On the opening day of 2022-23 training camp, General Manager Kyle Dubas discussed the stakes he’s facing entering a new season without a contract beyond the end of the year, Rasmus Sandin’s contractual situation, the injuries to Pierre Engvall and Timothy Liljegren, and Auston Matthews’ upcoming contract negotiation in a year’s time.
The Maple Leafs‘ 2022-23 training camp roster is as follows:
Our Camp Crew ⛺️
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 21, 2022
Kyle Dubas’ updates on Pierre Engvall & Timothy Liljegren’s injury status, Rasmus Sandin’s contract situation, and his expiring contract as GM of the team
Dubas: I’ll start off with a general update on a number of topics. First, in terms of the roster and injury updates, I’ll start off with that.
We have Mikhail Abramov with a back injury. He did not participate at the prospect tournament in Traverse City and will not participate in training camp. Joseph Woll is continuing to recover from a shoulder operation that he had at the end of last year. He is continuing to progress well and will be re-evaluated later in the Fall in regards to a timeline for a return.
We have Pierre Engvall, who will not be participating at the start of camp. He sustained an ankle and foot injury in training in Sweden. He will be re-evaluated the week of October the 3rd. We will have a further update at that time. We are hopeful Pierre will be cleared at that time and able to get into the final group of exhibition games, but we have to do what is best for him long-term. We will have a further update the week of October 3rd.
We also have Timothy Liljegren. Timothy sustained a hernia that was diagnosed upon arrival here. He had an operation on Friday that went successfully. He will be out a minimum of six weeks, so we are looking at an early-to-mid November projected return if everything goes well. That is the injury and roster report to start.
Our other absentees: Rasmus Sandin is not present today as everybody is well aware and expecting. As I said to Luke Fox when he reached out in the summer after speaking in the Lewis Gross, I don’t think commenting on the state of affairs benefits the player as much as everybody would probably like discourse on it. He is an important player for us and we hope to have him here as soon as possible. That is all I will say.
In regards to my personal situation, I know that it has been a topic of conversation the last week or so as expected. I will speak about it here today and then I am not going to take any questions on it or discuss it until after the season. It is just my personal choice and that of our family.
What I would say on it: We are an organization that preaches accountability. In my position, I don’t view myself as any different. In fact, I think I have to be held the most accountable. With that said, I fully expect to be judged on the full body of my work over the five-year term of my contract. I have zero issue with being evaluated over the entire body of work here.
I have full belief in our players, in our staff, and in our group that we are going to have a great season. My focus every single day will be on continuing to support them and continuing to make the decisions that put the team in the best position in the short and long run. Anybody that truly knows me or that has ever worked with me knows that this is all I will do every single day: pour every single thing I have into doing what is right for the Toronto Maple Leafs and continuing to set the team up for success in the short and long run.
On that note, with regards to the season ahead, we are extremely excited. It is another chance for us to change the story. I know that nobody wants to hear what we have to say. They want to see what we do in action. I know that a lot of people will say it is going to have to come in the playoffs, which obviously we agree with. We need to be better and to win come that time. We are capable of doing so. Given the improvements of the teams in our division and given that it is a very difficult division with perennial contenders in it, we have to go through every single day — starting today — and ready ourselves to be in the best position come playoff time.
We can’t just skip past it and get to that point, as much as everyone would love us to get there and judge us on that. We know that is how we are going to be judged, but the next several days, weeks, and months are about getting us ready to get there, qualify, and then put ourselves in a position to deliver what we are capable of this season.
With regards to the roster, we are very excited about it. In the last number of years, every team that is in our position and considering themselves a contender is going to lose players year-to-year. What we have tried to do every year is find a way to replace the very good players we lose in free agency.
We are very excited about the depth that we have at forward and on defense. We have a notable change in goal that we are very, very excited about in Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov, Erik Kallgren, and Joe Woll when he gets back. All four have played; obviously, Joe and Erik are younger goaltenders who came up last year and played well for us. We have a lot of faith in our goaltending department and the goaltenders themselves.
We are excited about the season and excited to get rolling today.
Dubas on his expiring contract: “I won’t let it be a distraction”
To go back to your personal situation, you sound very confident in your own abilities. Can you explain why you have decided not to sign an extension until the end of the season, even if that is on the table?
Dubas: In the end, it is best. I obviously don’t decide what the organization decides to do. I only control what I can do each day. My view of it is that if we have the year we are capable of, the team plays the way it is capable of and executes at the end — which is what we are building towards — my situation will get taken care of without issue. I don’t worry about that.
I don’t want to come across as the confidence is being in myself. It is in the people that we have here — the players and the staff in all facets. I think it is a special group. That is where I am more than happy to go through the year, be evaluated on the year, and have the decision made. I believe in our group and know what we are capable of.
You are not worried that your own status is going to be a distraction in the way a star player not having signed an extension is a distraction?
Dubas: I know it is not going to be a distraction. I won’t let it be a distraction.
How was not getting an extension this summer communicated with you from Brendan Shanahan as far as this being the plan?
Dubas: Obviously, Brendan and I talk all the time and have very open communication on it. We met at the end of the summer and kind of went through the way the year was going to go. Frankly, that is what I expected.
The reality is that I fully acknowledge we haven’t gotten it done at the end of the season. I would much rather be evaluated on the full term anyway. We just had a conversation about it. That was great. I am very happy to go through with how we are going through it.
How would you describe how you have changed over those five years?
Dubas: We have had a continual change in the people that we have. There are some things that are your core principles where I think changing them will probably require a much deeper investigation. I try to do that during the summer rather than during the year.
When you go back to 2018 when I took this position, every single season, you are trying to find ways you can improve — do a better job in player acquisition, player development, and in keeping your players as well. When it comes to the personnel side, those are the primary functions of the job.
When it comes to all of the other facets of the organization, I think the people that lead their individual departments — whether that is medical, equipment, high performance, or player development — we have made a lot of changes to those over the four-plus years I have been in this position.
That is sort of the quest always: even if we think we are doing it well, well isn’t good enough. We need to push. I never think that we ever have it close to figured out. Our results show that we have a way to go in getting ourselves there. We are trying to improve in everything every single day and get better every day.
What sort of a resource has Jason Spezza been so far for you?
Dubas: Jason has been outstanding so far more so because he wants to learn everything. He asks a lot of questions as someone who has transitioned right from playing to management. Having someone of that calibre of player but also how interest he is in the game of hockey in general — everything that goes into it — has been really valuable to us certainly through free agency but also as we get ready to go into camp.
Dubas on his continued belief in the core: “Everything they are doing right now is about winning”
You talked about your belief in the organization and in the group. Where does that belief come from knowing all of the improvements you have made but also the question marks that you do have?
Dubas: Every team is going to have question marks in the current situation. I don’t think there are any perfect teams. Some have proven more recently than others that they can go all the way.
Where my belief comes from is just being around the group every day. The guys have been in the facility mostly for quite a while now — the core group. Seeing how hard they work and what they are about, everything they are doing right now is about winning. When the group was younger, I think you are trying to establish yourself and that you belong. Now they are trying to prove together that they can win.
I see it every day. I don’t expect people to hear that and believe it. They are going to want us to show it. That is 100% acceptable and fine. I see what the group is about every day, and that is why I have full belief in them. It is not just the players but the people that are in the building. It is a great place to come into every day and a great environment. We just have to win in the end to have everyone else know that. I understand why people would question it.
You have mentioned in the past needing to set yourself up for the playoffs by dominating the regular season. Your team arguably did that last season. If they were to replicate it, what can you say to fans as to why things might change at playoff time?
Dubas: We had a very good regular season, but I consider it a significant difference between our regular season and the team that won our division in Florida. To me, there is still a lot of room for us to grow in that regard and push in that regard. Our goal has to be to win our division. That is where we compete the most.
I understand that is not going to placate anybody. If we were to do that and that is our goal, it is going to immediately shift to, “Okay, let’s get it done in the playoffs.” That is how we are wired as well.
We just view training camp, exhibition, and the regular season as a key to building what we are going to build as we go into the playoffs. As I said in the opening, no one wants to hear us talk about it. They want to see us do. We know that as well.
Dubas on the absence of Liljegren, Engvall, and Sandin + the plan in net
With the absence of Timothy Liljegren, Pierre Engvall, and Rasmus Sandin, who specifically are you looking at to step up into those roles?
Dubas: Every year, we go into our offseason planning and try to cover off as much as we can in terms of planning what we are going to do if injury happens or a player isn’t at the level we expect.
On defense, notably, we signed Jordie Benn and Victor Mete in free agency. We were very happy with how Carl Dahlstrom played for us with both the Leafs and the Marlies. We think he is capable of a lot more.
We have our own young players that showed very well — Filip Kral at Traverse City, but also last year with the Marlies. He has taken great steps physically. In addition to Filip, we also have Mac Hollowell. Last year, he broke his hand in a fight at the end of the year, but before that, he was really pushing to be considered for time. That is the answer on defense.
In terms of the situation up front, when the news of Pierre came in, that is when we executed the tryout agreement for Zach Aston-Reese, who we had really considered going into the offseason as well. But this is the first time going into the year where I look at our own internal guys. If you are them, you know you have a great chance, whether you are Nick Robertson — who I know gets a lot of bandwidth — but also the Bobby McManns, the Joey Andersons, the Pontus Holmbergs throughout the organization. It is a great chance and opportunity for them to show that they can push and give it a go.
We are very excited about that, and I am excited to see what they can do starting tomorrow on the ice.
Can you expand on the Liljegren injury and how it happened? What is the latest with Rodion Amirov?
Dubas: Liljegren reported some abdominal pain upon arrival. On medical review and with an ultrasound, it was found he had a hernia. To me, it is just a cumulative thing that happened. It wasn’t an acute situation where it happened.
Rodion Amirov — we had a followup with him and the doctors that are managing it from Moscow and Germany. It has become a more difficult situation to manage in person as things have developed in Europe. Where he is at is that he is through his final round of chemotherapy. What we are working on now is a consultation appointment to see if he is able to travel here and be around the team to train, participate in on-ice training, and hopefully, return to play. That is where we are at.
With Matt Murray, can you be as certain as possible in regards to his health? Will his play dictate that? Is he a clear-cut number one, or do you have a shared workload plan for your goalies, especially early on?
Dubas: Matt has been fully cleared today and he is ready to roll. That is the answer to his health question.
With regards to the workload for both goaltenders, both have shown that they can carry the load. The reality is that we need to get them both up and running. It is going to be hard if one is going to be playing all the games and the other is sitting.
With the way the schedule is at the beginning of the year, it kind of makes it easy at the beginning of the year to let it roll. With that said, it is going to be based on merit with how they play in exhibition and how they play to start the year.
Nothing has been promised to either and nothing will be given to either. They will earn it. We have Erik Kallgren here as well, who will push as he did last year. That will be a key thing for us to watch in camp. I am very confident in all three.
Dubas on Sandin’s absence from training camp, Matthews’ contract situation, and whether 2022-23 is a “make-or-break” season
In Ramsus Sandin’s position, how important is training camp for a player of his age — for him to participate in as much of it as possible?
Dubas: We have been through it before with a player that missed training camp and two months of the season. Everyone in this room saw it. It is tough.
In Rasmus’ case, he is a player where this is pivotal development time. I think it is very important. Like I said at the outset, we certainly wish he was here. I do think it has massive value. We hope he is here as soon as possible.
With Nate MacKinnon signing his extension yesterday, the public focus has shifted to Auston Matthews’ pending free agency coming up. How does that impact the team’s plans even before you are able to sign that extension?
Dubas: I would say he is not pending. He has two years left on him. For us, when you have good players, you are always planning to keep them. If you look at the way our contracts are structured, we have a massive amount of cap flexibility coming around that time when Auston, Mitch, William, and John all expire. That is really the job.
We have two players that contract into the term of those. That planning is not just a now thing. It is something that has been going on from the minute that they signed them because of the calibre of player that they are.
I understand the question, and it is fair. I understand the discussion behind it. It is on us to build an environment where high-end players want to be and stay — where they know they can be pushed to reach their potential and have a chance to win.
With your personal contract situation, Auston Matthews’ upcoming contract negotiation, and the betting odds putting Sheldon Keefe as most likely to be fired, is this a make-or-break season? Is that how you are viewing it? If you don’t get to where you need to go — whether that is winning a round, the division, getting to the Cup Final — are you expecting big changes?
Dubas: Our goal is not to win one round. Our goal is to win four. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. That is what we set our mind on every day. There is no thought — amongst anyone who works at this facility — about what the repercussions are going to be and not be.
I don’t spend any of my time worrying about what the betting line says about Sheldon or anything in that regard. I only worry about every single day here — what we can do every single day to be at our best and reach our goal, which is to win in the end. That is the best way I can answer that.