Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

At the midway mark of the season, Kyle Dubas addressed the media to discuss his reflections on the first half of 2021-22, his trade deadline plans leading up to March 21, Nick Ritchie’s struggles to catch on with the team, Jake Muzzin’s uncharacteristic first half of the year, and much more.

You have had some wonderful seasons from your best players, who have been your best players. How important is it in the second half of the season for them to continue that?

Dubas: I think you nailed it there. Our top guys, throughout the year, have rotated stepping up when we needed them to, especially early on. It is all a credit to them. That is why they are considered amongst the best players in the world and in our league. That is what you’re looking for.

Of late, it has been Mitch. Auston has been excellent the whole year. John and William have had their moments where they have stepped up and been huge for the team when we needed it. Morgan goes a little bit underneath the radar on that, but throughout the season, he has been as solid as you can ask, right? That has really been a positive thing for us.

Obviously, Jack Campbell has played at an All-Star level. That has been excellent. Now we are just trying to continue to further the development of the rest of the group and get the best out of them while continuing to push our top players to step up and roll.

Is there anything you’ve learned about your core players that you didn’t know from years past?

Dubas: The beginning of the year wasn’t easy for us. We struggled. We started off well in the first 2-1-1. We then went on that road trip and it was ugly. I think you learn so much about the people you are with when things are really difficult.

We came off of a disappointing playoff series last year where that wasn’t the expectation at all, especially when you were up. You start the season this year, and all of the history from that, plus the way the season is going so far… With the negativity that starts to swirl, it would be easy for the guys to pack it in or think it is not going to work. Not only did they find a way to stabilize themselves, but they used that to get everything back on track and roll through November.

Any time that I have found that we have had any sort of rough water — be it a couple of weeks ago in New York, which wasn’t a very good performance — the team goes in on Saturday night into the Island and shuts it down with a great game. We were able to come into the break by winning five in a row.

The thing that I have learned about the group — particularly the leaders of it — is that they know that we have to make big strides. They know we have to start to reach our potential. They also value the process that they go through and the opportunity that each challenge brings. I think you build a certain confidence about yourself when you go through things that are really difficult. You are able to go through them, lean into them, and come out the other side.

We haven’t done that yet at the ultimate stage we want to do it on, but you can’t build on those experiences unless you start in the regular season and go through those types of challenges. That is what I have learned about our group so far that makes me most excited about them as a group and as individual players.

What would you be your approach to the trade deadline? How aggressive will you be when it comes to improving the roster?

Dubas: Especially this season, I know that every team is in this situation… I don’t know how many teams will play with what they viewed going into the year as their complete roster. We still haven’t yet for reasons to do with Covid, an injury at the beginning to Mikheyev. We haven’t yet had any stretch with the team that we thought we were going to have when we started out. I would like to see if we can see that, knowing that it might be wishful thinking just based on the way everything has gone.

I know every team is by and large in that spot as well. I would like to give our team a chance to roll as it is constructed if we can get there. If not, I think we will have to take as much of the information as we have and use that to dictate what we may want to do with the team.

Of course, the group is playing well above .700 right now in terms of their winning percentage. That said, we are in a dog fight every day in our division with Tampa and Florida and then Boston right there. Those are three elite teams.

As I have stated repeatedly, I have a lot of belief in the group. In terms of what we are going to do and whether we will add to it or not, I certainly think we want to take as much time as we can and use that to our benefit before deciding to do anything.

Is part of it getting Jake Muzzin back involved and getting him back on track?

Dubas: Muzz has been sidelined here for an injury for three weeks now or over the three-week mark. A lot of our players have had ups and downs throughout the year. Going back to last season, Justin Holl would be the first to tell you, over the first stretch of the year, is not playing to the level he wanted to. Really, since we came back from the Christmas break, I thought he has been one of our most consistent players. He goes out, plays, does his thing, and performs as you would expect him to.

It is nice when the players are always at their best every single game, but I personally learn more from how they handle it when things aren’t going well. I think, in Justin’s case, in particular, you are around him enough, see his personality, and what he is about. You think that he is a person who can handle that.

It is a lot different going through it here than perhaps some other places when there is a lot more interest and a lot more said about it. For me, that has been one of the personal highlights of the year — it is not the biggest story or the flashiest story, but when someone like that can go through a bit of a struggle, come through it, and regain their form, it is certainly indicative of the type of person he is and the type of player that he is.

Why do you think Muzzin wasn’t as consistent as we’re accustomed to prior to his injury?

Dubas: I just think that is sometimes the way she goes. He has had a long career. I have known him for a long time. I remember when he started in the Soo, and it wasn’t always pretty. The one thing about Jake Muzzin is that, especially as people start to count him out or people think that he looks like he is starting to fade, he is very competitive and has a lot of pride. He is able to find his way back.

This injury is unfortunate. It is a concussion, so it is very serious. With this type of time off, getting himself healthy, and resetting himself on the ice, I think you will see him come back and be closer to what we all expect and the form that he is capable of.

Everyone expects you to add something before March 21st. How do you navigate the challenge of the cap?

Dubas: Again, we have some cap space now, which is nice. We have a number of different things that go into an injury. I’d love to be able to sit and say, “This is the one thing we are going to specifically need.” Because the cap space for most of the teams in our position is limited, when you go out and acquire somebody, you are probably done at that point.

As we all know, my preference is to acquire players with term and with as much time as possible. When we did the Muzzin deal in 2019 and then the Campbell-Clifford one in 2020, that is my preference. Since that time in the past two years, being able to execute that way with the flat cap and the way our team is constructed has proven to be difficult.

For us, I want to take as much time as we possibly have to find out what exactly it is that we need. I have my opinions, and they change all of the time. I am sure everyone here has one as well. Teams around the league probably have their opinions of us when they look at it.

The one thing that we have that I am most excited about: On defense, in particular, we have two young players who are playing a nightly role in Sandin and Liljegren. In playing those roles at that age, they are going to have their own ups and downs. How do they come through it? In terms of potential, those young guys probably have more than anyone else in our system, but what are they able to accomplish here with a little more runway? What can we learn from them that can be instructive for us in terms of how we want to approach the deadline with them?

Injury, ineffective play, or whatever it may be — or something that just glaringly stands out as a need — may also enter into the fray. That is again how we will have to adjust course. We probably don’t have a whole lot of bullets in the chamber here. We are going to have to pick and choose as we set our sights.

Kyle Dubas, Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager

Are you more open this year to acquiring people on expiring contracts?

Dubas: I look at it a lot, and the lesson from last year in what I personally learned is that this year is a little easier to do that because there is more time. The deadline is March 21. That gives a player a month and a half. I don’t think that is a lot of time, but last year, three of the players we acquired had to serve the 14-day quarantine basically sitting at home or in a hotel room doing nothing and then jump into the roster.

I think we only had eight or nine games left. Nick Foligno got hurt in the fifth game in Montreal. You are trying to expedite something that I don’t think you can really do all too well, which is incorporate yourself into an environment, a culture, and a team. Last year, especially, it was unfair of us to ask that. I know it worked in some other players, and obviously, for us, we didn’t achieve our goal.

Having a little bit more time this year, I am a little bit more open to it. We will have to evaluate the options that we have and see — if we decide to go down that path — how we can best help our team.

Does the lack of picks this year factor into the decisions at the deadline?

Dubas: Ideally, you would like to be dealing from an area of greater strength. That said, I have been happy with the way that all three of the players we drafted last year have performed. Knies, Ty Voit, and Peksa — the goaltender in Kazan — have all performed very well relative to their draft slot.

John Lilley was our director of amateur scouting then; he has gone on to be the director of player personnel for the Rangers, so I think it is a credit to John and the job that the amateur scouting staff did knowing that we weren’t going to have a lot of picks. It is hard when you are in that room and you pick in the second round and then not again until the fifth. It can be a long day. I thought they did a really good job to be really dialed in on the picks that we have.

We only have three this year. Now, we have our first and our second, and then we kind of have the full board moving ahead. We are in the mode now where we are trying to win. If we have to deal from that pool to do something that we think can do this, then great.

Ideally, I’d like to keep the picks. We are trying not to be short-term or confine ourselves to any window. We are not going to be able to just pick in the second and fifth-round every time and find players that can produce. I would love to be able to keep the picks and allow Wes Clark and the amateur scouting staff to make them, but we will evaluate that as it comes closer to.

Is there a balance to where you want to draft in the order?

Dubas: There are guys you pick high and don’t work out the way that you want them to. The character part of it — I know people don’t like to hear it all the time — in terms of the person you are drafting, their work ethic, how amenable they are to developmental work… I think it is one of the advantages here. Our development staff, led by Hayley Wickenheiser, and their ability to push the players and get the most out of them — it is one of the things that we are most proud of.

Those players can come from anywhere. This year, we had Kristians Rubins, a guy who we signed to an ECHL deal out of Medicine Hat, come and play on the roster. You have Curtis Douglas, who has played in Denmark and a little bit in Belleville last year. He pushes his way up. If you find people that are really focused and want to get the most out of their work with the development group, it make up for a lack of picks. It is tough to rely on that all the time.

How content are you with the left side up front compared to the beginning of the year?

Dubas: With the group that we have now, it never works out identically to how you would like it to.

Michael Bunting was not given as much opportunity as others in training camp and off the bat; once Mikheyev went down, he got a little bit more. He stepped up and played very, very well for us — not only the production but the competitiveness and tenacity on a nightly basis has been very welcome for us. On the nights when we are not really going, he can drag our team into the fight, which has been great and something that I think we need.

Ilya has come back and played very well. He can help us with his speed and ability on the penalty kill. He has been excellent and has been on the power play as well. Alex Kerfoot — we are fortunate to have him. We can just sort of move him all around. Of late, it has been the best hockey that Pierre has played as well.

It has made it a bit difficult for Nick Ritchie, but with Pierre playing the well that he has, the utility he brings at even strength, and on every line we put him on, he seems to help the line get better. What he is able to do on the penalty kill — I am very happy with it.

We have Nick Robertson back playing. He’s started on the right side with the Marlies just to give him some more versatility. Alex Steeves is down there. The guys play both left and right. Joey Anderson has come up and played well. I know it is not the veteran depth people want, but we are happy with the depth of the group in terms of what they can bring if they need him.

What has the message been to Nick Ritchie and are you able to keep him around without the taxi squad?

Dubas: We have two players in that spot — he and Kyle Clifford. The Marlies started their break yesterday, so we have four days, and then starting on Thursday, they will report to the Marlies. They might try to arrange some sessions with the development staff in the next couple of days. They can’t be with our team anymore with no taxi squad and the Marlies are on break. We will keep them up and running. The Marlies don’t play until the 16th. We don’t have any game action readily available unless we have something else go down here.

The message has been to them: This is our group. It is largely constrained by the salary cap. We need you to go down and continue to stay active. We know you are probably not happy about it, but you have a great group of people who can work with you on the Marlies staff and our player development group. Use that to try to keep yourself ready for when you are needed here.

Is there disappointment that Nick wasn’t able to put up a bigger fight for that left-wing spot?

Dubas: I don’t know what his exact shooting percentage was right off of the bat, but I think he has about 70 shots and two goals, or something like that. The puck didn’t go in for him, and it goes in for Bunting. Kerf is on pace for 60 points or around 60 points with no power-play time. Engvall and Mikheyev are producing well also.

It is a confluence of that, plus the guys who jumped into that role started producing right away. Sometimes it is happenstance. Sometimes it is luck. Sometimes it is various things that happen on the ice with chemistry with your linemates, etc.

Do I wish every player that we signed worked out perfectly? Of course. I just don’t think the story is done at this point for any of those players that are in our system or that we have signed who it hasn’t worked out yet for.

What are the odds that Josh Ho-Sang signs an NHL contract this year?

Dubas: I think it has been a great story with Josh. He came in, had a very good camp, went down to the Marlies, continues to get better and better there, and he earned himself a slot with the Canadian Olympic team, which has been great. For us, it is exciting to have quite a few players playing at the Olympics that are members of our organization. We will watch Josh as we will watch the other forwards who are there, see how he plays against that group of people, and then he’ll come back here, pick up with the Marlies, and roll from there.

We have quite a few guys down there who are pushing. Josh obviously has a much longer pedigree and has been in the public eye for a long time, so he gets a lot of the conversation. He will be in that mix as we head towards the deadline. We have to have the players on NHL contracts by then to have them eligible to play and be in the playoffs. That will sort of be the way that we dictate it there.

There are a few guys on AHL deals who have played very well — Josh, Joseph Blandisi is on a tryout, Antti Suomela, Curtis Douglas. They have done a good job there with the Marlies of getting those guys up and running. They are all different players. Josh is the most individually talented of the group as we all know, but the others have different elements that I think can help the team as well.

We will continue to monitor that and make those decisions closer to the deadline, I’d say.

Are you happy with Rodion Amirov’s development this season?

Dubas: It has been a tough one because it has been a medical situation we are working on closely with Ufa and Rodion. At the end of last season, when he came over here and then got the feedback from when he went back over there, we were thrilled. Now, we are dealing with a medical situation that we need to continue to work with him on to potentially get him back and rolling. It is a tough one to answer. We were thrilled with it, but health is the priority now.

Can you shed some light on the injury?

Dubas: We will have something on that here coming up relatively soon.

Have you sensed any reluctance from your prospects to come over to the Marlies at all?

Dubas: The one thing that we have found of late more than I can remember dealing with — especially as the pandemic has taken hold — is that it just seems that there is more certainty about those leagues playing. I know the KHL has been in the news in the last couple of days; they are going right to their playoffs or something like that.

Those leagues have played. Especially last year with the American league and the way that it was, I think they did a great job of getting it up and running with the limited number of games. But they’ve had more confidence that they are actually going to play over there.

The thing that I found that doesn’t give me any reluctance at all towards it is that those clubs have been very open with working with our staff — Karpat as an example, or the Pelicans in Finland. They have been wide open. We have our staff going over there for the first time. They left today. They spend a lot of time with those staffs. I find they are very open to learning various things and wanting to help as well.

Whether they are here with the Marlies, with the Growlers, or with the club team wherever in Europe, I think we have to be the ones to adapt and not just force everyone to come here but work with them as they are comfortable.

Some of the Canadian teams have approached the league about potentially moving games. Have you been involved in that at all?

Dubas: This is home. For better or worse, this is home for us. Now it is a little tough. We are going on the road. There are no restrictions anywhere in the U.S. We are going to go to Calgary and Vancouver, where they are playing at 50%. It is a little tough to come home — this week, we play Carolina. Next week, we play Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Those should be jam-packed games in Toronto, but they are following the direction of health authorities.

There is nothing that I can say today that will sway that. It will just get me in trouble. I’ll avoid that and simply say that this is home for us. It is tough to ask our players and their families to pick up and move, or for our players to move away from their families when their kids are in school.

We will get through this next stretch of three games. We look forward to having 50% back and then 100% down the stretch and into the playoffs, which is a lot of fun for us. As you know, we didn’t have any last year.