Kyle Dubas appeared on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid and TSN’s Overdrive on Wednesday in order to discuss various Leafs’ related topics in the wake of the NHL officially announcing its plan to move forward with a 24-team playoff this summer.
On how he feels about how the Leafs stack up against the Blue Jackets…
DUBAS: I haven’t really spent a ton of time yet focusing on the matchup precisely. I think our focus right now has to be on our own team and what we can do to control everything that we do. The one thing that we have stressed has been that there is going to be a massive advantage and edge to the teams that come back in great physical condition and great shape and are able to guard against injuries and all of the other things that are going to crop up as we do something that is unprecedented — which is return right back into the heat of competition.
They’re obviously a very, very well-coached and well-managed team and have a great identity to them. We are certainly not taking them lightly and we know what we will be in for in terms of style of play, but for right now, I think we really need to focus on ourselves and putting ourselves in the best spot to have success.
The key point here is that Dubas is emphasizing that there’ll be an advantage to teams who prioritize internal preparation, meaning their players come back in good shape and hit the ground running. One thing the Leafs have going for them, as a fairly young team, is that their players will likely have an easier time getting up and running after a long pause. The games are going to be sloppy and chaotic so the best edge you can give yourself is in conditioning and preparation.
On his thoughts on the NHL’s decision to operate with an expanded 24-team playoff format and having to participate in a play-in round…
DUBAS: I think they put a lot of work into it. I don’t think there was a perfect way to just decide it. Purely based on playoff odds and probabilities, we were looking good, although on some nights, you wouldn’t say that about us. And lots of people will remind us that we did have our ups and downs. Purely on the probability standpoint, if you look only at the math of it, our odds were very good, and now we will have to play in a series.
In the long run, I think this will be a very good thing for our group and for the growth and development for our group of players and our whole organization. If we are going to win the Stanley Cup now, we have to win 19 games rather than 16. We are going to start off with a very difficult opponent that obviously made waves in the playoffs last year and has had a great year.
The always-positive Dubas offers a trust-the-process message here, suggesting that the added challenge of having to play more games should be advantageous to the long-term growth of the team. Another thing to consider, although there’s a challenge attached to being in a play-in series, the Leafs, if they move on, would go into their first actual playoff series with plenty of momentum. The same can’t be said about the four teams with byes because the mini seeding round-robin they’ll be doing won’t offer the same intensity as a five-game play-in series. You see this often in baseball when a team comes in after their wild-card game victory guns a blazing and the team who finished at the top of the league has to match that energy after not having played a meaningful game potentially in months.
On whether or not the 2020 Stanley Cup would have an asterisk next to it because of the sudden change in the playoff format…
DUBAS: I think people can say whatever they want and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference to us and to our fans — certainly not to our staff or players. I’m sure the other 23 teams that are going into the competition will feel the same way.
Because of how difficult it’s going to be with the lockdown at the end of the season, and then into this competition after training camp, with how difficult this is going to be for the whole organization to deal with in July and August, I think it’s going to be one of the more difficult championships to win.
People will say plenty of things now before the playoffs are actually rolling, but, when push comes to shove, if their team is close to winning a Stanley Cup, I imagine they’ll feel it’s legitimate. That said, every other fanbase that doesn’t win this year will surely discredit this year’s Stanley Cup champion.
On injury updates for players like Ilya Mikheyev, Andreas Johnsson, and Jake Muzzin…
DUBAS: As of right now, we do have players on the injured reserve. Of those players, it’s our expectation that Muzzin and Mikheyev will likely be cleared. They can’t be formally cleared until they go through that entire return-to-play process, which will include actual practicing and contact and so on. They remain on the injured reserve.
Johnsson will not be ready. He is a ways away yet. It was a pretty substantial surgery — six-month recovery at the time, and that was in mid-March. He is still three months away or approximately three months away from us even considering him as eligible.
Dubas notes that both Ilya Mikheyev and Jake Muzzin will likely be ready to return while Andreas Johnsson, who underwent surgery in March, will not.
On Nick Robertson joining the team’s training camp…
DUBAS: I’ll just clarify. Number one, he is going to come in, if he would like to, and he is on his way here to voluntarily report in for the training camp part of it, and then we’ll make our decision with whatever is decided in the process of naming the roster.
Whether I misspoke earlier or not, I’m not exactly sure, but my answer was to whether he was going to be a part of it, and my answer is yes. He is going to be a part of Phase 2 because he has already traveled into Ontario so he can do his quarantine. He will be a part of Phase 2 and Phase 3. Whatever he gets from there will be whatever he earns in training camp in the Phase 3 part of it.
At the very least, it will be a great experience for him and his development. At best for him, he continues to show the strides he did during the year and forces our hand and finds his way onto the roster and into the lineup.
At worst, even if he doesn’t make it into the formal tournament, I think it is a great experience for him and his development. I know that he will be raring to go whenever he is cleared to begin participating.
Yesterday, Dubas got everybody into a frenzy with a quote saying that Nick Robertson will be a part of the team’s expanded roster. He clarified yesterday that he meant that Robertson will be part of the Leafs’ training camp to make that 28-player roster and his spot isn’t guaranteed.
On what was learned during the 2019-20 season now that it has officially come to an end…
DUBAS: A lot happened during the year. I think the thing I was most happy about… We had a lot of disappointing stretches and moments during the year where we weren’t happy with the way that we performed, and the thing I came to like most about the group — even going back to the last game we played versus Tampa after a very disappointing trip to California — whether it was in Tampa Bay after the Carolina game or the stretch in February where we went into Buffalo and Pittsburgh and got our butt kicked, when we had dangerous opponents waiting for us in the moments when we were vulnerable and our back was against the wall, the team was showing a real ability to push back and buckle down defensively.
Now that the season is over, we can say that in a lot of those games and in some of those stretches, we didn’t have Rielly, Muzzin, or Ceci. I was really proud of the way that the group was able to respond in those moments. I wish we were never in those positions and we were a little more consistent, but I think part of the growth is being able to find your way out of it when things aren’t going well.
I think the group was really starting to show that. The next step for us to embrace those obstacles as they come and become much more consistent in our mindset and day-to-day performance. I think that will eliminate a lot of the ups and downs and drama that comes along with it.
Again going with the trust the process, big-picture vibe, Dubas notes that he draws positives from how the team rallied through difficult stretches. It seemed that the sky was falling a lot this year, like when the team lost to its own Zamboni driver, but, as Dubas points out, they consistently rallied. The key now for the team will be avoiding those lulls all together.