In his press conference on the opening day of training camp, GM Kyle Dubas discussed the pressure the team is under this season and his unwavering faith in the core player group.
The prognosis for Auston Matthews — what is his status?
Dubas: The designation of the injured reserve is that he won’t be a full participant in camp off the start. He is back skating. He will come out of the splint. As we get rolling here, basically three weeks from today is opening night, and I think we will have a better indication then. We have no change to what we expect, and that is for him to be ready [for opening night], as he said last week.
Can you walk through the timeline and logic for why the surgery was done so late in the summer?
Dubas: That was just a plan that was formed by the Leafs medical team, Auston, and the group that represents him. Especially on a wrist of a player like that, if you don’t have to do a surgical procedure, you would like to avoid it.
When he ramped up his training in the summer, he began to feel discomfort. Our plan that was agreed upon at the end of the season was that if he ever felt that right away, he would move on to the consultation with Dr. Hotchkiss in New York. That is exactly what we did. We caught it in the first 10 days of August, he had the surgery a few days later, and the expectation is that he will be ready for opening day.
How much do you keep in mind that a lot of the things that happened last regular season were really good things, and convince the players to forget one part of what happened last season?
Dubas: It is a great question. We have spent a lot of time thinking about that. A lot of the questions, when I have done these types of events, have been about that.
We can look back and learn from it, but we only control what we do today and every day moving forward. I don’t think we can hide from it and run from it. I just think we have to do everything we can as an organization to be ready. For when those moments come again, we have to be as prepared as possible. I have full faith in everybody in the room that they are going to be ready to roll.
The other part of that is that we can’t let our focus become distracted on the long run. We have to stay focused. In the division that we are in, if our focus slips and we are not dialled in on being our best every day, we are going to put ourselves in a tough spot.
That is really our major message in there right now: Not to get distracted by the long run, not to get distracted by redeeming ourselves from the past, and be focused on being at our best every day. In a division with Tampa, Boston, Florida, Montreal, an Ottawa team that has declared its rebuild over, and Buffalo and Detroit getting better, we can’t afford to be distracted at all as we proceed through the year.
How hard is it to stay in the moment in this market when there is so much history [of failure] — recent and historical?
Dubas: For me, we don’t carry the burden of 54 years — or whatever it is — with us. A lot of people in that room weren’t alive then, or most of them weren’t, or all of them weren’t. I don’t think that resonates with them. What I have learned about this group in the last three-and-a-half months is that they care tremendously about — rather than proving a lot of that stuff wrong — proving themselves and what they are about right.
That is the key to anything. There are a number of teams all throughout sports that provide us with a great number of examples of overcoming the things that you are alluding to. If you go through and study them all, it’s when it becomes a personal and deep belief internally [that they overcome it]. That is what I have seen from this group in the last three-and-a-half months, which makes me excited and optimistic about where we are going.
There is no secret there is ramped-up pressure. How much pressure are you personally feeling heading into the season?
Dubas: As far as external pressure, I know it is cliche, but it is nothing compared to what I expect and the pressure I put on myself. I think we all known what we have signed up for here.
It is a great privilege to work in this market with the people who show up to events like this in the numbers they do to ask hard questions and keep us accountable. I think it is great. I think everyone here is fair in their criticism when it is warranted the same as you’re fair in praise when it is warranted.
For me personally, it is just doing the job as best as I possibly can to do right for the people I work with and for.
Do you feel your job is on the line more this year than previous years?
Dubas: It is a question I can’t really answer. It is something that I really don’t worry about. The only thing I worry about every day is being the best I can in managing this team for our staff and our players. If we all work together throughout this year and are at our best throughout the year, none of that will be a concern.
You have put a lot of faith in the “Big Four” of your core over the offseason. Have you had any conversations with those players? Have they come privately to you to say, “We have your back and the faith is reciprocated?”
Dubas: None of them have come specifically. We also don’t refer to them as that. The core of our group is much more than four players.
We have had a lot of very frank discussions with our core group. The more important part is the discussions we have had together. Those are largely private, but they may elect to share some of that with you today.
I believe in the group in the room deeply. It is easy to say you believe in something when it is at the beginning and it is relatively easy and everyone is very optimistic, but true belief is tested when things get a little bit hard — when you struggle, fall, and need to pick yourself up and continue to move on. That is how I feel about the group in the room.
I think the group in there will win if we can continue to move ahead and continue to build and progress day-to-day — especially coming off of the things we have experienced in the past, learning from them, rolling ahead into this season, and being focused on being the best we can each day.
Do you feel that the young core players are maturing the way that you hoped?
Dubas: I have seen massive maturity from all of them — all of our younger players. Auston, and the steps he has taken all throughout the rink — obviously, he was the top goal scorer in the league last year. Mitch is an elite penalty killer and was voted to the first All-Star team individually. William led our team in scoring in the postseason last year and has continued to grow, evolve, and really become the player everybody thought he could be.
I think there is still room for all of those players to grow individually. The great thing I am happy about in this offseason is what I have seen from them in their care about the team. From the exit interviews through to today, their mindset is about the team more than anything else, and what they can do to help the team on and off the ice.
In terms of their growth and the things that I see day to day from them, I am thrilled with them. They are still very young, and they are not close to what most would consider to be their “peak.” We need to continue to help them, push them, challenge them, hold them accountable, and go from there.
There was a lot of talk about killer instinct after the loss to Montreal. What resources has the team provided the players in that regard? How do you work on the mental game?
Dubas: It is a great question. Many players and athletes have gone through the early portions of their existence or their careers and had tremendous talent but faced that same question. It only gets asked with regards to playoff success. Unless you have a history of losing leads and such in the regular season, you don’t go and say that a team lacks that.
The way that we get our team ready for those moments is through our preparation each day starting now. I don’t think you can just get to the playoffs, flip a switch, and it comes. We have had moments and opportunities to put teams away, and we haven’t done that yet.
In terms of resources, it is the way that we practice. We have made changes to our staff and added Greg Harden as a peak performance coach — who Sheldon can speak to more in-depth — to try to help our people, our staff, and our coaches to be at their best in moments when pressure comes.
We just have to lean into that. We can’t run from it. We can’t hide from it. We have to prepare each and every day. That is what it is going to take to get to those moments and be excellent in those moments. You have to live it every single day and be at your best in practice, in the gym, and be ready for when the light shines brightest. That is what we are preparing for.
What offseason change do you think is going to make the biggest impact?
Dubas: We hope they all make a big impact. The key we are going to focus on: We have changes on forward and goaltending. The defense, by and large, remains the same, with just Zach Bogosian out. We have added some depth players, and we will see our younger players take a bigger step, we hope.
Up front, we have quite a few changes. Rather than try to make a splashy move, we have tried to acquire a group of players that we think have just begun to show their potential or fit a specific need we have or need a chance at a bit of redemption with where they are at in their career. We are hoping to provide that here.
In net, obviously, Petr Mrazek is in to tandem with Jack. I am excited about the depth up front and excited, obviously, to see Petr and Jack work together coming off of the years that they had. Obviously, Petr’s was a little bit shortened by injury, but I am excited about that for camp and into the season.
In net, is there an open competition for the starter’s role, who receives more starts?
Dubas: Like any competition, that will be decided throughout the season. If one of them runs with it, that is great. The system that we have decided on has been that we want them to work together as a great pairing together and give our team a chance to win any night that either of them is in net.
How close is Nick Robertson to cracking the roster out of camp, or do you anticipate him starting with the Marlies?
Dubas: I have no preconceived notion about, especially on the left wing, who is going to be on the team and where. The path for Nick is to do as he does and bulldoze his way through. He wants it. Starting today and tomorrow, he has to go out and grab it.
With bringing Gusev and Ho-Sang in on PTOs, how open is the door for them given the one-way contracts already on the roster?
Dubas: Same answer as on Robertson. They are going to be given a big opportunity in training camp. It is a much smaller camp than we have had. It is Sheldon’s first full camp as a head coach. We are not bringing them in to fill out the bottom end of the roster or the third team.
They are going to be brought in and given a chance to play with our best players and show what they can do. It will be up to them to take advantage of it. If they force their way through and beat out somebody that already has a contract, we will sign them and they will be on the team. We will deal with the reverberations from that.
With the team up against the cap, it is going to be tough to carry the maximum number of players. Can you speak to the challenges of not having the taxi squad from last year in terms of roster management going forward?
Dubas: We are extraordinarily fortunate that we have the Marlies 200 steps across the hall and a few miles down the road at Coca-Cola Coliseum. Last year, obviously dealing with the season and the way that it was formed, it was nice to have the taxi squad for reasons of practice, rest, and having people at the ready in case things happened.
This year, we will be back to the way it was. Brandon Pridham spends a lot of time making sure we are always in a good spot and we are never left playing shorthanded or things of that nature. We have gone through all of that this offseason and made sure we are ready to roll. With the Marlies here, we are very fortunate to have that.
Morgan Rielly is in the final year of his contract entering camp. Why are you comfortable with that scenario?
Dubas: The contract negotiation thing with the flat cap — there are a lot of teams that are dealing with it. There are bigger situations with players in the league that currently don’t have contracts going into today. That is a personal matter for Morgan and a private one for us.
I think every team that is trying to contend is going to be dealing with those kinds of situations with the flat cap, where you have players coming due and you want to see where things go throughout the year with the cap. Maybe it goes up. Maybe it doesn’t.
The situation with Morgan, as we did last year with the players who were UFAs, will be kept private until we have to make an announcement on them one way or another.
There was a recent report that Ilya Mikheyev asked for a trade. Is that true? Where do you see his standing with the team at the moment?
Dubas: Ilya Mikheyev is going to be on the team and a big part of the team. We are looking forward to getting the most out of him. Any questions on that I would refer to Dan Milstein.
Was there any interest in Mitch Marner this offseason from other teams? How did you handle that?
Dubas: I am not going to get into specific calls we get on specific guys. As I have said in the past, my belief in the entire core is immense and unwavering. You always have to, in this job, consider anything that is going to make your team better. There was nothing that came along from the end of our series to today that I felt was even to be considered in terms of making our team better. We would’ve been different, and maybe that would provide some cover and appease the masses a little bit, but we wouldn’t be better.
That is why my belief in the group is so large. I feel that when these big moments come again, they are going to be at their best and they are going to have success. I believe in them as players — they are obviously very talented players — but also as people and what they are about. I know they take this stuff personally. They will be ready to roll this season.
What do you feel like Sheldon Keefe’s learning curve has been? That was a big lesson for him as well, losing in the first round. How do you feel he will bounce back from it?
Dubas: He and I have worked together a long time now. In all of our previous stops, we have sort of dealt with this early on, where we have disappointment. What I see from Sheldon each day is that he continually reinvents himself.
Obviously, with Dave Hakstol leaving to Seattle, we had to make changes to the coaching staff. Bringing in Dean Chynoweth and Spencer Carbery, from my vantage point, because of some of the construction work that has happened here, I have been closer to them — this was the same as last year — than I have ever been.
I think the environment, the spirit of the group, the preparedness for the season — when stuff like that happens where you don’t reach your goal, for me, that’s when Sheldon gets to be at his best. He is not resigned to a certain way of doing business. He is always looking for ways things can improve every season. Whether it was with the Soo or the Marlies, when we have had those moments of disappointment, it is then when I have found he does his best work. I am excited to get back at this season again with him and get rolling.