The Maple Leafs need a bounce-back effort against Kyle Dubas’ Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/HNIC/City TV).
Anybody familiar with this era of Leafs hockey — and the checkered history of trap games against bottom-feeders — could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy heading into yesterday afternoon’s game against the lowly Chicago Blackhawks. Despite a dominant effort in the first half of the game, they let the Blackhawks hang around and ultimately fell 4-3 in overtime because of a couple of turnovers in the defensive zone that ended up in their net.
The inability to manage the game fell below the standard mature teams with Stanley Cup aspirations should be held to, and the most disappointing part was that it was the Leafs‘ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner that was on for two goals against while generating very little offensively.
Tonight, the Maple Leafs face another team coming off of a loss in the first half of a back-to-back last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are, of course, now led by former Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas.
Most of us need no reminders of the dramatic offseason timeline that led us to this point.
When the Maple Leafs were defeated in the second round of the playoffs against the Florida Panthers last spring, the fan base called out loudly for change. However, change in the General Manager’s chair was arguably the least likely scenario to occur. Seemingly with the full confidence of Brendan Shanahan, Dubas was extremely active at last season’s trade deadline and — on the surface — appeared to have equipped the team with the necessary pieces to challenge for a deep playoff run. Even after a disappointingly quick second-round exit, a contract extension for Dubas to stay on as GM seemed inevitable.
Then came a season-ending press conference that sent shockwaves through the fanbase and apparently the Leafs organization itself. Dubas conveyed that the stresses of the job had taken a toll, and before making a commitment, expressed the need for time to discuss his future with his family. Kyle Dubas was fired days later by Brendan Shanahan, who sounded blindsided by Dubas’ tone and comments when providing the blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to the firing, and he was replaced by Brad Treliving a few weeks later. Dubas, in contrast to his message during his press conference about either staying in Toronto or taking time off for the sake of his family, accepted a President of Hockey Operations role with the Penguins.
The leaks of an immediate connection between Shanahan and Treliving, and the Dubas-to-Pittsburgh rumours that long preceded the firing, left many wondering whether both parties were heading for second base before the divorce was final. In the fallout, there was all the talk in the media about salary demands, emails instead of face-to-face meetings, possible hockey moves the two might not have agreed on, and other indications of a relationship that was fraying late in Dubas’ tenure (Shanahan was notably absent from the executive box throughout 2022-23).
Now the two clubs face off with Treliving at the helm of the Leafs and Dubas running the Penguins, with the same core players returning from last season for both teams, although there are some new wrinkles around them.
Kyle Dubas made a much bigger summer splash in the trade market by acquiring top-six winger Reilly Smith and the needs-no-introduction Erik Karlsson while signing depth forward/former Leaf Noel Acciari and defenseman Ryan Graves.
Brad Treliving was quieter in his first offseason on the job, completing most of his work in the FA pool by signing Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and the now-possibly-out-for-the-season John Klingberg to short-term, low-risk contracts. His most consequential move was getting Auston Matthews inked to a new contract extension before the season began while allowing pending UFA William Nylander to enter the year unsigned.
So far, the Penguins are in a much worse position in the standings at 9-10-0 as of American Thanksgiving, and with Karlsson, Crosby, Letang, and Malkin all on the wrong side of 30, it’s getting late early and the pressure is mounting on head coach Mike Sullivan to get the ship turned around. Dubas’ bet on a much older core than the one in Toronto, albeit one with true Cup pedigree, is so far coming up empty.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Penguins:
They are never easy to play against in this building. We have had some tough gos here. We have felt their best in this building.
That is what we expect today — not just because they are coming off of last night, but offensively, they have really been clicking around as good or better than anyone in the league. If you are not ready to play defensively and don’t manage the puck well, they will make you look bad.
We know about their strength down the middle of the ice and ability to move the puck from blue line out. They play a hard, direct, and fast game. We are ready for a much different type of game than what we saw last night. No doubt, we are going to need a response.
Keefe on whether the game means more with Kyle Dubas on the other side:
It feels like any other game. I don’t know that you ever coach against a GM. It is not on my mind at all.
Keefe on how much he remains in contact with Kyle Dubas:
A fair bit. There is a lot of history there and all of that. It is just more sharing stuff about the kids more than anything. That is really it.
Keefe on how much Dubas has meant to him over the years:
He gave me my first break in terms of an opportunity to coach in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie. I think we have both grown a lot working together. I clearly wouldn’t be here today without his faith in me.
I would like to think I helped him at the same time a little bit along the way. It was a good relationship that we had to push and challenge one another. I am forever grateful for all that he has done.
He is on the other side here now. I have enjoyed the process of working with Tre just the same, getting to know him, and all of that. The GM-coach relationship is a very important one at all levels but in particular in the NHL. It has been a real good chance for me to grow as a coach to work with someone new.
Morgan Rielly on whether there are any sentimental feelings ahead of this matchup:
I don’t know if there’s anything overly special about it. I definitely admire him and I like the way he works. I thought he did a great job when he was in Toronto, I think he’s a great GM and a great guy, and I really enjoyed my time working for him.
John Tavares on his relationship with Kyle Dubas:
I had a tremendous relationship with him. He’s probably the biggest reason why I came to Toronto.
Keefe on Mitch Marner’s recent performance:
He is just not executing at the level that you’d expect from Mitch. At times, he’s had it. I thought, after being challenged after the second period last night, the line — and Mitch, in particular — had a better third period and showed some positive signs. But there is no doubt Mitch hasn’t found his groove here yet.
Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Penguins
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#89 Nick Robertson – #11 Max Domi – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#64 David Kampf – #18 Noah Gregor
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #22 Jake McCabe
#2 Simon Benoit – #25 Conor Timmins
#85 William Lagesson
Starter: #60 Joseph Woll
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Scratched: Bobby McMann, Alex Steeves, Ryan Reaves
Injured: John Klingberg, Timothy Liljegren
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines
#59 Jake Guentzel – #87 Sidney Crosby – #10 Drew O’Connor
#19 Reilly Smith – #71 Evgeni Malkin – #11 Alex Nylander
#63 Radim Zohorna – #20 Lars Eller – #13 Vinnie Hinostroza
#83 Matt Nieto – #55 Noel Acciari – #77 Jeff Carter
#27 Ryan Graves – #58 Kris Letang
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #65 Erik Karlsson
#5 Ryan Shea – #7 John Ludvig
Starter: #35 Tristan Jarry
#39 Alex Nedeljkovic
Injured/Out: Bryan Rust, Chad Ruhwedel, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Sam Poulin