Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

GM Kyle Dubas addressed the media after the signing of Morgan Rielly to an eight-year contract extension, discussing the reason for his faith in Rielly aging gracefully, the cap implications that come with the new contract, the team’s slow start to the 2021-22 season, and the early struggles of the top four on the blue line as well as Mitch Marner up front.

Why was it a priority to get this done now and not have it hanging over your head all season?

Dubas: I don’t really ever look at it that way, whether it hangs over or not. We have gone through it a number of different ways over the years. We have had deals done before. We have had guys go all the way to the end in free agency and stay or leave.

In Morgan’s case, having conversations with JP Barry and Jim Nice at CAA and then conversations with Morgan, there was just a path to getting it done. You hope to have them done as soon as you possibly can. That could’ve happened in late July. We needed time to work through it. With the flat cap, it makes things a little more difficult, as we discussed on the opening day of the season.

There was a path forward. They wanted to work to get something done. It was a pleasure to work with them on it.

In what way do you see the integrity and what he brings in that department come out? We have heard about the esteem he is held in, but we don’t always see it from the outside.

Dubas: For me, where I see it manifest itself on the ice is that Morgan’s role continues to grow as a player. He continues to expand and improve defensively. He is usually one of the top offensive defensemen in the league in terms of production, but defensively, specifically in the last number of years, he has continued to grow and evolve. Now he is taking on more on the penalty kill.

I just think it is great. It hasn’t manifested itself in the success we ultimately want to have, but Morgan is really a steadying force and a great person who leads by example. With the commitment to someone for eight years, when you are signing them for that long, you need to know the person that you are signing. I think it makes you more comfortable than in other positions when you know he is going to have a lot of pride in himself and — as he said to me last night — in carrying his end of the deal as well and performing throughout those eight years.

With a lot of people, you can hear that, but with Morgan, you know. You know he is going to bring it every day and continue to do the work that is necessary in the offseason to maintain his level for the term of the agreement. Without getting into the subjective stuff on character and glue guy, it’s just that we know he is going to do the work necessary to maintain his form throughout the deal.

What do you think will allow him to age well on this deal?

Dubas: The work that he puts in and his attention to continuing to improve and get better. His mobility is one area that leads me to believe it will age well with him, and also the work he puts in knowing that is not going to last forever as well. As he has adapted, especially in the last few years, towards playing a little bit differently and not taking as many risks… When we are losing games or down in games, you have to take those risks, and at times, you can leave yourself at risk in terms of exposure.

Morgan has done a good job, especially last year, of adapting his role. I think that played itself out in the playoffs, where he played very, very well. Now he has taken on more of a role defensively on the penalty kill as well. His evolution as he has continued to mature as a person, what he is able to take on — that leads me to believe that I have a lot of faith in him playing well throughout the term.

When you are involved in negotiations and the season is off to a slow start, does it factor in at all in the decisions you might make?

Dubas: In Morgan’s case, that never really entered my mindset. Certainly, as the team goes up and down, I think it is my role to always maintain a long-term view of where things are at and not get so caught up in the wins and losses, although every single game teaches you something about your team.

It is trying to look deeply at the underlying trends that exist within the club, where we are right now, what this means for our group, and how we can get it to where we ultimately truly want to go as an organization. In Morgan’s case, you know what Morgan is going to bring every day, and you know when it is not going well for him, he is always going to do the work to continue to get back to the level you expect of him.

Even with the team struggling, it never enters your mind that it is going to be something Morgan allows to fester in his own game and he’ll be able to come out of it.

Do you let things simmer now with regards to other FAs potentially next summer with Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza? Do you let it go for now?

Dubas: The negotiations with Jason have always been quite easy. With others, we know the space we are going to have. It is a very similar situation we had last year throughout these sessions. Goaltender is going to be a priority for us to maintain space for. With whatever else we have left, Brandon and I sit and go through this ad nauseam more than anyone can believe.

We will get $1.2 million back on our cap from the Kessel retention, which will be a boost. Obviously, that and more is going to Morgan, and then it will be about adapting the rest of the roster to fit in and build the best team we can.

You have left other FAs walk. What made Morgan Rielly a special case?

Dubas: I just think the ability to replace him would’ve been very difficult. His willingness to want to stay and make something work with us that I think is a little bit below the market made it work. Everything that he brings inside of the room every single day, but most importantly, what he brings on the ice, we thought it would’ve been difficult to really replace.

We are hopeful that Rasmus can continue to develop, and they can complement one another in those roles. You can’t just have one guy doing that. We need multiple players to play in that style. Our hope is that the two of them grow together and form that element on our backend and roll from there.

How does the group get back on track?

Dubas: I don’t think anybody wants to hear any words about what the anecdote is or what we are going to be doing. It is all in our actions and how we play — our work ethic, our attention to detail. We were playing well. In the Monday night game against the Rangers, we played well. We had the game against San Jose and the four games where we didn’t play well at all. Everyone saw it. There is no reason to run or hide from it.

I think everyone is tired of hearing from us about what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. It is about going out tomorrow night and all throughout this homestand and getting back to work.  The team has shown what they are capable of going back to last season and the beginning of this season, or even the Monday night game against the Rangers.

It is also just continuing to stick with it. I think we have to go through this and endure it. We have generally always started well here. This isn’t the start we envisioned having. My hope is that we are able to use this to go through and endure some difficulty, some question marks, some criticism, and learn how to deal with it well to propel us forward.

Have you learned anything about the group through eight games that you didn’t know before?

Dubas: I think you learn something all of the time. Every game that you have the chance to be a part of this league, you are going to learn something about your group or the group of players. For us, we have got a lot of new guys that we are integrating into the group. Some have come in and seamlessly fit in and played well. Others are trying to find their way.

For us, Detroit is coming in tomorrow night. They are playing well. They got off to a good start. We know that they are going to work. They are a young team that is expiring to continue to grow within our division. We have to come out and match that. Otherwise, we are going to have a tough night. It is on us to come out tomorrow night, show what we are made of, build off of the comeback on Monday, and start to stack wins together.

Sheldon Keefe was saying he wasn’t thrilled with how the defense has been playing as a group. He has shifted the pairs, and Justin Holl will be a scratch. What is your sense of the defense on the team this year, and your feeling on the depth there as well?

Dubas: When we went into the offseason, we committed to not blocking out Rasmus, Timothy Liljegren, and Travis Dermott. We wanted to make sure they were going to be given an opportunity there. By and large, they have played well when they have been in. It is no secret that we expect a little bit more from our top guys. Morgan has played well, but the other guys would stand in here and tell you they are playing a little bit below the level they were at last season.

That said, I think they have all earned the benefit of the doubt a little bit, in terms of their history, that they are going to find a way and come back. If they were players that we had taken a bit of a leap on and said, “We will try to put them in this situation and see how it goes,” I would have major concern. They are guys that have all been very good players in the league and very good players for us.

I know what they are doing off the ice to get themselves back and rolling. I have a lot of faith they will get back to the form they showed last season and at the best points in their career.

Is it a relief to get Petr Mrazek back so that Jack Campbell doesn’t have to be overtaxed?

Dubas: It is not a good feeling at the end of the second period in the game in Ottawa to see Petr go down. Obviously, the intention was, when you build it out, at the beginning, it is always great. Your plan is always great until you walk out, different things happen — injuries, some guys playing above or below the level you expect — and you have to adapt.

Obviously, Jack has played very well. It would be great to get Petr in and rolling and have the two of them really form the tandem they established that we wanted to in the offseason, starting tomorrow night.

What have you seen from Mitch Marner this season? He struggled in the playoffs, and he hasn’t had the point total you’ve come to expect. What do you see from him?

Dubas: I thought Wednesday night in Chicago was his best game overall. Getting back with John, they had a lot of success in 2018-19 together. I didn’t think our team played well in Carolina, but as the game went on in Chicago on Wednesday, you saw him more in motion with the puck. He looked like his usual self. He was having fun and building momentum.

I am excited for Mitch. He has gone through this before in his career. He is someone who cares deeply about it, and he is a wonderful hockey player. When he is not producing, which is not very often in his time with us, he still brings a lot on the penalty kill and just his overall energy and the way that he plays.

I never worry about the production coming back with Mitch. It was great to see him look like he was having fun and playing free on Wednesday in Chicago. We look forward to watching him tomorrow night. When he is at his best, he is one of the most fun players to watch in the league.