Q: What pressure does the flat cap in the CBA put on you to win this tournament while you can keep this roster together? Read MoreIt’s back to work for Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas — Toronto Sun
After being teased for years about his youth and inexperience, Kyle Dubas is at last on level ground with every other NHL general manager.
None of them ever had to guide their teams through this kind of season, halted for four months by a global pandemic, restarted with a daring mid-summer 24-team tournament with COVID-19 still not eliminated and last week’s new CBA changing the big picture.
On the eve of Monday’s opening of Maple Leafs training camp for Return To Play, the 34-year-old Dubas discussed with Toronto media the challenges facing himself and his club. Here’s a Q&A from the conference call.
Q: What pressure does the flat cap in the CBA put on you to win this tournament while you can keep this roster together?
A: “I don’t look at the situation and say this is our only chance. If we didn’t have our core guys locked up for this year and next, I would maybe feel a little bit differently. We have the 2019-20 contracts to finish and the ‘20-21s.
“I know that seems to be the narrative about the team. But I don’t feel that this season there should be any added pressure. I think the players have an expectation and we have an expectation that we’re going to be competitive and of course try to contend to win the Stanley Cup.
“If we were facing a decision of our core players, we’d have to make a major move. We’re going to have some space to take care of our RFAs and potentially look at some of our own UFAs. We have time.
“(But) with the cap flat, our development system will be paramount.”
Q: When did the last players arrive in Toronto, do you anticipate any Leafs will opt out of RTP by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline and what do you think of players who have already done so?
“I don’t think it looks right now that any of the players we have invited will be opting out, I don’t have any inkling of that. The players have mostly all been here for quite a while now, at least a week off the top of my head.
“I think (opting out) was a great thing for the League and the PA to do. If any of our players were to opt out for any reason, we’d be fully understanding. This is such a difficult time in the world and whether it’s for reasons of underlying health or just general family reasons or whether you’re just not comfortable. I certainly respect any of our players who would feel that way and any player in the league or staff member that would feel that way.”
Q: What might your final roster look like in terms of numbers?
A: “We want to make sure that every roster player has a role. We didn’t want to have two or three extra guys at the bottom that didn’t really feel that they were close to playing. So maybe up to 28 or 29 players (15 to 16 forwards, nine to 10 defencemen, three goaltenders).
“What I would say to all those players (competing on the fringe) is they’ve got the chance to make an impact. That’s one of the great things about this next two weeks. We’re going to have some time to evaluate everybody. If Nick (Robertson), Kenny Agostino or Adam Brooks step up and are beating down the door throughout training camp, we’re going to give them opportunity.”
“(Forward) Nic Petan was deemed fit to play by our medical staff (Sunday). He had been a full participant in Phase 2, so he will be added to the roster and (Marlies defenceman) Mac Hollowell will be removed.”
Q: What will determine if Robertson makes the team?
A: “The way that he performs in practises and scrimmages. We’re going to give him every shot. We’re not going to look at his age (18). If he can make an impact playing with older, stronger players, we’ll roll from there.
“The latter half of this week we’ll start to replicate game experiences. It’s not a normal camp with 70 guys. There’s no ability (for Robertson) to get lost.
“We have to make cuts as we go along to be bubble compliant.”
Q: Are there any advantages to being at Scotiabank Arena with 11 other teams?
A: “There is a bit of familiarity. But there’s not going to be any fans, no game operations. I think there’s also a challenge of the fact that your family is 10 minutes away and on July 26 when we move in (the hotel), we’re all going to be sealed in away from them.
“We know the rink, but we’re going to be abiding by such strict protocols and entry and exit and we’re not getting any preferred treatment in terms of hotel or facilities. I think the League has done a pretty good job of keeping that very fair. The only advantage is we don’t have a flight to get here.”
Q: What will the caliber of hockey be like in RTP?
A: “I have no idea. We’re going to find out soon, though. There’s no experience that anyone has had – you could maybe look at some of the World Cups and Canada Cups that have come off long layoffs – but even then, those are August tournaments coming off a May, June, April finish, depending on where you were in the standings.
This is an August resumption after a March ending, so almost a five-month layoff with really one exhibition game.”
Q: Who else will be living in the bubble besides you and (team president) Brendan Shanahan?
A: “We’ll have the six-person coaching staff (Sheldon Keefe, assistants Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol, goalie coach Steve Briere and video coaches Andrew Brewer and Jordan Bean). And then every other staff member are people we’d deem that directly benefit the player’s performance (medical, trainers, etc.).”
Q: What do you think of the RTP format?
A: “The NHL has done a great job of adapting to find a way to certainly recognize that playoff races weren’t over and to have teams that were in the race kept alive.
“Despite the fact if the season had just ended on March 10 we would have in the playoffs and scheduled to play Tampa, I don’t think that it’s unfair that we have to play a qualifying round whatsoever because we were still supposed to have 12 games left to try to either make up some ground or secure our space.
“I think it’s very fairly set up even though we’re one of those teams that’s gone from playoffs into a qualifying round like a number of others that are seeded five through eight.
“None of us have ever been in a series where seven of the teams are staying in the same hotel. It’s like minor hockey where if the game in front of you runs a little bit long, you’re kind of waiting for that game to end in overtime or what have you.”
Q: What will this be like for Keefe?
A: “When we made the coaching change (Mike Babcock being fired in late November) Sheldon had one morning skate to get the team up and running for a game that night. Now he’s had essentially a full build up with the coaching staff. And we’ll have a two-week camp to get the players up and rolling, so I think there’s some good fortune for us on that end as well.
“We’re excited to see that, not only for the short run, but I think it’s a great experience for Sheldon and will help us and help him. And we’re largely past some of the injuries that had plagued us at the end of the season. We’re certainly excited to see (a fully healthy blueline).”
Q: What’s Auston Matthews’ status? (the Leafs’ leading scorer contracted Covid during the spring at his summer residence in Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: “He’s fit to play”
Q: The team goes against Columbus without a lot of recent playoff success.
A: “I’m optimistic. This is our fourth series. We do have experience; guys know ebbs and flows now. Guys on the team that have been in the American League and with the Marlies have played in a lot of series and most of them have played in best of five as well. I think all of that is great to handle and to certainly go back on for experience as we kind of work our way through it.
“With regards to our chances, I think like every team now, we’re largely past some of the injuries that had plagued us at the end of the season and those players are due back (Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev).
“(The Blue Jackets) have a very specific organizational culture and ethos about them. They’re extremely hard-working. They’re a group that handles resiliency extremely well. They’re obviously a very tight-knit group”.
Q: You want to move on from talk you could win the draft lottery, but that could happen if you lose in the first round.
A: “That’s not where we’re thinking. If you don’t win that lottery, then it’s still a disappointing season. It’s so far away from where our franchise is at and what we’re trying to do.
“You lose, you get a 12.5% chance of winning the first pick and all of those eight teams get the same chance. To me the probability of losing and then winning the pick is still so low that we don’t really look at it that way.
“Our whole focus is on doing everything we can to try to win 19 games.”
Q: You’ve come through some injuries as mentioned. And what’s the outlook for Andreas Johnsson’s knee injury?
A: “I don’t look at the injuries necessarily as a negative thing because they allowed us to see (defencemen) Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Justin Holl in a role that we thought he might be capable of. He grabbed the wheel with both hands and showed he’s able and certainly capable of playing big minutes in the NHL.
“(Injuries) allowed us to learn about our prospects on defence that will help us as we go into this stage in terms of depth and certainly in the future. I think that the injuries that we had throughout the year were more of a blessing. They forced us to put guys in a higher spot in the lineup like Travis Dermott when Muzzin went out of the lineup.
“Andreas was a six-month timeline. He would be somebody that we could expect to see, if all goes well with the end of his rehab, perhaps beginning at the second round of the actual playoffs to be safe. He’s done well with his rehab, in Gothenburg (Sweden).”
Q: How has the team handled Phase 2, the smaller group practices, and all the restrictions as you enter Phase 3?
A: “I’ve been extremely impressed by the way that all of our players have handled this, which is a voluntary phase; how hard they’ve worked, what they’ve requested from our staff to help them with and their commitment throughout. I know in the long term that will pay off and we’re certainly hopeful that, in the short term here as we get back, that has a great impact on where we’re going as a program.”
Q: Is the team ready for the isolation, the bubble environment and all that goes into the lengthy RTP protocols?
A: “It’s easier for us to see the finish line from Toronto, because of the job (three levels of government) have done to handle the virus. I don’t know what it would feel like to be in a spot where the virus is running rampant.”