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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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The Maple Leafs will be back in action for training camp on Monday, kicking off Phase 3 of the NHL’s return to play plan that aims to complete the shuttered 2019-20 campaign with a 24-team playoff beginning in August.

Along with protocols for resuming the season, the NHL and NHLPA also negotiated a four-year extension to the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that includes a flat salary cap of $81.5 million at least through next year. For cap-strapped Toronto, that could add more pressure for the club to win now, but general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t see them drowning in expectations.

“I know that [flat cap storyline] seems to be the narrative about the team and there's a lot of talk about it,” Dubas acknowledged on a Zoom call with reporters Sunday. “But I don't feel that this season there should be any added pressure. I think the players have an expectation and we have an expectation that we're going to be competitive and that we're of course trying to contend to win the Stanley Cup. I don't look at the situation and say, because the cap is going to be flat, this is our only chance to [win]. If we didn't have our core guys locked up for this year and next, I would maybe feel a little bit differently, quite honestly, but I don’t.”

Per CapFriendly, the Leafs only have about $4.6 million in space available for the 2020-21 season, and restricted free agents like Ilya Mikheyev, Travis Dermott and Frederik Gauthier in the market for new deals, not to mention unrestricted free agents Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci.

While Dubas may not see that stagnant number turning up the heat on Toronto right now, it does pull into focus the club’s overall depth, which will be on display during this two-week long camp.

Among Toronto’s young upstarts that will be taking part is 18-year-old Nick Robertson, along with players who made their NHL debuts for the Leafs this season in Adam Brooks, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin.

Regardless of experience level, Dubas said everyone will get a fair shake at cracking the club's roster for a prospective Phase 4, where the Leafs will face Columbus in a best-of-five series beginning Aug. 2.

“What I would say to all those players is they've got the chance to make an impact,” Dubas said. “They're competing with one another. That's one of the great things about this next two weeks. We're gonna have some time to evaluate everybody and where they're at. If Nick or Kenny Agostino or Adam Brooks step up and are beating down the door throughout training camp, we're going to give them opportunity. The development of our younger players is going to be huge, not only for this short run, but now with the salary cap being flat, our development program is going to be paramount.”

Robertson’s inclusion has already ignited a tidal wave of excitement over the budding young prospect, who is coming off a sensational 55-goal, 86-point season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes. The Michigan native has been a full participant throughout Phase 2 in Toronto, and Dubas will be closely evaluating his efforts in the coming weeks.

“I think the way that he performs in practices and in the scrimmages and in the games and with the way that we're going to have the camp set up [will be telling],” Dubas said. “It's not a typical camp where in the past we've had 70 guys; there's not the ability to get as lost as there is in a camp [that size]. He'll be noticeable; we'll be watching him.”

The Leafs have invited 34 players total to their upcoming camp, and Dubas said the expectation is that 28 to 29 will come into the team’s bubble when they report to the Eastern Conference hub city (which is, ironically, Toronto) on July 26. Dubas estimates the club will have 15-16 forwards, nine-10 defencemen and 3-4 goalies as part of the 52-person group taking up residence at the Royal York Hotel during the qualifying round, to ensure no one is sitting around in quarantine without a defined job to do.

“We want to make sure that every roster player has a role,” Dubas explained. “We didn't want to have two or three extra guys at the bottom of the roster that didn't really feel that they were close to playing. So maybe up to 28 or 29 players, and then we'll have the six-person coaching staff [consisting of head coach Sheldon Keefe, assistants Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol, goalie coach Steve Briere and video coaches Andrew Brewer and Jordan Bean], [Leafs’ president] Brendan Shanahan and myself from the management group, and then every other staff member are people who we would deem as being those that directly benefit the player's performance.”

Dubas doesn’t see much of an advantage for the Leafs being housed in their own home city for the start of the tournament (which will move to Edmonton for the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final), other than the fact that “I guess we don’t have to take a flight to get here.” What should make a difference is that in the last four months, the team has gotten back to full health (except for forward Andreas Johnsson, who may be able to return from a knee injury by the second round of the playoffs) and that its head coach has had a chance to catch up after being promoted in mid-November to replace the fired Mike Babcock.

“When we made the coaching change, Sheldon had one morning skate in Glendale [Arizona] to get the team up and running for a game that night, and now he's had essentially a full build up with the coaching staff,” Dubas said. “And then we'll have a two-week training camp to get the players up and rolling, so I think there's some good fortune for us on that end as well. We’re excited to see that not only for the short run, but I think it's a great experience for Sheldon and will help us and help him. And we're largely past some of the injuries that had plagued us at the end of the season, so more than anything, we're very excited about that.”

Less interesting to Dubas is the prospect of Toronto potentially making the playoffs for a fourth straight season and also earning the first-overall pick in this coming NHL draft. During the NHL’s lottery on June 26, the top selection was awarded to a “placeholder,” necessitating a second lottery that will be made up of the teams that lose in the qualifying round of this coming postseason tournament.

But that’s not the kind of consolation prize Dubas is gunning to win.

“If you lose, you get a 12.5 per cent chance of winning the first overall pick and all of those eight teams get the same chance,” Dubas said, ‘but to me the probability of losing and then winning the pick is still so low, relatively speaking, and it's so far away from where our franchise is at and what we're looking to do, that we don't really look at it that way. Our whole focus is on doing everything we can to get our team ready to try to win 19 games.”

Dubas said that almost everyone on the Leafs’ training camp roster participated in Phase 2, and the entire organization has been highly receptive to the protocols in place to protect against a COVID-19 outbreak. It’s yet another way Dubas has seen his team be adaptive this past year, and he predicts that quality will continue shining through as the Leafs move forward into their next chapter.

“I think [these playoffs are] a great opportunity for us to learn a lot about our entire group,” he said. “The season itself, there was so much going on, whether it was coaching changes or injuries. And the thing I thought we learned about our group as we went is that we had some bad moments and we responded quite well. We've shown the ability during the season to have better resiliency than we've had in the past. This is just so different, and this is a major challenge. It's an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, by being able to be focused on what we're doing each day, and our commitment to one another. I’ve seen signs of growth from the group, especially during the season and especially during this last phase and I know in the long term that will pay off.”