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Rare one-on-one conversation with Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas


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Kyle Dubas doesn’t sound like a man on the hot seat.

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In a rare wide-ranging conversation of length on the eve of the opening of Maple Leafs training camp, Dubas comes across as composed and confident – believing in his hockey team of so many questions, excited, like most of us, for the start of a new season and all that is about to unfold.

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He isn’t consumed with winning a single round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the way so much of Toronto seems preoccupied with the annual post-season disappointments that have plagued this franchise for far too many years. This is his fifth season as general manager, his ninth year with the club, some wonder if there will be a next year for him with his contract set to expire but the team has grown by 15 points in his first four years – just not enough when it matters most in April or May.

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“You want to win every year, that’s why you do these jobs,” said Dubas, the married father of two, no longer a kid GM turning 37 in November. “You’re at that point where that’s our goal. To win. Not just win a round. Our goal to is win the Stanley Cup. Not to win a series, it’s to win the whole thing. That’s what we focus on.

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“Whenever we make a decision, I have never once thought: ‘How is it going to affect what people think of me?’ You think ‘Is it going to help our team accomplish our goal?’ That’s all that guides every decision I make in the short and long run. Is this decision best for the Maple Leafs in helping us accomplish our goals.”

The decisions, like most made by general managers of note around the NHL, have been good and bad, terrific and terrible. That’s part of the game. You win, you lose, you play again tomorrow. The difference this year for Dubas and for the Leafs is this season begins with a gamble unlike any other. He’s rolled the dice, his reputation and quite possibly his future on the signings of wayward goaltenders Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, both of whom were let go by teams wanting to win.

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Goaltender Matt Murray won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing his best hockey when he was guaranteed the starter’s job. That could bode well for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who signed him.
Goaltender Matt Murray won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing his best hockey when he was guaranteed the starter’s job. That could bode well for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who signed him. Photo by Gregory Shamus /Getty Images

Dubas talks about all player signings and trades as though they are “investments. You make bets,” he said. “And sometimes (in salary cap era) you have to run towards players that other teams have run away from…my belief is in the analysis done by our goaltending people from top to bottom.”

He begins with Murray, who may wind up as the Leafs starter in net.

“In Murray’s case, he’s done this before. He’s won (the Stanley Cup). He did it twice. I know (Ottawa) moved on from him. The benefit for me is, I know him personally,” said Dubas. “I believe in him. He played for me (in junior). I agree with Jim Rutherford (former Penguins GM). When he has to prove himself and fight for the net, that’s when he’s been at his best.”

Dubas does concede the Stanley Cups came six years ago. “I don’t look at it as, what can a goalie do for us? I look at it as what can we do for our goalies? The team plays a massive role in that. That’s something we need to control better.”

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The notion of trusting Samsonov, the former first-round draft pick of Washington of previous difficulties who only started 79 games for the Capitals, maybe something of a reach for Dubas and the Leafs. Samsonov played seven playoff games for the Caps, winning one.

“What I’ve seen of him this summer is a very strong commitment to his craft,” said Dubas. “That’s impressed me. In terms of why the public should believe in him, well I’ll say this: He believes in himself.

That’s why he took a one-year, bet on himself kind of deal. He could have taken more. He could have got more. He was insistent on the one-year and insistent he would prove himself in that year.”

Though he signed for only $1.8 million, Ilya Samsonov will challenge newly acquired Matt Murray for the starting job in goal for the Leafs.
Though he signed for only $1.8 million, Ilya Samsonov will challenge newly acquired Matt Murray for the starting job in goal for the Leafs. Photo by Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images

Should the goaltending fail and by extent the Leafs fail, this would likely mean the end of Dubas as general manager. But he doesn’t view it that way and nor has team president Brendan Shanahan, who combined with Dubas has co-authored a team through many fine regular seasons and shortened post-seasons.

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They lost when they had Freddie Andersen in goal. They lost when they had Jack Campbell in goal. They lost when they had the combination of Andersen and Campbell, which on paper seems far stronger than Murray and Samsonov.

Now Dubas believes they can win with two goalies that others have given up on. That will be the intense focus of the early season, possibly the late season, with this team. Is their goaltending good enough? Can it hold up? How or why did Dubas put the Leafs in so dubious a position?

For the record, Dubas denies he had a chance to sign Marc-Andre Fleury for money similar to what the Leafs are paying Murray. “That’s not accurate,” he said. “I think (Fleury) re-signed in Minnesota before free agency. Saying we could have got him is hypothetical because he signed on the Friday or Saturday before free agency began.”

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Does Dubas worry about his job being on the line and any distractions that may come with that?

“I understand the question,” he said. “Your career is defined by your whole body of work.” He stands proudly by the all-consuming work, even while living through the frustration of the playoff difficulties.

Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas during the end of season press conference on Tuesday May 17, 2022.
Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas during the end of season press conference on Tuesday May 17, 2022. Photo by Veronica Henri /Toronto Sun

Leafs Nation speaks daily about the lack of playoff success. If you think fans take it hard, consider what it’s like for management. They live it every day. They are consumed with changing the narrative. They have analyzed every aspect of the roster in every conceivable way – and while the Dubas-Shanahan plan, investing so much of their payroll in their top four forwards instead of the traditional way of building from the back end out has not succeeded when it mattered most – there remains a belief in this group, and it doesn’t necessarily come from playing well in a seven-game series against the two-time champion, three-time finalist, Tampa Bay Lightning.

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“Does it mean anything that you outplayed the team you lost to?” said Dubas. “No. Because we’re in the business of winning. There were a lot of nice comments from Tampa and Colorado after our series. But in the end, it’s about winning. We had chances to do it. We were up 1-0 and we were up 2-1 and I think Games 2 and Games 4 really cost us. That’s where we lost our chances in my opinion.

“We have to learn from that. And nobody wants to hear (how close you were) until we do it.”

The Leafs lost first round last May led by Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews, voted the best player in the NHL. They lost first round with Mitch Marner being voted the top right winger for the second consecutive year, something no Leafs player has ever done before. And while there will be attention on the team, its performance, and certainly the goaltending early on, there is already plenty of talk of Matthews’ future.

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“He’s got two years left on his contract,” said Dubas. “I don’t think that’s a short amount of time. I understand why there is concern. I have conversations with Auston and his camp all the time, about everything, where we’re at, where we’re going. I know his feelings and thoughts on it.

“For us, you build an environment that someone feels they’re flourishing in and getting better and they’re pushed, and you’re not just acquiescing to him. And you build that trust with him.

“I have my view of (Auston) and I think as special as he is as a player, he’s that special as a person. He’s evolved to be one of those type of players, the kind of player you hope to have.”

What Dubas is saying without completely saying it is: He’s confident of re-signing Matthews. He’s probably begun work on it already. He’s not concerned about losing Matthews the way so many Leaf fans seem to be concerned.

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This hasn’t been a great off-season for the Leafs because of the goaltending uncertainty, because of the loss of the emerging Ilya Mikheyev to free agency, because of the loss of depth players such as Ondrej Kase and Ilya Lyubushkin, and the retirement of Jason Spezza, because of the apparent contract difficulties with unsigned defenceman Rasmus Sandin. That’s four or five regulars out the lineup from a team that wasn’t good enough last year: Now they add in veteran Calle Jarnkrok, Stanley Cup winner Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and possibly tryout winger Zach Aston-Reese. with the hopes they can match the kind of signings Dubas has made in the past with players such as Michael Bunting, Kase or David Kampf.

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“The game has changed,” said Dubas, talking big picture. “There are 22 or 23 teams now within a million or two of the salary cap. And I think there are 10 or 15 teams that are right there at the cap. That means all the teams are going to have to change. every year. That means sometimes you invest in a player and develop him (like Zach Hyman or Mikheyev) and then you can’t afford to keep them, you have to move on from them.

“We believe in the depth we have here and the work that’s been put in. Plus the continued growth and evolution of our top guys, who allow us to maintain the level we’re at. Now we have to go out and prove that.

“The narrative last year (from fans) was ‘let’s wait for the playoffs.’ That was the conversation going into the season and then the season started and people got caught up in everything. And when you get close to the end, it’s ‘Here they are again. This is their chance.’ Go ahead and show us.”

The pressure of the hot seat does not consume Dubas, who admits the work is all-consuming. He figures when you compare his pressure-filled situation to what Brian Cashman faces on a daily basis with the New York Yankees or Chaim Bloom faces with the Boston Red Sox, he’s in a pretty good spot overall.
“I understand our fan base. I know how passionate everybody is. But whenever I’m anywhere (around Toronto) people come up to me and they’re always incredibly kind.”

And then he reconsiders: “I know that’s not always what people think.”

ssimmons@postmedia.com
twitter.com/simmonssteve

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