The guy with the hottest seat in Toronto was the first to be grilled by journalists on Wednesday on the opening day of the Maple Leafs’ training camp.
Kyle Dubas, whose five-year-contract as general manager expires at the end of the season, understands his job is in jeopardy unless the team makes a lengthy run during the playoffs.
It has lost in the first round each year he has been in charge, and for six in a row if one includes a play-in series following the COVID-interrupted 2019-20 campaign.
“We are an organization that preaches accountability and I don’t think it is any different for me in my position,” Dubas said as players underwent physical examinations at the club’s practice facility, the Ford Performance Centre. “We know we have to win at the end of the season and that is how we will be judged.
“Nobody wants to hear us talk about it. They want to see us do it.”
It is all a bit Groundhog Day, but then again these are the Maple Leafs. They preen like peacocks until winning is a necessity and then have their bones picked by vultures.
A year ago, they had the franchise’s best record and most points in more than 100 years – and lost to Tampa Bay despite holding a 3-2 lead in the seven-game series that opened the playoffs.
“We had a very good regular season, but there is still a lot of room for us to grow,” Dubas said. “Our goal isn’t to win one round to placate people, it is to win four. It is to win the Stanley Cup.”
That is enterprising for an organization that last captured one in 1967 and has the longest drought in the NHL during the postseason. It hasn’t won a single series since 2004. But this is September and hope springs eternal in hearts and minds all around the hockey world.
Toronto’s first practice sessions will be Thursday with 50 players invited. There are 28 forwards on hand along with 16 defenceman and six goalies. That number will be diced and sliced down to 23 before the first game of the regular season, at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 13 against the Washington Capitals.
Exhibitions begin on Saturday when split-squad games will be held against the Ottawa Senators on home ice at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Forward Pierre Engvall, defencemen Timothy Liljegren and goalie Joseph Woll are all unavailable because of injuries. The most serious is a hernia incurred by Liljegren that will keep him sidelined for six weeks.
At the same time, 22-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin remains a holdout.
Before he addressed the state of his own contract, Dubas said he would not allow it to become a distraction to the team.
“I don’t decide what the organization wants to do,” he said. “If we have the season we are capable of, my situation will take care of itself.
“I’m more than happy to go through the year and be evaluated and then have the decision made because I believe in our group.”
Dubas made it clear that this is a must-win season. It may certainly be that for him – but it sounds much like the same old song that is sung here every preseason.
“We have proven over the last couple of years that we can compete with the best teams in the league,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We have to get more mentally tough and win in the playoffs.
“Unfortunately I have the same feeling now that I have had before. We have had good moments, but the overwhelming feeling is of being disappointed.
“Unless you win the last game of the season you are going to have to answer questions at this time of year about what you would have done differently.”
Jake Muzzin, one of only a few members of the team to have won a Stanley Cup, hopes to be healthy after missing 35 games a year ago because of multiple injuries.
“Every season is new and has its own challenges,” said Muzzin, a 33-year-old defenceman who won the Stanley Cup while with the Los Angeles Kings. “It is a long haul and you just have to go day-by-day.”
Kyle Clifford, also with L.A., and newcomers Matt Murray and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, are the other Maple Leafs with Stanley Cup victories.
“It is time,” Muzzin said. “We have to push hard and get over the hump. We have to respond.”