New GM of the Maple Leafs, Brad Treliving, joined Kyper & Bourne to discuss the changes the Maple Leafs might need to make to become successful at playoff time, the plan to meet with Auston Matthews ahead of contract negotiations, and much more.
In the press conference, it sounded like you know exactly what you are getting yourself into in this market.
Treliving: I’ll put it this way: I remember working in Arizona, and when I interviewed in Calgary, we are all young and dumb — and still dumb, but a little older now — and you think you know all of the answers. “I know what I am in for. I have never worked in Canada, but I know what it is all about.” It is like anything else. Until you have put the shoes on and lived it, you don’t know.
I enjoyed the time in Calgary. In Canada, it’s the spotlight. This is no disrespect to anywhere, but this is different. It is bigger. It is brighter. It is more eyes. I get it. I always think that until you have done it, you haven’t done it. I have an anticipation and an expectation that I think I know what it is about, but until you have done it, you haven’t.
I am going in with my eyes wide open.
As an outsider coming into the Leafs, do you see them as Cup contenders? How have you seen them as someone on the outside taking over the role?
Treliving: In the last couple of years, for sure. Going into the playoffs, I thought they were in that group of teams.
If you really break the teams in the league now… Back when [Kypreos] was playing, everybody gives it the company like that we have a chance, but at the end of the day, there are four or five teams that are probably going to win it. This year, when you see the 16 teams start to play, you can make the case that anybody can win the Cup.
Now, you don’t build your team just to say, “I want a chance to be one of the 16 teams, and if the moon and stars align, we have a chance.” There is some randomness and there is some luck in our game, but at the end of the day, going into the last couple of years, I have put the Leafs into whatever that group is — call it five, call it six, or call it seven teams that, in my mind, were legitimate Cup teams.
That doesn’t mean they are perfect teams. That doesn’t mean they don’t have holes. If you go through the 82-game marathon, you need all sorts of stuff — luck, health, top players to be top players, surprises, goaltending, and all of those kinds of things.
It is a long way of answering that they’re an elite team. Now, as we sit here today on June 1, there are some question marks in terms of UFAs and people who are contracted or not contracted for next year. With that core of players and where the team finished off, it is a really good team, but there are areas we have to address.
Today, you mentioned being “on the clock.” There is no question Leafs Nation will not rest until Auston Matthews has a new contract. You mentioned getting out and seeing Auston. Is the ticket booked for tonight?
Treliving: That’s going to be under, “We’re working on it.”
I hate when I say, “This is a priority,” or, “That is a priority,” because it makes other things or other people think that they’re not. That is not the case. But let’s just be frank: Auston is at the top of the list here.
There is a process we have to go through. It is not about walking in and jumping into a negotiation. To me, you have to get to know people. We have gone through a change here in terms of the manager position. A player is going to have questions.
More than anything else, they want to know who they are working with. They want to know what the thinking is. They want to know what kind of person they are [dealing with]. As much as it is me getting to know Auston, it is Auston getting to know and getting comfortable with me.
We know what the clock is. We are not going to sit here and say, “We are going tomorrow, and we need an answer by Tuesday.” This is a process.
At the end of the day, he is contracted for next year. We understand fully — in terms of how that contract works, trade protection, and when all of those marvelous things kick in — but we are going to chew on the elephant one bite at a time here. Number one is to go out there, visit with him, spend some time, and get to know each other.
11 months ago, you went through two scenarios with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. One of them you could read the tea leaves with Gaudreau’s situation and where it might have been heading. Tkachuk really came out of left field for a lot of people with the process sped up. Can you draw from those two experiences to help you manage Auston Matthews’ situation this time now?
Treliving: 100%. What I mean by that — I said it today, and maybe it wasn’t too clear now that I think about it, but anything that you go through is an experience that you learn from. You may do the same thing next time. You may do something different, but you have been through it. We hear all about teams learning lessons and getting experience. It is only an experience if you learn something from it and apply it.
Now, that is not — and I repeat that is not — to say that because something happened with those players there that we have to do something completely different here. The analogy is, “We traded for this player and it didn’t work out, so we will never trade for another player again. We’ve learned from the experience.” No, no, no.
You learn through that process of how it went. In Matthew’s case, it was a little unique. I am very close to the player. I said all along — and I repeated it again today — that I didn’t want to trade Matthew Tkachuk. We were watching in Florida and going, “Jesus, who is the genius who decided they wanted to all of a sudden make a 25-year-old player expendable?” That is not the case.
Matthew made a decision. We had to react to the decision. We looked and made an organizational decision internally about where our team was at. In that case, quite frankly, I felt like I was holding a two and a three at the card table playing against everybody with pocket kings. There was a select number of teams involved. They knew the process. They knew the situation. We felt we wanted to look at an opportunity that keeps our team in the competitive window.
I love Matthew. I think he is a phenomenal player. But that is chapter one of the story. The players that came from Florida to Calgary are good players. We will see how this thing all plays itself out.
You certainly learn from the experience. That is not to say you are going to do something completely different the next time, but you are more equipped your second time around.
When you look at the Leafs‘ roster, is there a direction you would like to give them or a bump in terms of stylistic play?
Treliving: We are going to look at that. I think it is a little early. I have always said that there is an outside lens and an inside lens. I certainly have some views.
Listen, we have a tremendous amount of skill. As much as we can get frustrated and say, “Gosh darn it, it didn’t work,” getting top players is the hardest thing to do in the game. We can all sit here and say, “Something has to change, something has to change,” and you always look at it — you are trying to make yourself better — but be very, very careful to say, “We are going to take good players and move them out of town because it is going to be different.”
Different isn’t necessarily better. I look at our team, and as we sit here today, there is lots of skill and lots of talent. Can we look at our depth? Are there things to augment our team? How do we approach different situations? Do we have a team that can handle anything that is thrown at us?
In the playoffs, you have to be able to play in a number of different ways and be able to engage — not just accept — and be proactive in putting your game against an opponent. You have to be able to handle different styles of play. Do we look at our defense, and are there ways we can augment that?
I think we have to get behind the curtain a little bit, get to know the individuals, and get to know what our staff thinks here. What excites me, in a lot of ways: just look where these players were picked. It is hard to get good players. It is hard to get top talent. Now you have to find a way to support it while looking at the entire roster and saying, “Here is what we are. How can we push this forward?”
Have you watched enough of the Leafs from afar to say they are not tough enough in the playoffs when you look at the two finalists in Vegas and Florida with how they pound teams with their physicality, especially when we think of players like Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk? Do you feel like you need to turn this into a “playoff” team?
Treliving: As I said earlier, there are different styles in the playoffs. Sometimes you need certain things that get you to the playoffs and get you through the regular season, and then there might be things you need to get through the playoffs.
Those two players there I know really well. We drafted Sam fourth overall and Matthew sixth overall. With our teams in Calgary, we felt that we could not just respond but initiate physical challenge. People sometimes take that and say, “Oh we are going back…”
To me, playing a heavier game and competing heavier is puck battles. It is winning space at the front of the net. As much as our game changes and speed and skill are paramount in our game, at this time of year, I feel the two most important areas — and it has been for a long time — are the front of both nets. At the end of the day, you are trying to get to mine. How am I going to keep you from it? I am trying to get to yours. How can you keep me from it?
Those are things that we have to find. We have to look for ways we can augment our team. Sometimes, that is not necessarily airlifting people in. It is getting people to adjust how they play. It is getting people to make sure we are getting inside. It is making sure that our puck battles are an area that is of the highest priority.
How do we check? We don’t defend. We check. To me, there is a difference. You are on your toes. You are aggressive.
We know what it is like in the regular season. A guy may finish his check every… You are playing 82 games, you are in back-to-backs, it’s three in four. There are no fly-bys in the playoffs. There is no letup. We have to make sure we have a roster that can handle whatever the game may present.
Can you tell us how many years you signed for? We just want to keep Elliotte Friedman from going through your garbage tonight.
Treliving: That is the closest I have been to Elliotte in a while. It is frightening.
No, I am going to keep you guessing on that one. We have been looked after.