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Dubas warns of fatal playoff lull for Leafs

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas had high praise for defenceman Morgan Rielly (right). “On any team, you need a guy who will always put the team ahead of themselves,” he said. Toronto Sun file
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas had high praise for defenceman Morgan Rielly (right). “On any team, you need a guy who will always put the team ahead of themselves,” he said. Toronto Sun file

As 2020 closes, Kyle Dubas’s 20/20 hindsight makes for a difficult view.

Forced into idle mode for nearly the past nine months, other than five playoff contests for data review, the general manager thinks he knows what the Maple Leafs need whenever the NHL resumes. And it’s not just playoff toughness.

“The thing that (hurt) us more than anything was probably nothing to do with playoffs,” Dubas said during Saturday’s Leafs Coaches Open House. “Every year I’ve been here, especially the past four, we’ve had lulls in regular season … where we give up points and positioning.

“In 2017, if we’d taken care of business at home the last week (three losses in four games), we’d have played the second seed, Ottawa (instead of being worn down by No. 1 Washington). The two series against Boston, we cost ourselves home ice with poor stretches at the start or end.

“This year, we made a great run when Sheldon Keefe came in, but then were .500. Had we played to our potential of November, December (and maybe not lost to a Zamboni driver goalie in February, just sayin’), we’d be in the top four of the round robin. This year, we can’t let our foot off the gas in regular season. It’s certainly what’s needed in the playoffs.”

Dubas and coach Keefe watched some less talented clubs went further in playoffs, a couple which occupied the Leafs’ dressing room during the Toronto bubble.

“There were different styles,” Dubas observed. “Colorado had a great series against Dallas, then Dallas was able to adapt in each series it played. Jim Nill and the management team provided a great amount of versatility and (coach) Rick Bowness was able to push the buttons, whether run-n’-gun against Colorado, to slow down a potent attack against Vegas and give a great challenge to Tampa Bay. “The Islanders played a very defensive style and went to the conference final. Tampa showed the scars of the previous seven or eight seasons and really came to play, despite injuries to key players. Their adversity served them well. I wouldn’t call our adversity the same because as everyone knows, we haven’t won a round yet. But I think it will inspire the group and eliminate those (lulls).

“More important, guys realize they’re not 18 or 19 anymore, they’re 22, 23, 24 and in the case of TJ Brodie, John Tavares and Frederik Andersen, 30-31. You don’t have forever and that’s a focus we put on the off-season with Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, (re-signing) Jason Spezza. Those guys have a sense of urgency. Time is running out on their careers or with Brodie, they’ve faced great (playoff) disappointment in the past. We’re hopeful they key on that.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Critics of analytics might think Dubas and fellow number crunchers have been hiding since acolyte manager Kevin Cash of the Tampa Rays pulled a dominant looking Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series, only to lose both. Yet Dubas didn’t duck Ron MacLean’s pitch on Saturday when the host asked whether analytics had indeed been ‘set back 100 years’ as some claimed.

“I think Cash is the best manager in baseball, because he blends everything to optimize his decision making,” Dubas responded. “He stood with his convictions.” The GM pointed to Snell’s trend, a dramatic ERA jump after the fourth inning into his third time through the batting order, also noting Cash lifted Snell in Game 2 with the Rays comfortably ahead of the Dodgers.

“The (Game 6) outcome obviously wasn’t right, but the way they made the decision was to trust all the things that got Tampa, as the 28th highest payroll team, to contend year in and year out. If they’d left Snell in and gone away from what they’ve done, they might have been more forgiven by the public and media because it was a more conventional way of losing. But I don’t think they’d ever forgive themselves. It would’ve been getting away from what their process is.

“That happens a lot in sports. If you do things a little differently, it’s going to come with a lot of friction, opposition and when it doesn’t work, people will be jumping on you. You have to see it to the end. At worst you’ll have the chance to change as you get to the future.”

Since coming to the Leafs as a 29-year-old whiz kid in 2014, Dubas has kept his word not to “hit people over the head with analytics”.

“Our team, we’re probably behind (other) sports, but we’re using it to maximize offence and how we deploy different players. The key things are what we’re allowing the opposition, how are we denying them opportunities to score and who are our best players as a defensive pair or forward line. Now you have that data as well as what your eyes tell you.”

LIFE OF RIELLY

Morgan Rielly is already in the top 15 of games played by a Leafs defenceman (517) and in the eyes of his boss, showed the wisdom of his 26 years last season when teammate Tyson Barrie hit a rough patch.

“Players of Morgan’s age, once they’ve established themselves as an NHLer, get into the second contract and start looking at their third, they start to shift to their legacy,” Dubas said Saturday.

“Morgan did one of the most selfless things I’ve seen. In November, Tyson got off to a slow start, anticipating to be a UFA (a big pay day with the Leafs or elsewhere), but struggling. Morgan went to Sheldon and said if it was best for the team, he’d go to the second power play unit and put Tyson on the first. If we were to get going it was important Tyson play as well as everyone knew he was capable.

“I just thought that spoke so much to the character of Morgan. After the coaching change, the power play (ranked) No. 1. On any team, you need a guy who will always put the team ahead of themselves.”

NICK OF TIME

Nick Robertson is getting a head start on the rest of the Leafs for high-stakes competition.

The creative forward, who accelerated with Peterborough of the OHL last year and debuted in the Columbus series with a goal in four games, was named Monday to the U.S. roster for the world junior championships. Camp starts Dec. 6 in Colorado and the Leafs’ first pick, 53rd overall in 2019, is among 29 invitees trying for 24 spots.

LOOSE LEAFS

One former Leaf’s trade could enhance a future Leaf’s development. Ufa of the KHL moved Nikita Soshnikov to Red Army last week. That should create more opportunity for this year’s first round pick, Rodion Amirov, who has eight points in 23 games and now preparing for the world juniors … Zach Hyman and a host of alumni are front row spectators these days for University of Michigan hockey games. In a twist of the cardboard cut-out craze to fill empty stands, the school put Hyman among a starting 20 of Michigan’s NHL products in their pro team sweaters behind the bench with the likes of Zach Werenski and Carl Hagelin … At age 48, ex-Leaf and Flyer ‘Legion of Doom’ winger Mikael Renberg has achieved his Masters Degree from a Swedish University

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