Metaphorically, Kyle Dubas is ready to die on a hill with his Core Four players.
And if MLSE security escorts him out to Bay St. a year or so from now, he’ll likely be clutching the same roster file he vehemently defended on Thursday during a media availability amid a summer of discontent.
While not oblivious to calls for change on the ice, some for his own removal after five first-round playoff failures with him as assistant or full-on general manager, he’s insistent the plan he helped draw up will finally yield results next spring. The last post-season series, blowing a 3-1 series lead to Montreal, stung the most, in and around Scotiabank Arena. Patience is stretched thin with young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander at not yet taking the first step to a title, their massive cap hits, plus that of captain John Tavares.
But after a first-place finish in the North Division, producing two all-stars in Matthews and Marner and improvements in defensive play, Dubas won’t bring a sledgehammer to the main roster, at least to those under contract. While UFA Zach Hyman appears to be exiting, Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Travis Dermott have been re-signed and Dubas made the Jared McCann trade with Pittsburgh to keep Alexander Kerfoot and D-man Justin Holl safe from the Seattle expansion draft.
“I understand some may look at it and say ‘this group hasn’t gotten it done’ and why aren’t there significan changes?’,” Dubas said. “But for better of worse, I believe in this group, believe they’re going to get it done and believe they’re going to win. I believe in them as players, as people. I understand that comes with a certain doubt because we’ve not broken through in playoffs, but it’s my belief they will.
“I know that decision lies on me and what the risk is for me. We’re going ahead that way, so I’m comfortable with it. I believe we’re going to see the best version of this group next season that we’ve seen yet and willing to bet everything on that. I knew what I signed up for. I’m looking forward to embracing the challenge ahead, when looking at what might have been with a (fortunate) bounce here or there.”
Indeed, one overtime goal by Toronto against the Habs instead of various muck-ups, the presence of a healthy Tavares and a less tentative seventh game might have changed the narrative these past seven weeks and seen the Leafs get as far as plucky Montreal. But the continuing post-season flops leave Dubas with little hope of survival unless there’s a marked turnaround in 2022.
People are sick of the hype, of a proud team and civic tradition sullied by 17 years either missing the playoffs or not advancing a single round, contributing to a league-record 55 years without a Cup.
Dubas looked with envy at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s response whenever adversity arose, making personal and physical sacrifice in winning back-to-back.
“I’m not comparing our team to those that have (persevered to) success or who went to the final four,” said Dubas. “But what you can learn from them and where we haven’t been able to break through is if you look at those deciding (playoff) games back to 2018. We go in a little passive, on our heels, trying to feel out the opposition. Teams that have success in hockey and other sports go out and attack that opportunity. We’ve shown that at times, but in the end when it’s all on the line, we have to be able to get to that level.”
He insists those lessons are being absorbed by his team. But he can’t keep protecting Matthews and Marner when the pair of supposed game- changers stumble on the biggest stage.
Losing their left winger Hyman leaves a deep hole and replacing him will be a major story through training camp, either with a current roster player, a prospect or a bargain free agent.
“The needs of the group are fairly obvious to me and people on the outside,” Dubas said. “We need to find a competent partner for (goalie) Jack Campbell and let them battle it out. We’ll have some opportunity up front that appeals to a lot of players (he also mentioned Nick Robertson and Joey Anderson as possible benefactors if other forwards move up). If free agency doesn’t bear fruit on that front, we’ll look at the trade market heading into the season. Come September, we’ll be in a different spot.
“We’re quite happy with our defence last year and that manifested itself with the (reduced) number of shots, goals and opportunities we gave up.”
He underlined his support for Holl, especially as an ideal partner for Jake Muzzin that would’ve been hard to replace in free agency if the Kraken scooped him. If Zach Bogosian walks, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have been waiting their turn, Dubas saying it’s time to give these two first rounders more rope on the blueline.
“Maybe we’ve blocked them a little bit, buy they’ll have to earn it.,” he said.
“I don’t need to BS anyone here. We need to continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, all the way through regular season and set ourselves up for the playoffs like the best teams do.”
ENTRY DRAFT PICKS FEW AND FAR BEWEEN
Toronto’s Zoom war room of draft scouts might need a deck of cards to pass the time this weekend.
Unless the order changes through a trade, they’ll be sitting out Friday’s opening round, then bide their time with only three selections at 57th, 153rd and 185th. But it pays to do your homework as the Leafs have in similar drafts with few picks and no first-rounder.
Nick Robertson went 53rd in 2019 as the first of six selections and is already on the verge of making the team. Fourteen years ago, their six picks from 74th to 189th yielded Matt Frattin and Carl Gunnarsson (later a Stanley Cup winner in St. Louis) and Chris DiDomenico, who played 27 games for Ottawa.
But a major complication this weekend — for general manager Kyle Dubas and all teams — is that so little data is available on young players who had no 2020 playoffs or much of a season at all in ’20-21. Anticipating that late trades last year to boost the playoff roster would be costly, Dubas said he purposely stockpiled 12 picks from the year before.
“So, from October 2020 to (now), we’ll add 15 prospects to our system. We had a more complete set of information on the October draft and knew what would happen to our draft capital at the (2021) trade deadline.”
Getting Nick Foligno from Columbus cost the Leafs Friday’s first-rounder and it’s not looking like he re-signs here, though the pick itself is down at 25th overall.
“That said, we still expect our scouting staff (headed by John Lilley) to do a great job with the three picks and make the most of it,” Dubas said.
The 57th slot was twice kind to the Leafs, with forward Matt Stajan and Jeff Farkas (eight games) eventually making the team from the 2002 and 1997 drafts, respectively.