obviously know him from that time, but that is seven years gone by now for me. I have watched him grow and develop in Tucson with Arizona in the subsequent years since he turned pro.
The things we like about him are how hard he plays and how tenacious he is getting to and scoring at the net front — he is starting to show that this year at the NHL level. Obviously, the puck went in for him at a high rate this year, and he is going to have to continue to earn his opportunities to continue to score once that shooting percentage starts to come down a little bit.
We just look at someone who is going to be extremely hungry. He is a Group-6 free agent, so he is younger than a lot of the others. We know the way that he is going to play every single day. He is going to leave everything he has out on the ice. He has the ability to play with good players, as he showed in Arizona, and contribute and score in and around the net, which I think is important for our group all throughout.
He will get a good opportunity, but he is going to have to earn everything that he gets. In talking to him this afternoon, he looks at this as a great opportunity. Maybe there was more for him elsewhere in terms of dollars and such — it’s what he told me — but he wants to be here in Toronto and views it as a good fit for the style of player he is with our group of forwards. I can’t argue with him on that.
We need somebody like him and a few guys like him to be competitive, to bring that tenacity, and also the ability to make plays and score.
Is that what attracted you to Kurtis Gabriel as well — the style of game that he plays?
Dubas: Kurtis last year came onto the scene and made a big impact in San Jose. I just really like everything that Kurtis is about, frankly. We know what we are going to get from him in terms of his effort level, his passion every single day, and his work rate on the ice — on the forecheck, the physicality part of it.
It is interesting looking back a few summers. He skated at Ford Performance Center every day after our players had come and gone on their voluntary ice. Just seeing the amount of work he puts into his game — his skating, trying to improve his skill set — I think he will be a great fit for our development program.
He is certainly going to make his presence known with who he is and how he goes about his business. We think he is a player who kind of just jumped onto the scene more so last year with the way the season was with San Jose, but he has obviously played in the NHL a lot in previous seasons with New Jersey.
We are excited to have him and think he will add a lot to our whole organization both on the ice and off the ice.
What do you like about David Kampf, Brennan Mennell, all of the other depth pieces you added today?
Dubas: David Kampf — I don’t know how many times I have asked Stan Bowman about him over the years, but it’s a lot. We just feel that he is a center that is able to really take on very difficult assignments — both in the penalty kill and in terms of defensive zone starts — and drive play up the ice despite that. We feel he has tremendous defensive value.
Last year, the puck didn’t go in for him, but he still had a very positive effect on them when we watched them. Once they didn’t qualify him, we were just kind of circling that waiting to pounce. We are excited to be able to bring him into the fold.
We just think he opens up so many options for the top end of our group because of the types of minutes that he can eat up and be very productive in — not just be hemmed in, sit in the middle of the ice, and try to park the bus, so to speak. He is able to drive the play up the rink despite very difficult usage and also be very good for the penalty kill, which is obviously losing a key member in Zach Hyman.
That is the story on David. We think he has more to give offensively, but he gives Sheldon more options to shift guys to the wing and be more offensive knowing that he has David there in that role. We were excited to get him and lock him in for the two years.
Mennell — he had a very good year in the KHL. Our scouts have liked him for some time going back to his final year in Iowa before he went over to the KHL. It was made clear to us when he was put up for trade that he was going to be coming back. We just thought as a low-risk proposition, if he ends up hitting, Minnesota will get that pick and we will be very happy as well. He thinks the game very well offensively. He could be somebody that could challenge for those offensive minutes with our team.
Alex Biega is a great character veteran player who is strong, physical, really competitive, and a tremendous person. He has spent the last number of seasons in the NHL. He is on a two-way here with us. It is important for him and his family to be in a city where both of the teams are here.
We know he is going to give us everything he has when he is up at the NHL level. If he is in the American league with the Marlies, he will be a great leader and a top-four defenseman there, which will help our young D.
Dahlstrom we have liked going back to his time in Chicago. In 2018-19, he was on a pair with Connor Murphy for a time there. We like the way he takes away space in the neutral zone and is able to eat up those minutes against very good competition.
We were happy to get them both and get everybody like that into the fold here. Those signings aren’t the ones that grab the most attention and press, but they are vitally important for us and the organization in terms of depth and function up and down.
What intrigues you about Josh Ho-Sang?
Dubas: I have watched Josh for a really long time going back to 2010-11. The first time I saw him, I think he was called up as an underage with the Marlies. In the 2012 draft, we had to pick in the Soo between him, Jared McCann, and Robby Fabbri. We obviously dug into him a lot, watched him play in the OHL for a long time, and followed him through with the Islanders.
Obviously, it hasn’t hit for him yet. Last year, he kind of bounced around a little bit, and same with the year before. We just view him as a supremely talented player. It was a zero-risk proposition on a PTO. We will bring him in and he will start to train with our staff at Ford Performance Center in the coming weeks and kind of get to know our program and the way it operates. Come training camp, he will be given every opportunity to go out and do what he does, which is make plays and use his mobility and playmaking, which we think could be a good fit with us.
For us, it is giving him an opportunity to show where it is at. It is kind of at that point with him. He is about to be 25 years old now and it is kind of a make-or-break situation for Josh. We are happy he elected to take the tryout for us and we look forward to seeing him in training camp.
What is it like going into a free agency market like this with not a lot of cap space?
Dubas: I actually thought — and maybe I am mistaken — that this is more space than we’ve had. We obviously had some committed to the goaltender and knew we were going to have to commit to the goalie. I felt we did have the flexibility to be in the conversations. Maybe we weren’t in the big-game hunting section of it here, but that is fine with us.
We still have quite a bit of flexibility and space. I don’t know what the public number would be on that, but internally, we still feel we have a good amount of space to stay flexible, especially as we get into this second wave of players.
Would you like to have a copious amount of space each and every year? Sure, but in a flat-cap situation that we are in, it is generally going to be pretty tough to do that, especially with the commitments we have made to our core that we deeply believe in.
It is just trying to dance around the edges of it and find the right group around our core players that can continue to push us over the top. That is what we are going to continue to do here through the summer and into the fall. We will stay flexible, take some risks on guys that need a second chance — or we feel are just about to pop — and try to bring them in here and get the most out of them playing alongside our group.