On Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs held their exit interviews with their players, who then spoke to the media before starting their second offseason of the year. It gave an indication as to where the Leafs see themselves and what they’re willing to defend versus what they’ve admitted went wrong.
The important question is where does the team go from here. Blow it up? Trade a major piece? Make minor changes? Stay the course? The Leafs definitely made it clear they won’t be blowing up the team, nor will they be (or have ever been) the one-dimensional shot-possession team Kyle Dubas has been labelled as. So the answer is somewhere in the middle.
There is always the looming possibility for a Big-Four trade, but Dubas made clear how much he supports Mitch Marner, and presumably William Nylander as well. Auston Matthews and John Tavares are obviously not being traded. So that’s also off the table.
Which leads to minor changes and internal adjustments. But what do they mean by that? Obviously changes mean different things to different people within this organization. Kyle Dubas can’t be tougher and hit people in the hallways more. He can’t shoot more. What I’m going to go through is what each aspect of the team sees in themselves and what they want to do differently.
Matthews, Rielly, and Muzzin on mental toughness and flexibility
I appreciated Muzzin’s perspective on the team. I agree that mentally this team wilts when faced with a concerted effort against them. It’s hard to do what you want when the other team is trying very hard to stop you. We saw it in Game 7 last year and in pretty much the whole series this year. No, it’s not the goalie’s fault.
Matthews: "Having a good regular season really isn't cutting it anymore. We've got to figure out how to get out of the first round. It's frustrating and a little embarrassing with the talent that we have on this team that we haven't been able to pull through."— Joshua Kloke (@joshuakloke) August 12, 2020
Morgan Rielly on #Leafs mental toughness: "Doubt creeps in when you're down in a series, and it's about being mentally strong, keeping that edge and really being able to push through. So I think that's an area that we have to work on."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) August 12, 2020
Learning to win different ways will be key and I hope the team is able to figure out their regular season issues so they can use it to experiment on different styles of play. This is something Tampa Bay has done for two years now, they get into a comfortable playoff position, and instead of coasting, they experiment. I want to see the Leafs do this, but it starts with improving the roster on paper. They need different skill-sets and improve the defensive side of their game so every contest against Florida isn’t a tire-fire where the team needs to score six goals to win or tie.
Jake Muzzin: “Consistency throughout the season will allow for, when different situations come about in playoffs, you’ve won different ways & it’s just second nature & away you go ... it definitely starts in the regular season creating good habits ..."— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) August 12, 2020
Mitch Marner on his own effort and engagement
As Greg Wyshynski clearly points out, this topic had the most fire, let’s just say. On Marner’s side, he speaks to his lack of engagement in the first game and how he tried to improve that as the series went on. I honestly thought the way CBJ played him impacted his game more than a lack of effort, particularly after Game 1.
It’s a tougher issue trying to find ways to break through on defensive teams that collapse and block the whole middle of the ice than it would be to simply improve your effort at breaking through. It makes me worried whether Marner can do it, but since we’re kind of invested for the next five years, we can only really wait and see and hope.
Kyle Dubas called criticism of Marner “idiotic” so that’s where he stands. This is simply a GM defending his player. To be fair, the mainstream tropes about his lack of shooting and money are stupid, I don’t want him shooting more.
Mitch Marner on his series vs. #CBJ: "The first game, I wasn't engaged at all, in the physicalness of play at all. And then from that point on, I felt like I got a lot more engaged and playing as my old self...but zero goals isn't going to get the job done."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) August 12, 2020
Kyle Dubas on Mitch Marner's critics in Toronto:— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 12, 2020
“I don’t know where this all started, with the criticizing of Mitch Marner, but to me it’s among the most idiotic things that I see done here.” @MapleLeafs #NHL
Mitch Marner on shooting
Speaking of shooting more, Marner wants to shoot more. We saw him do this in Game 2 specifically, and it mostly led to losses of possession or low danger chances that never really bothered the goalie. It definitely looked like he was overcompensating after media scrutiny about his lack of shooting, I think he went too far in that direction and forgot what makes him special — his passing.
I don’t want Marner to shoot more because his shot isn’t very good unless it’s a rebound or somewhere where the goalie is compromised like behind screens or on a breakaway when Marner dekes. We’ve seen teams let Marner shoot from the wing without any worry, and they’ve largely been right to do so.
That then goes to whether Marner can improve his shot, I think it’s very unreasonable to believe he will between now and December and probably beyond. He would probably need to change his stick shape to one more tailored for snappers, which would compromise his passing. I’m not sure how that would go.
Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking, does Marner just mean he wants to be more direct with his playmaking and take chances when he can get them vs. going for the most perfect play? I hope so. I think there’s merit to wanting to be more direct, especially against teams that are tight defensively. When you hesitate, it gives the opponent a chance to set up. Being faster and more efficient could help him break through when he’s in a slump.
Changes Mitch Marner wants to see in his game next season?— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) August 12, 2020
"Just more goals ... I know I need to get selfish sometimes ..."
Brendan Shanahan on internal improvements
Shanahan pointed to more internal changes from the players than external moves. This speaks to one, they can’t afford changes with the cap. And two, they’re giving the players more time to figure it out. Based on personal experience, Shanahan probably knows a lot about improving oneself as a player and becoming a more complete competitor over time with experience and drive fueling you.
Shanahan: "We really do believe the core guys want to make changes, and get over the hump."— Joshua Kloke (@joshuakloke) August 12, 2020
Shanahan: "I do believe you can develop grit. You have to change the narrative, players can change how they're perceived."— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) August 12, 2020
We saw this with Auston Matthews this season, where he became a juggernaut defensively on top of his superstar offensive capabilities. I’m curious to know where Tavares goes in his evolution, it might be in the direction of being louder off the ice and in the room. Bettering the team’s mental strength is definitely an area where he can make a difference. As for Marner, I discussed some parts of his game above, I definitely hope he gets back to being a transition player again. For Nylander, the defensive game should come with age, and as he’s poised to turn 25 next year, I hope it comes soon. It would be nice to see him on the PK.
Any regrets for John Tavares?— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) August 12, 2020
“I know it starts with me being the captain of the team ... I know I have to be a lot better ... but I don’t have any regrets in terms of the ways I approach things & what I'm trying to get out of myself & what I put into it ..."
Kyle Dubas on the Leafs defense
Dubas was a first-time GM when he took the job with the Leafs, so there were gaps in his knowledge that have, rather publicly, been filled over the past few years. The Nylander and Marner negotiations for two different reasons. The Kadri saga. And now this one when it comes to newly acquired players.
On one hand, he could just be talking about Mike Babcock, but on the other, I think Dubas is earnestly speaking to finding ways to make new players comfortable and mould the team to encompass them rather than leave the player to fit into the Leafs. We saw when Sheldon Keefe was inserted as coach that Barrie started to get lighter minutes, more PP time, and more time with Morgan Rielly, all areas aimed to maximize Barrie. Same with Alexander Kerfoot, who spent time on the second line left wing, a position he often played in Colorado.
While I have issues with how both players were deployed in these areas, it doesn’t change the fact that I think the Leafs are going to do this more often in the future. I just hope the defensemen they acquire are comfortable defending.
Kyle Dubas on the Tyson Barrie trade: "The lesson I take from that is better aiding players with their adjustment into the organization."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) August 12, 2020
Wants to see players become themselves a lot sooner, think same principle applied to Alex Kerfoot.
Back when he was acquired, Kyle Dubas said the Leafs see the value of Cody Ceci defensively in their analytics. He said the same thing again on Wednesday. There are probably some micro-stats in the defensive zone that make Ceci look strong, likely against rushes and cycles, but when it comes to structured and set defense, it’s a much different story. I think a lot of people would like to know what numbers they’re using.
Dubas hints Cody Ceci's metrics internally reflected his value defensively and that that information will cast him in different light if/when data like that becomes public.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) August 12, 2020
Update, here are some of the numbers they could be using.
*whispers*— Rhys Jessop (@Thats_Offside) August 12, 2020
Per @IneffectiveMath, Cody Ceci had the best impact on 5v5 xGA/60 of all TOR D this season, and per @EvolvingWild Cody Ceci led all TOR D in EV Defensive xGAR, and was second in total EVD GAR.
Cody Ceci: analytics darling.
Dubas addressed how much he’d love to steal a world class defenseman from another team, but that it’s not quite as easy as you would think. It would be really cool if he does it. It would probably involve William Nylander, though.
“When it comes to defense: How do we get a Seth Jones? We have to pick in the top five or, going back to the Nashville trade, you have to trade Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones. Those types of trades don’t come along often.” — Leafs GM Kyle Dubas— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 12, 2020
Kyle Dubas on the Leafs philosophy
First off, when the reporters were asking about where the team is going to go, it wasn’t a surprise to see a dumb question get a short answer. This isn’t a question that helps us learn anything about where the team wants to go because there was no way Dubas was going to insult his players by answering anything other than no. It was a question meant to start a fight with a man like John Tortorella, if lucky. Whether Steve knows this (he knows) or even cares (he doesn’t, it gets clicks) is another topic.
I'd like to add that this was the only answer on the Zoom call with no elaboration, and that Steve Simmons asked this question. I'm sure this is all coincidental. https://t.co/cp12n8Zz2y— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 12, 2020
Onto the real questions, this one about whether his philosophy has changed breaks some of the stereotypes I think a lot of people have about GMs. Lou Lamoriello said all the time that the five year plan changed every day, the same goes for Dubas. This quote corroborates what Elliotte Friedman wrote in his 31 Thoughts column about Dubas being close to acquiring more players like Kyle Clifford than just Kyle Clifford. I think they are going to go deeper into having a physical presence while still maintaining having the puck, because you can do both things.
I really hope this comes to the third line and the defense in particular. Kasperi Kapanen showed the value of being an annoying git in games, it just couldn’t come from him because he ignored his scoring. Same thing happened to Kadri and Connor Brown. If the team can augment offense with toughness, rather than replace one with the other, it’ll do a lot more for the team.
“You all think I have one way of going about things and that it’s never changing," said Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. "The vision for me is always changing."— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 12, 2020
This quote goes back to what Jake Muzzin said as well as the quote above. This team isn’t consistent. That Mike Tyson quote of “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” applies here. The Leafs didn’t seem prepared or equipped to create plans B, C, and D against columbus after Game 1 when Plan A went out the window. Creating a more diverse lineup that’s more complete will help as long as the players acquired can do what management hopes they can do. I hope Dubas has learned a lot about player evaluation after the Tyson Barrie trade, because the defense has been his biggest blunder so far (if you hadn’t noticed, I don’t agree with the all offense defense approach, you need guys who can defend a lead after you get it).
Kyle Dubas on #Leafs season: "It's not a dream, in terms of how we can play because we showed it multiple times throughout this year. Just the fact that we could not do it as often as required to reach our potential would be the most disappointing factor from my end."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) August 12, 2020