At the site of the Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Friday, Kyle Dubas discussed his trade deadline plans, his goaltending situation, the recent play of John Tavares and William Nylander, and the latest on the health situations of Jake Muzzin and Rodion Amirov.
What’s your take on the goaltending situation right now?
Dubas: We have two guys that have been good goaltenders. Jack played at an All-Star level this year. Petr Mrazek has played 300 games — or nearing that — and has been a good goaltender in his career. Petr, especially of late, has had a game against Minnesota at home and a game at Washington where he was very good.
I don’t think goaltending was the issue in the last game. We tend to get a little bit game-to-game in this marketplace. I am not concerned about either one of them. They have both shown themselves to be good goalies, and they will be.
Is the priority in the next 10 days another defenseman?
Dubas: We take it day by day. We have to see where Jake is at in his recovery. We are really happy with Lyubushkin and how he has played since he has come in. In the last couple of games, we have experimented with the guys coming in and out.
I think it is a team defensive thing. In particular on defense, we have shown of late — especially against good teams — that we are able to defend really well as a group. When we let our foot off the gas like the other night, it is ugly.
That is going to be on our group to continue to work on that. I know Sheldon and the coaching staff are hard at it. The thing about the group that gives me a lot of faith is that, throughout the season, when they have to dial it in, they have dialed it in really well and defended really well as a group.
That is really what we are relying on. I’d like it to be a little bit more consistent, but we are back into an 82-game season now. You are going to have your ups and downs. That is sometimes just the way it goes.
You mentioned that with the team’s cap space and everything, you might only have one bullet in the chamber. Has that philosophy changed with injuries or performance or anything else you need to address?
Dubas: In terms of where we are at now, a lot of it is going to depend on Muzzin’s health and where we are at. We still have quite a bit of flexibility to get creative and try to make something happen. Unless we get the news we don’t want on Muzz, I think we will just have the one move left in us here.
Are you more inclined to add a forward than you were a few weeks ago?
Dubas: No, not at this time. You are always trying to make the team better, but at this time, it will be more on defense.
There have been four rookie GMs added to the league in season. Looking back on your first deadline to now, what would you tell yourself? What have you learned from your first one until now?
Dubas: In the first one, we wanted to make a deal early. We made a trade a few weeks before the deadline in late January that year for Jake Muzzin. We had a few minor things right around the deadline.
I still feel the same way now. If we could act early, we would. The Lyubushkin deal a few weeks ago with Ritchie — that was sort of the intention there. Acting early, if you can, is best, and not getting yourself right up against the deadline at 3 p.m.
What was going through your head when you were watching that 5-1 loss on Wednesday night?
Dubas: I was obviously really disappointed on Wednesday night. I was most disappointed about the fact that in the third period, we didn’t make any type of push.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Buffalo is going to play us really well. We went in there in November and they gave us fits in that game. Now Donny Granato and their staff have had more time to build it the way they want. If you are a Buffalo fan coming in here in the next week and a half, you have to be thrilled with how hard they are playing.
To me, they are laying in front of slap shots, blocking them, and were just at a different level of desperation than we had. To me, I just think that is the second time in a week and a half that we played a team where, for whatever reason, in Montreal and at home against Buffalo, we expect it is going to be easy. In this league, it is not.
It is something we have to get cleaned up here.
You have stressed since taking over the job the importance of winning the division. You are back in the race for first place. Is it extra frustrating that you are having hiccups against teams you should beat judging by the standings?
Dubas: That is four points that we have dropped. If you look at the standings right now, it is an easy math exercise to see where those four points would have us. That said, those games are now behind us.
We have an upcoming stretch here where we are at home against Vancouver, then we go to Columbus, we are home to Seattle, and then we have Arizona before the game here. We need to continue to be developing as a group and improving as a group.
There is nothing we can do now. Those are four points that we have left off of our total. We need to find a way to make them up.
How is Jake Muzzin coming along?
Dubas: Slowly. He is on LTIR, so it is not an imminent return. We have to be really careful with him. It is two concussions in a very brief amount of time. We are going to continue to be slow and cautious with him.
To me, it is not one of these things where are going to wait and try to have him come back in the playoffs. With a style of a player like him, if he is healthy and good to go, we need to get him up, playing, and in-form before the playoffs.
It has been a slow stretch for John Tavares and William Nylander offensively. How do you assess the second line and the depth offense in general?
Dubas: I have been very happy with the line of Mikheyev, Kampf, and Engvall the last couple of nights. In Washington, John’s play won us the game. He and Justin Holl combined to make that play to Sandin at the end.
John and William Nylander, if you are looking at their pace for the entire season, are on pace to have excellent years for us. They are really competitive, proud people. To me, I don’t even measure so much… If they are contributing to us winning, whether they have contributed in every single game or haven’t in a long stretch, to me, it is irrelevant.
They are both such good players. They can contribute in other ways. That, to me, is the key. Both have done that.
William scored in back-to-back games there leading into the game on Wednesday night. I thought our whole team on Wednesday night just wasn’t there.
They would probably say they expect something more from themselves. It is up to us to try to help them get there.
How is Rodion Amirov doing right now?
Dubas: Remarkable in terms of his level of optimism and how happy he is day-to-day. The way that he has handled the entire thing as a 20-year-old… You see how optimistic he is, how he is passionate about the fact that he is going to fight it all the way.
He is in Germany now and remains there. He has gone through his first round of treatment. It is remarkable to see and really quite inspiring. I couldn’t imagine that happening. You never expect to hear that about a 20-year-old athlete like that. He has been so optimistic about the fight he has ahead of him.
He has handled it about as well as you could ever imagine.
Do you know what his path back to hockey is?
Dubas: Not at this time, and it is not a focus at all. It is very much about getting healthy. We know he is not going to play in the short term at all. He is not going to play this season, certainly. Really, the hockey part is not a huge concern for us right now at all.
You have two Russian players on your roster. Have you had to increase security at all?
Dubas: We have. Our director of security is on the team every single day on the road and at home. We talked to both of the players. There have been no issues reported to them or anything towards them or their families.
We just continue to monitor it. They are members of our team, and we care about them. We want to make sure they are safe and we are taking care of them as best we can. Anything that comes up, they know to report it in right away.
Wayne Simmonds will hit 1,000 games tomorrow. Can you speak to what he brings and what his journey has been like?
Dubas: He has not done anything easy his whole way up. He was not a slam dunk going into the OHL draft and coming out of that. He had to go to Brockville and then make his way to Owen Sound, where Mike Futa brought him in. I think Chris Byrne was his coach, who scouts now for LA, in Brockville. Mike brought him into Owen Sound. He went to the Soo from there.
It’s not the same usual path most people take to get there. Once he is in the NHL, as everyone knows, he competes every single night. That is a hard 1,000 games — not that it is ever easy, but in his case in particular, with what he has gone through and how he has gone about it, it is a great example for every single player in our room and others in hockey.
Outside of the rink, he does a lot to try to make the game more inclusive. He speaks on it more than anybody we have on our team. He is just a great example for everyone on our team but also for any person looking to get into hockey. He is a person who has done it in the most competitive way possible and has gotten every ounce of talent out of himself.
We have only been a small part of his journey with the Leafs. We brought him in because we felt we didn’t have enough players like Wayne Simmonds. He has certainly added a lot to our group. It will be a great moment for us to be able to celebrate that as a small part of his journey tomorrow night.