HAMILTON — Kyle Dubas might have expected a couple softball questions to get things rolling.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager was, after all, at Tim Hortons Field for Friday’s media availability ahead of the Heritage Classic outdoor game March 13 against the Buffalo Sabres.
A season-ticket holder with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he’s spent many afternoons in the stands overlooking a football field currently being transformed into a rink, and has plenty of childhood memories playing hockey in biting cold.
Those queries would eventually come.
They would also have to wait with Toronto’s shaky goaltending, the looming NHL trade deadline, Wednesday’s shambolic home loss to Buffalo, and the health of defenceman Jake Muzzin top of mind.
“We’ve got two guys that have been good goaltenders,” Dubas, who chuckled at the first question before looking over his shoulder at the windswept gridiron, said when asked for his take on the recent play of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. “They both have shown themselves to be good goalies.
“And they will be.”
The trouble is, neither has shown that consistently in 2022.
Lights out early this season to secure his first all-star appearance, Campbell has an .887 save percentage since Jan. 1, while Mrazek’s number stands at .890 on the campaign.
“I’m not concerned about either one of them,” Dubas said.
The GM added the focus remains on upgrading his team’s blue line ahead of the March 21 deadline, especially with Muzzin on long-term injured reserve, as opposed to acquiring a top-six forward or looking for crease help.
“We’ve shown of late, especially against good teams, that we’re able to defend really well as a group,” Dubas said as he clutched a Tim Hortons coffee cup. “And then when we let our foot off the gas a little bit like on Wednesday night … it’s ugly.”
That was in reference to Toronto’s home no-show in a 5-1 defeat to the Sabres, a team that sat 34 points adrift in the standings.
“I was most disappointed in the fact that in the third period, we didn’t make any type of push,” Dubas said. “They’re laying in front of slapshots … just had a different level of desperation than we had.”
It was also the second time 10 days the Leafs – three points back of the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division – fell to an opponent they should have handled after losing 5-2 to the Canadiens in Montreal on Feb. 21.
“We just expected it’s going to be easy,” Dubas said. “In this league, it’s not. That’s something we’ve got to get cleaned up.”
“That’s four points that we dropped,” he added latter. “It’s an easy math exercise to see where those four points would have us.”
Dubas added Muzzin’s recovery is going slowly after suffering his second concussion in less than a month in that loss to Montreal.
“Not an imminent return,” he said. “We just have to be really careful.”
The bruising 33-year-old defenceman sitting on LTIR gives the Leafs just under US$4.5 million in salary cap space ahead of the deadline, according to capfriendly.com, but Dubas indicated the hope is to get Muzzin back in the lineup before the post-season.
“It’s not one of these things where we’re going to try to wait and have him come back in the playoffs,” he said. “If he’s healthy and he’s good to go, we need to get him back in and playing and get him in form.”
Dubas indicated last month the Leafs would likely only be in the market to make one more significant trade prior to the deadline, and that hasn’t changed.
“We still have quite a bit of flexibility to get creative,” he said. “Unless we get the news we don’t want on Muzz, I think we’ll just have the one move left in us.”
What’s clear is Dubas believes the current roster has what it takes to get the job done, especially in its own end, regardless of what happens March 21.
“The thing about the group that gives me a lot of faith is that throughout the season, when they have to dial it in, they’ve dialed it in really well and defended really well,” he said. “And that’s really what we’re relying on.
“I’d like it to be a little bit more consistent.”
SIMMONDS SET TO HIT 1,000
Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds will play the 1,000th regular-season game of his career Saturday when Toronto hosts the Vancouver Canucks.
The 33-year-old, who signed with his hometown club before last season, didn’t have a straightforward path to the NHL, and has played plenty of tough minutes since.
“He’s not done anything easy,” Dubas said. “That’s a hard 1,000 games.”
Dubas also paid tribute to Simmonds’ community work.
“Does a lot to try to make the game more inclusive,” he said of one of the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s founding members.
“Just a great example.”
NURSE ON WOMEN’S GAME
Canadian women’s national team member and Hamilton native Sarah Nurse was also on hand Friday, fresh off helping her country to a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
The 27-year-old set a Games record with 18 points as Canada rolled through the field, save for a couple of tight contests against the United States.
Nurse said the dominant performance was a testament to what women’s hockey can be when properly funded across the board.
“We elevated our game to a place that it’s never been,” she said. “I hope to see other international sport organizations across the world invest in the woman’s game, so that they can continue to improve, and they can continue to grow.”
Dubas described the optimism shown by Rodion Amirov as “remarkable” since the team announced the 15th pick at the 2020 NHL draft has a brain tumour.
“He’s passionate about the fact that he’s gonna fight it all the way,” Dubas said. “It’s remarkable to see, and really quite inspiring.”
The 20-year-old Russian forward remains in Germany getting treatment.
“I couldn’t imagine that happening,” Dubas continued. “He’s handled it about as well as you could.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2022.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press