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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Update, here are some of the numbers they could be using.

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.

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.

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.

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).