TORONTO – Kyle Dubas didn’t just double down.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager pushed his chips all-in – a decision that could go a long way in defining his tenure in the pressure-packed role he’s occupied since the spring of 2018.
Dubas once again resisted any potential off-season urge to blow up the core of his highly skilled yet playoff-success-starved roster following another first-round exit last May.
Toronto, in truth, showed better than in past post-season failures. The result – a razor-thin, seven-game loss to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – was the same, but the feeling was the Leafs were on the right track and deserved a chance to run it back.
With his contract set to expire at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, however, Dubas might not have the chance to make a similar decision if a group he’s backed unconditionally is once again unable to deliver.
So where does that belief come from?
“Being around the group every day,” the 36-year-old executive said at the start of training camp. “When the group was younger, I think you’re trying to establish yourself. Now they’re trying to prove together that they can win.
“I don’t expect people to hear that and believe it. They’re going to want us to show it, and that’s 100 per cent acceptable. But I see what the group is about every day.”
That optimism is well-founded – at least on paper and when examining regular-season results.
The playoffs have been another story.
A team led by reigning Hart Trophy winner and 60-goal man Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander has failed to advance to the second round in six consecutive seasons dating back to the club’s return to playoff action in 2016-17.
On the flip side, Toronto has also fallen to a team that went onto make the Stanley Cup final three of the last four seasons (Boston in 2019, Montreal in 2021 and Tampa in 2022) since future captain John Tavares signed in the summer of 2018.
The Leafs last moved on in the playoffs in 2004 – before the NHL instituted a salary cap and before Twitter existed – and owns the league’s longest Stanley Cup drought dating back to 1967.
“It’s gonna be a narrative,” Matthews, the two-time defending Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner as the NHL goal leader, said of past post-season stumbles. “We can only control what we can control.”
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said the challenge ahead is clear for a team eyeing a division title for the first time in a normal season since 1999-00.
“We certainly embrace that,” he said. “An incredible opportunity for us to continue to grow as a team and take that head on.”
“We’re not going to give up,” defenceman Morgan Rielly added. “We’re not going to quit on this process.”
Fellow blue-liner Jake Muzzin, who won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2014, said “it’s time” to repay the faith Dubas has shown.
“We have a good opportunity,” he said. “You want to take advantage of it.”
To a man, the players know their GM has placed his neck on the line.
“He’s put the belief in us and kept the team together,” Nylander said. “He’s basically put everything down on us to succeed.”
CAN MATTHEWS PUSH PAST 60?
In 2021-22, Toronto’s best player became the first NHLer to reach 60 goals in a season since Steven Stamkos a decade ago.
Matthews, who has two years left on his contract and can sign an extension next summer, is loath to discuss statistical aims. But 65 goals – Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 is the last player to hit that mark – could be attainable if the 25-year-old can stay in the lineup.
His 60 goals last season came despite missing 10 games to injury and suspension.
“I don’t think you ever know what to expect,” Rielly said of Matthews. “I would expect nothing other than a great season and a really motivated individual who’s one of the best players – one of the best athletes – in the world.”
CREASE QUESTION MARK
The Leafs went about a major renovation to their goaltending department, waving goodbye to starter Jack Campbell and the underperforming Petr Mrazek.
Stepping into the spotlight are replacements with chips on their shoulders in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
A two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh, Murray experienced a miserable last two seasons with Ottawa, while Samsonov – a 2015 first-round pick – was cut loose by Washington.
“A new opportunity,” Matthews said of Toronto’s new crease duo. “Two guys that feel like they have a lot to prove.”
The Battle of Ontario has sat mostly dormant since the mid-2000s.
But with the Ottawa Senators coming out of their rebuild and the Leafs among the Atlantic Division’s big hitters, the provincial rivalry could once again heat up beginning Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.
Another date circled is the March 11 return to Toronto for Campbell, who signed with the Edmonton Oilers in free agency. The Leafs also face their former teammate March 1 in the Alberta capital.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2022.
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