By James Mirtle
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Kyle Dubas stood in front of a small group of reporters on the NHL’s trade deadline day and offered some serious honesty about his Maple Leafs.
He swore. He called their play embarrassing. And he offered a firm “I don’t know” when asked why they were so inconsistent — or “Jekyll and Hyde,” as he put it at one point.
“The truthful answer is we don’t know,” Dubas said. “That might draw some criticism to say ‘I don’t know,’ but I’m not gonna bullshit and tell you I have some magical solution. I think we have to go through this.”
Dubas spoke for nearly 18 minutes on Monday afternoon, with long answers that followed a now familiar theme. The tale he told was about how his team still has lessons to learn and that this adversity, these brutal losses, are the path to getting there.
It seemed some came away from the speech believing it was another rousing endorsement of the Leafs core, the eight or nine players Dubas has been building around over his first 650-odd days on the job. It didn’t really sound that way to me. It sounded like a lukewarm “Let’s see what they do with this” from a GM who doesn’t really have much other choice.
Sure, the Leafs listened to offers on Tyson Barrie the past few days, but it doesn’t sound like it got all that serious. One of the many teams that talked to Dubas said on Monday night that it felt like Barrie “was priced not to move” — meaning the asking price was sky high.
The attempt to sell the pending UFA, in other words, wasn’t considerable. In that sense, Dubas wasn’t prepared to punt on the season, even if the last month and a half has been rather grim.
You look around the Eastern Conference, however, and all of the teams the Leafs are trying to compete with got better the past few weeks. By not buying or selling, Toronto did fall behind.
Tampa added Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, solidifying an already deep forward group. Boston brought in Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie. Washington landed Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon while Pittsburgh loaded up with Jason Zucker, Patrick Marleau, Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.
Carolina’s haul included Vincent Trocheck, Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei. And while the Islanders may have overpaid for Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene, they’re improved, too.
)You can see why it was a frustrating deadline day for the Leafs’ already frustrated fan base. They’re tired of watching the current group seesaw between good, bad and ugly on so many nights, earning their current playoff-bound pace more through god-given talent than effort. This team is so maddening to watch (and analyze) many nights precisely because they have the ability to be so much better than this, something they show every once in a while when the stars align.
Instead of a cathartic change to the roster, however, the deadline meant the Leafs’ minuscule hopes of a postseason run kept taking hits throughout the day, as the GMs of most of the teams in front of them gave their players more help the rest of the way.
If Dubas truly believed in his group’s chances, he would have been right there with them, trying to add. Instead, he was taking bids on Barrie, who has played more minutes for the Leafs than any other skater this season.
It’s tough to read that as a thumbs up for his current group. If anything, it’s a challenge to them.
“No, help isn’t coming,” reads the message. “But changes will be, if you continue to fall apart when the games matter most.”
“No. 1, we want to see how the group responds,” Dubas said on TSN Radio later in the day, when asked his message to the players after the “memorable embarrassment” of David Ayres’ unlikely win on Saturday night. “What are we going to do to pull ourselves out of where we’ve been and back to where we’re capable of going?”
You talk to people around this team, away from the spotlight (and the record), and they see immaturity in the dressing room, the same immaturity Sheldon Keefe has been calling out in recent weeks after poor performances. They view this as a group where too many players are complacent and not bought in enough to win consistently.
So when adversity hits — and they’ve had more this year than the past several seasons, both in goal and in terms of injuries — they don’t rise to the occasion.
This isn’t an overreaction to a poor week or three; it’s a trend you can spot going all the way back to midway through last season. In fact, this team ended last year by losing 10 of their final 14 games and 24 of their last 44. They basically limped into the playoffs — in part because they had effectively locked up a playoff spot by January — and weren’t able to close out a Bruins team despite two chances in Game 6 and 7.
The organization can talk about the good 20 games they played when the coaching change first happened all they want, but on balance, over the last 14 months now, this team has been mediocre, losing more games than they’ve won (55 to 52). They’ve been the 17th best team in a 31-team league in that span.
If there’s more there — if they’re more than a very talented but inconsistent group of offence-first players — this is their time to show it.
Dubas has talked a lot about focusing on the long-term and “the process” over the most recent results from the very beginning of his tenure in Toronto. In a crazy market like this, that makes sense. If you tried to cater to the mob, you’d be flitting back and forth from one course of action to another, firing people and trading players again and again.
But in choosing an intelligent approach over an emotional one, there still comes a time when being smart doesn’t necessarily mean sticking with what you have and running that group out there for another go next season. It means evaluating what’s working and what isn’t and finding a way to part with the bad while keeping the good.
That will be the real challenge here, if this season continues to go sideways: charting a course that’s different than this one, after committing so wholly to much of this roster.
The reality is that many members of the Leafs core have now had the better part of four regular seasons and three postseasons to learn lessons. They’ve had two coaches, two GMs, plenty of new teammates and even input into line changes and special teams and style of play.
We’re at the point now where what comes next is on them.
If they fail again, it’s on Dubas to find a way forward that isn’t just about learning lessons and growing together through adversity. It’ll be about questioning whether this group, as constructed, can earn all the faith their young GM has put in them the past two years.
It’ll be about the GM learning lessons from this adversity as well — and putting those lessons to work.
Time hasn’t run out on this group. They can still turn this around and go on a surprise run, embracing their newfound underdog role along the way. But the hourglass is sure getting low.
And not just on the season.