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GM Dubas figures Maple Leafs still forming an identity

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas speaks to reporters on Thursday. ERNEST DOROSZUK/TORONTO SUN
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas speaks to reporters on Thursday. ERNEST DOROSZUK/TORONTO SUN

After 20 games, Kyle Dubas would like to tell you what kind of Maple Leafs team he has built.

While the Leafs general manager has some ideas in mind, he can’t yet provide a firm answer.

“It’s still in formation,” Dubas said of the team’s identity. “It’s not a finished product by any stretch and we’re still trying to get there. What we’re aiming to get toward is a team built on speed, built on talent, creativity, but also tenacious when we don’t have the puck.”

In his first media availability in weeks, Dubas met with reporters after the Leafs scrubbed practice at the Ford Performance Centre and held a team meeting.

While the Leafs have had to endure injuries to key players such as captain John Tavares, Zach Hyman and now Mitch Marner, there’s no questioning the fact that through a quarter of the 2019-20 season, the team has underachieved. With a record of 9-7-4 and the rival Boston Bruins arriving for the Hall of Fame game on Friday night, the Leafs have not played to their potential with anything approaching consistency.

Dubas knows as much. When the Leafs wake up on Friday morning, they will be out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto was in eighth with 22 points before games on Thursday; Carolina and Buffalo, in ninth and 10th respectively with 21 and 20 points, were to face off in Buffalo. The Hurricanes and Sabres already had better winning percentages than the Leafs.

For Dubas, it’s what’s going on between the ears that has helped result in the Leafs’ standing.

When asked where he would most like to see improvement, Dubas used the road game on Wednesday night, when Toronto had some defensively strong play but lost 5-4 against the New York Islanders, as an example.

“There were long stretches of the game where we were excellent, where they didn’t really seem to be able to get out of their end because we were coming at them wave after wave on every shift,” Dubas said.

“When something doesn’t go our way, when we don’t get a bounce, not getting back on our heels and continue to stay on our toes and stay in attack mode and be able to deal with that stuff better — that’s what I look for.”

Trouble is, these trends are not new for the Leafs. Sure, there are a lot of new faces in the lineup this season, and there can be an expected period of adjustment.

But in the second half of last season, when the Leafs knew what they had, they were 19-16-6. We know what happened in seven games against the Bruins, and add that 3-4-0 record to the last 41 games in 2018-19, as well as to the record now: It’s a mark of 31-27-10 in their past 68 games.

The overall pattern has been in place no matter which players the Leafs have had in the lineup (keeping in mind the nucleus of Auston Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen has been the same).

It’s not a losing culture, not when the Leafs have had at least 100 points in each of the past two seasons. The Leafs know where the problems lie, but at the same time, they aren’t overly capable of rectifying them with consistency.

A club with the talent the Leafs have, even with Marner on long-term injury reserve nursing a high ankle sprain, shouldn’t be talking most nights about the failure to put together a 60-minute effort. Yet that keeps happening.

Parts of Leafs Nation figure a coaching change (Mike Babcock out, Sheldon Keefe in) would help, but Dubas doesn’t seem to have the appetite for such a move. Not yet, perhaps.

Is it on the shoulders of Babcock or the players to get the team in the right spot?

“It’s not up to any one person or player or coach or any member of the front office, it’s up to the collective group to forge its way through,” Dubas said. “That’s what makes the most successful organizations, is having that. It’s up to all of us to show everyone what we’re all about on a nightly basis.”

Dubas has confidence in the group, and his staff behind the bench, to find that way to success. We’ll see.

“What do teams think when they’re walking into your building?” Dubas said. “We want to shift it away from questions to the established Stanley Cup-winning players of what do the Leafs need to do, to here’s what they are and here’s what we can expect. And we’re right there. It’s on us to get there.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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