TSN Toronto reporter Kristen Shilton checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The team held a 10 a.m. practice at MasterCard Centre on Monday.
Kyle Dubas has heard the rumours that pending restricted free agents Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are prime targets for an offer sheet down the road. But the Maple Leafs general manager insists he’s not losing any sleep over the idea.
“I spend zero per cent of my time having any worry about that,” Dubas said after the Leafs’ practice on Monday. “If a team wants to go down that path with us, that’s the way it goes, but our goal will be to continue to work with these players.”
Dubas remains skeptical about all the offer sheet attention focused so specifically on Toronto, but he said Toronto is well-equipped to handle that situation if it were to materialize.
“I look around the league right now and for whatever reason it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that are going to be the only target of an offer sheet. Seems interesting to me,” Dubas shrugged. “I would say as it relates solely to our team, our salary cap situation is set up that we can defend any of those threats with no worry at all.”
As for the negotiations with Matthews and Marner, Dubas said the Leafs are working closely with their respective agents to finalize extensions sooner than later.
“It will be our intention to get those done as soon as possible,” Dubas said. “We do want to avoid a situation like we were just in [with William Nylander], and we’re completely in control of that this time in that there is no excuse. I can’t say, ‘Well, I wasn’t doing this job a year ago.’ Our intention is that well before July 1 we have an agreement and both players are here long term.”
While keeping Matthews and Marner in the fold is Toronto's main priority, the contract status of pending unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner also needs Dubas’ attention.
“We are having discussions with Jake [and his agent Pat Brisson],” Dubas said. “He is a key part. We have some other matters we have to attend to, and that’s been communicated to Jake as well. We would like him to be here, [but] it’s not as simple as it sounds. You only have a certain amount you can divvy up and it’s trying to make that all work and keep our team on the right path moving forward.”
There’s been a lot for Dubas to like about the Leafs this season.
Their breakouts haven’t been one of those things, though, to the point that if Toronto doesn’t improve in that category, Dubas will explore his options before the NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline.
“We would like to continue to move the puck better from our own zone,” he said. “I think some of that falls on our forwards to get open and available, and on the defence to execute when they are open and available. It’s an area we want to continue to improve upon, an area we can make great gains. If that isn’t something that is happening as we get closer to the end of February, I think we will certainly look to improve.”
His team has been lacking consistency from its forwards lately, but head coach Mike Babcock likes what he’s seen from Matthews’ line with Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen.
“Those guys are working,” Babcock said. “When you got guys that work with you, you end up with the puck. So we have to get everyone working at the same pace. Those guys have energy right now; they’re feeling good right now. They have some pop to them.”
Matthews’ progress has been especially encouraging, even if he’s gone three games without a goal. The centre is nearly two weeks removed from stepping back into Toronto’s lineup after rehabbing a shoulder injury, and Kapanen think his game has come all the way back around.
“He’s at his best right now and he’s playing amazing. I think he’s our best player,” Kapanen said. “It’s good to have him back.”
Matthews said he is encouraged by his increased chances around the net, even if a goal hasn't dropped for him since Dec. 8 in Boston.
“I feel better physically, conditioning, I feel like my legs are back. Last two games, I’ve had some good opportunities,” he said. “Even last game, the first and third [periods], [our line] had the puck and had some opportunities. We really mesh well together, a lot of speed between those two guys. They can make plays and hold onto pucks, so I think our chemistry continues to build.”
There’s no denying the Leafs’ special teams are in a serious slump.
The power play has one goal in the team’s last six games (1-for-22), while the penalty kill is 15-for-20 in the same stretch, giving up goals in four consecutive outings.
Searching for answers, the Leafs are stuck between trying to adjust and wanting to stay true to their identity.
“I don’t think it has to change too much, we’ve been getting chances,” said Morgan Rielly of the power play. “The general feeling is we stick with what we’ve been doing and it’s just a matter of bearing down and continuing to work hard and the puck is going to go in eventually.”
The key, according to Matthews, is simplifying the Leafs’ approach with the extra man.
“Everyone watches tape so they see tendencies,” he said. “Maybe we have to switch things up, keep it a little more simple, get pucks to the net and then that’s where all those nice plays you see every once in a while open up. You get the puck a couple times to the net, keep it simple, and next thing you know it’s a tic-tac-toe play in the back of the net.”
Fixing the penalty kill isn’t as straightforward. A major part of the struggle, from the Leafs’ vantage point, has been opponents capitalizing on mistakes rather than fundamental problems with the team’s structure.
“I think against Tampa Bay, we did a pretty good job, but obviously they scored that one power- play goal that just went over the line,” said Kapanen. “I thought against Florida we just didn’t do a good enough job. This season, I think the PK has been okay, but that should be one of our strongest areas in our game and we haven’t been doing a good enough job there.”
With another game coming on Tuesday against New Jersey, the Leafs put extra emphasis on special teams before and during Monday’s practice.
“Our special teams are an area we’ve taken pride in and I think they can be better,” said Rielly. “There are lots of things we can work on, whether it’s the kill or the power play. We had our meetings today, we had a good practice. We’ll meet tomorrow and we’ll be ready to go.”
Maple Leafs lines at practice: