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

On the eve of the 2022 NHL Draft, GM Kyle Dubas addressed the media to discuss the latest on contract talks with pending UFAs Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, and Ilya Lybushkin, the team’s goalie pipeline, Rasmus Sandin’s RFA negotiation (and the possibility of an offer sheet), the promotion of Hayley Wickenhesier to Assistant General Manager, and whether he feels he is managing with his job on the line this season.

Entering the draft, in terms of potential activity, is it any different when you can see the other managers live as opposed to the past few years?

Dubas: In your mind, you want to imagine that it is — that you can sit in there together and strike deals snd such — but I think there is a lot of communication that goes on well before. You have your plan, and by this time, everyone knows what we’re all trying to achieve. Now it’s about executing it and the plans being put into place.

With the large majority of teams very close to the cap, there is always jockeying and different things that are happening. Cap space is very scarce throughout the league. That has its impacts on teams, especially in our case. Looking to contend and push our group forward, it is always a major consideration in all that we do.

How would you describe the state of talks with Jack Campbell?

Dubas: We continue to speak to Jack. It is no secret that goaltending is a priority for us. We will continue to speak with him and his people as we go through the coming week here. It is obviously getting close to decision time for everybody, and especially for Jack. It is a life-altering event. We will continue to speak with him and them through the weekend and be well prepared going into next week for where we want to go with it.

How about Ilya Mikheyev?

Dubas: Frankly speaking, it is very public, the state of talks there. We will see. Anything can change. You don’t want to totally close it off. We will see what happens. If not, it has been a great three years for him in Toronto.

It is a great story for us for a player who came as a free agent and will look to cash in. Using the resources that we have, and he put in great effort returning from injury — and obviously had a great season here with us — it is great for him. We will continue to stay in touch with him in case the market changes.

Where do things stand with Rasmus Sandin and what kind of role do you envision for him next year?

Dubas: I would put he and Timothy Liljegren in the same spot. They are massive parts of our future. They are significantly younger than other full-time members of our defense core. We need them to continue to take steps.

In Rasmus’ case, one of the major focuses is on trying to set him up to be healthy all the way through the year and putting the proper resources into him to arm him to do that. That is really our focus with him.

Obviously, he is a supremely talented player and very competitive. We need him to continue to take the steps that we need for him to assert himself not only into an every night player — which he had largely become before he got injured in Nashville — but to become a top player in our group, especially as our players age ahead of him. That is our major focus with him and our only focus on him. We see him and Timothy as massive parts of it moving ahead.

Are you worried about an offer sheet for him if you don’t get it done sooner than later?

Dubas: If there is going to be an offer sheet, the sooner, the better so we can make our decision and move on.

You have a few unrestricted free agents after next season in Michael Bunting and Alex Kerfoot. Is there any chance you’ll be proactive in trying to extend them at some point this summer?

Dubas: Both are hugely important players for us. Kerfoot, Bunting, and David Kampf I would put in that same vein — and Justin Holl is in that same boat, and Pierre Engvall is in that boat as well. All are a year away from being UFAs with varying statuses this year.

We have to evaluate where our cap space is at. I think it would be premature before we go into free agency and finish this week to go down that path.

Where do you Petr Mrazek factoring in next season?

Dubas: I have been very happy with Petr in just how he has been in the offseason so far. It is really our first true offseason after we signed him last year in late July when free agency was. He has been very responsive and communicative with our staff throughout.

When I look at Petr, he would be the first to say… He did many times during the year where he steps out in front of everyone and accepted when he hasn’t played to the level that he feels he is capable of.

If I am forecasting and betting on him, do I bet he was the goalie he was last year in 20 games, or the goalie he was for the 270 before — which was a .910 save percentage guy who can give his team a chance to win? I would probably bet on the larger sample. That is where Petr fits into it at this time.

What are the odds of Ilya Lybushkin coming back?

Dubas: We have had lots of discussions with them. We obviously liked what he brought. We traded for him during the year. He brought a physical element for us that we enjoyed having. It was different than what we had with our club, especially when Sandin went out. [Sandin] brings a little bit of that threat as well. It was nice to have him back there. He plays extremely hard.

It is just based on what we can afford based on the minutes that he is going to be capable of giving us and the role that he is going to give us. We would love to have him back, but it is also for him and his family a huge opportunity as an unrestricted free agent. If it works, we would love to have him.

Do you anticipate moving out roster players to add cap space?

Dubas: It is all going to depend on what the situation is. It is a very fair question, but if we need to create cap space to improve our team, I think we know, based on the conversations that we have had, that we would be able to move a lot of our players if needed for good value or move them along.  We are in a good spot that way.

Is the plan more for free agents or Marlies to make an impact next year in your bottom six?

Dubas: We would like it to be a really healthy competition between both. We feel that there are some Marlies who could really push for those roles and that have come along. It is one thing that we have lacked in the past — having players in those spots being able to really push and play the way we want them to down there. Now we feel we have guys in that group.

It was laid out very clearly to them in their exit meetings that this is what we expect from them and this is what the opportunity is going to be. Now go, put the summer in that you need, come, and take it.

I also think that we can’t just count on all of them being at their best. We need to supplement them with some players in free agency. They are not going to be the most enticing signings, but they are hugely important for our team.

With only three draft picks this week, is there any possibility of trading negotiating rights to gain extra selections?

Dubas: We are open to anything. We are in a better position than we were last year. Last year, we had a second, a fifth, and a sixth. This year, we have two picks in the top 80.

Last year, it was a difficult one. John Lilley was the director of amateur scouting at that time. Matt Knies was picked late in the second, and he has had a great year. Both Peksa and Ty Voit — he is going to go to the U.S. camp, and Peksa was on the Russian U20 team at the end of the year.

We don’t want to make a habit of only picking three times, but it is largely a reflection of where we are at as a team and trying to push forward. If there is a way for us to recoup some of that draft capital without depleting our team, we will.

How important is it that the player you take at #25 tomorrow could be NHL-ready?

Dubas: In the end, we need to look back five years from now and think that we picked the best player. To have a guy just jump in to say we have him for $925k or lower… I don’t think that is the smartest thing for us.

We want to make sure that when we are picking the player, we look back on the draft from 5-10 years from now, and we can unequivocally say with our pick that we took the best player available regardless of whether they made the NHL at 23, 24, or 27.

Is there any update on the state of Russian players either with the draft or the problems some Russians are facing getting out of the country now?

Dubas: Not really on that front. Heading into the draft, all the Russian players are eligible for the draft. It’s been a little bit more difficult to gather the same information on them as others because of the restrictions in place as the situation unfolds there in Ukraine. They’re eligible, and we will evaluate them as they come forward on our list and we get set for our selections.

Does the climate in Russia at all influence how you view Russian prospects?

Dubas: It is hard not to. There is so much uncertainty. It is a situation I have not encountered in my time here. It is something that you consider. We have people on our staff that were involved when it was very difficult to get players out of Russia for different reasons than it was today. At that time, a lot of very good players came to the league a little bit later.

It is certainly foreign territory for me, only in the context of hockey. I don’t want to make it seem any different than what I am speaking of, which is just a hockey decision. There is obviously a much greater human situation happening there.

With regards to the hockey, we will go through the players as they come, evaluate each of their statuses relative to their contract, various different things like that, and then make a decision.

Hayley Wickenheiser has a new title. In the scope of the league, this is a trend that is happening. You have been big on inclusion in the game. What can you say about that and what it means?

Dubas: I think it is a great trend. It shows that many different people, genders, races, sexual orientations — whatever it may be — are capable of doing great things in hockey. To see in the last year — or especially the last week here — the hiring become more diverse is great for the future of hockey an the state of hockey. It will certainly help the game as it continues to grow and evolve.

Why did you pick her? What about her do you like?

Dubas: Just the massive impact that she makes every single day that she is in the facility, especially in dealing with the players one-on-one in the role of the senior director of player development — and the impact when she is around our Leafs during the year.

The impact that she is able to make on them with her own experiences and how competitive she is about everything is really quite remarkable. It is very rare that you are able to have one of — if not the — best of all time at what they do lend that guidance to our players and our staff. That was a slam dunk.

Is she still going to pursue her medical career? Is she putting that on hold?

Dubas: I don’t think you can slow her down from anything. She can handle more than any person I have ever known. It is more adding to the list than subtracting. That is a question for Hayley that she can take at the development camp or whenever she speaks to the media next. I would be shocked if she is taking anything off of her plate based on my experience with her.

You also have changed goaltending coaches. Where is the organization going with the pursuit of being able to develop goalies rather than chase free-agent goaltenders?

Dubas: It starts with drafting. We have two Russian goaltenders — Artur Akhtyamov and Vyacheslav Peksa — who are coming along. They are both in Kazan’s system. We were happy with the years they had last year.

We have Joe Woll, who last year made his NHL debut and played quite well. Unfortunately, he got hurt in March. Erik Kallgren came in at the end of the year and stabilized things for us quite well at the end of the year when we desperately needed it.

We feel like we are getting there in that regard. It has just not popped at the NHL level yet. We need to continue to push.

The coaching decision I will leave to Sheldon to discuss at his next availability. He can give a much more clear answer — because it is his staff — than I.

How has Wes Clark’s approach been different than John Lilley’s in the director of amateur scouting role?

Dubas: Wes can answer that question himself because he was a part of the staff before. His communication with his staff was really similar to John’s. I thought he was excellent throughout the year.  I thought he was excellent at hammering home what he wanted from the staff day-to-day and meeting-to-meeting.

His process was different in terms of wanting the guys to supplement all of their live viewings with more evidence-building with video. The live viewings were reduced a little bit due to travel restrictions at times. It is not reducing that but using more video to supplement that, check your work, and ensure the process was as sound as possible on that front.

Wes leans heavily on our analyst department led by Will Sibley and our R&D department that Darryl Metcalf still leads as well just to put as much evidence as possible into the decision and list building that he can.

I have worked with Wes a long time now. I know that he is going to be as thorough and dialed in as everybody. It has been evident in just the way he has run the meetings here throughout the year and mostly the last couple of weeks.

You had Tampa on the ropes. What were you thinking as you saw them go on their run? Does it reinforce your belief that you were so close?

Dubas: I never think of things that way. In the end, we didn’t get it done. To pause the time and space continuum and say, “We would have done the same thing as they did in their series…” We just have to focus on ourselves. We know we have to continue to get better.

We didn’t get it done against them. The what-ifs don’t really help. It doesn’t help cure the sleepless nights or make you feel any better. If anything, it probably makes you feel a little bit the other way. We just have to focus on ourselves and avoiding that same feeling and these same questions of, “What if? Does it make you feel better that this team you were so close against was two wins away again?”

We need to be the team that is in that position moving ahead. We feel we are poised and ready to do it. Most importantly, our players feel that they are. That’s our focus.

With the lack of success in the playoffs the last few years, do you feel personally that your job is on the line more this year than it has been previously?

Dubas: I think it is a fair question. I feel it is on the line every year. I am judged at the end of every season.

I don’t necessarily feel there is more of a pressure. It is a very important thing for me personally to help deliver for the organization. For me, the pressure doesn’t change.

Day-to-day, I am getting up every day to try to do everything I can to help our organization. The end goal is that we are having success when it matters in the playoffs. As much as we want to just fast forward our way there, if we skip all of these steps, we will fall well short.

I totally understand the question, but I don’t treat it any differently. I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver for the people who hired me and the people I work with. That will never change.

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