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Photo Credit: © David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Dubas looks to improve Maple Leafs’ defence ahead of NHL trade deadline

HAMILTON, Ont. — Kyle Dubas couldn’t help but chuckle when he asked reporters gathered at Tim Horton’s Field, site of next week’s Heritage Classic to “fire away with anything you’ve got” and was immediately asked about his team’s goaltending situation.

“I don’t think goaltending was the issue in the last game and I think we tend to get a little game-to-game in this marketplace,” the Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM replied. “I’m not concerned about either one of them, I think they’ve both shown themselves to be good goalies and they will be.

That’s the temperature of the fanbase in Toronto right now after the team looked flat in a 5-1 loss to the cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday.

Both teams will meet each other again in an outdoor game on Mar. 13.

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The issue of goaltending seemed like a distant memory when Jack Campbell took the starter’s job by the horns last season and carried that into a hot October and November. He earned his first NHL All-Star Game appearance for his stellar performance, but his play has been anything but as of late.

That opened the door for Petr Mrazek, signed to a three-year, $11.8 million contract this summer, to grab consecutive starts for the first time this season.

Lately, both goalies have had their moments and have combined for a save percentage of .893 since Dec. 1

And although goaltending wasn’t the reason the Maple Leafs fell to theSabres, neither netminder looked particularly sharp in the team’s 10-7 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, a team that was down 7-2 before they brought the game to within a goal in the third period.

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Despite those issues, goaltending seems to be the furthest thing from Dubas’ radar.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs GM said he likely only had “one bullet in the chamber” for improving their team. Since that time, veteran defenceman Jake Muzzin sustained his second concussion in a five-week span. They placed him on long-term injured reserve, which temporarily freed up his $5.625 million cap hit and also acquired defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin from the Arizona Coyotes while unloading the $2.5 million AAV of Nick Ritchie.

Despite some of the short-term flexibility, Dubas still feels he only has one move left if Muzzin manages to return before regular season’s end, and it will still be on the back end.

And that is seemingly the team’s preference.

“To me, it’s not going to be one of those things where we’re going to try to wait to have him come back in the playoffs,” Dubas said. “I think the style of player like him, if he’s healthy and he’s good to go, we need to get him back into playing and get him in form before the playoffs.”

Of course, it should be noted that if the Leafs do find out that Muzzin can eventually return between now and the end of the regular season, that doesn’t mean they can’t go ahead and use his space to improve the club.

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The Leafs didn’t have room for goaltender Frederik Andersen to come back to the main roster before the playoffs last season. Injuries later in the year to Zach Hyman and Zach Bogosian freed up just enough space to accommodate Andersen’s’ $5 million cap hit and that allowed the club to activate the goaltender in time to play one final regular-season game.

It’s an odd time of year when GMs have to be careful about the message they project with trading partners. And in Dubas’ case, why openly admit you have all kinds of new salary cap space?

It’s no secret the Leafs have been scouting games and taking a look at Canucks forward J.T. Miller. Toronto’s second line consisting of John Tavares and William Nylander are in desperate need of a kickstart (Tavares is goalless in 14 games).

Nick Robertson skated with Tavares and Nylander at practice and will get his second go-around with the dynamic duo on Saturday. Robertson played in that role on that line for a game against the Canucks last season in April.

Regardless of the position, the team needs to find an improvement defensively and the Sabres provided some evidence of that.

“I think it’s a team defensive thing and not it’s not so much in particular on defence,” Dubas said. “We’ve shown as of late, especially against good teams, that we’re able to defend really well as a group.

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“And then when we let our foot off the gas a little bit like on Wednesday night, it gets ugly.”

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