Maple Leafs GM downplays team's slide, says Matthews contract talks progressing
Kyle Dubas notes 3-7-0 stretch a 'great opportunity' for young club to battle adversity
Kyle Dubas used to live and die with each victory or defeat.
"[I'd] really go up and down," he recalled of his time as general manager of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. "Every loss was the end of the world and every win was the greatest thing ever."
Fast-forward about 4 1/2 years and Dubas, now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has learned to take a more measured approach.
That new outlook is likely coming in handy at the moment.
Toronto has just three wins over its last 10 games, and since a 4-3 overtime triumph in Buffalo on Dec. 4 that pushed the Leafs into second in the NHL standings at 20-8-0, they are 9-9-2.
But despite the recent stumbles, Dubas said Tuesday he isn't concerned. In fact, he's hopeful the adversity will benefit the younger elements of a talented roster in the long run.
Slim lead over Bruins, Canadiens
"It's just a great opportunity for them to show how they can lead the group out of it and develop their own leadership," the 33-year-old told reporters at the team's practice facility. "We've had some games where we've played very well and the puck just hasn't gone in. Earlier in the year, we had some games where we didn't play very well and the puck was going in.
The mantra here this week from the players and coaches has just been that they just need to work through it and out of it.— Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas on the team's current slump
"In life and in hockey, it all seems to balance out."
Currently one point up on the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens for second in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs host the Washington Capitals on Wednesday in their final game before this weekend's NHL all-star break.
Toronto has played well in spurts during its rough stretch — a loss at Tampa Bay in December where the Leafs dominated and last week's hard-fought road victory in the rematch come to mind — but there have also been nights filled with sloppy play and an unwillingness to compete at a high enough level.
"The mantra here this week from the players and coaches has just been that they just need to work through it and out of it," Dubas said.
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Toronto's slump is just one of a number of things on the GM's plate.
Dubas said talks with Auston Matthews on a new contract are progressing, but similar conversations with Mitch Marner, who leads Toronto with 61 points in 48 games, remain on hold until after the season at his agent's request.
Dubas not pressuring Marner, Matthews to sign now
The star 21-year-old forwards, who can both become restricted free agents on July 1, are in line for massive raises. Dubas has said he doesn't expect any issues signing either player with as much as US$27 million in salary cap space at his disposal, but getting a deal done with Matthews before the Feb. 25 trade deadline would be helpful for planning purposes.
"They're very big personal decisions for the players," Dubas said. "I don't want it to come off as we're putting pressure on them to [sign now].
"It's a life-changing decision for any player."
Dubas added that Marner's rise this season playing mostly on a line with John Tavares hasn't come as a shock and shouldn't hinder Toronto's ability to get a deal done.
"Anybody who has as much talent as he does, that works as hard as he does, that loves hockey as much as he does, you're going to see continued growth," Dubas said. "His impact on the team is immense.
"He's a fantastic player that we're very fortunate and proud to have as a Maple Leaf."
Dubas also said he's been impressed with how William Nylander has handled his on-ice struggles. The winger has just one goal in 20 games since a contract impasse that cost him training camp and the first two months of the season ended Dec. 1.
Rental player not being ruled out
"It's not going to be an overnight process where he's going to go back to being the player that he always has been," Dubas explained. "I've got a lot of faith that he'll work his way out of it. It may not be on the timeline that everybody wants, but he'll get there and we're excited to help him do that."
One point up on Boston and Montreal for second in the Atlantic Division — albeit with games in hand — the Leafs host Washington on Wednesday, but then don't play again until Feb. 1 in Detroit because of the NHL all-star break and their league-mandated bye week.
Dubas said he would be open to adding a rental player on an expiring contract prior to the trade deadline, but his preference is for an asset that would remain on the roster beyond the spring.
"They've earned the right for us to explore ways we can continue to make the team better," he said.
The GM also stuck up for Jake Gardiner — the target of boos from some fans in recent games following a couple of glaring mistakes committed by the high-risk/high-reward defenceman that ended up in Toronto's net.
"Jake is a player that has the puck a lot," Dubas said. "When you play hockey and have the puck a lot and you try to be creative and you make skill plays, from time to time they're not going to go your way.
"With Jake, the positive far, far [outweighs] the times when it doesn't go right."
No longer one to wear heart on sleeve in response to individual successes and failures, Dubas no doubt feels the same way about the current state of his team as a whole.