Kyle Dubas knew his grandfather was a great coach.
But not until the wake for Walter did the younger Dubas comprehend what the right person behind the bench did for a team, away from the rink as well.
Walter had run the tier II Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before they joined the OHL, a non-paying job that he squeezed in after a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at the steel mill. He had to give up coaching as his young family grew, but few in town forgot his influence, not the least of whom was his grandson, the Greyhounds stick boy who often sat with him through practice and eventually became general manager.
“The night he passed away, we went to the house where he and my grandmother lived for 60 years,” Dubas told host Ron MacLean during Saturday’s Maple Leafs virtual Coaches Open House . “She cut out and saved all the (game) articles from the paper. You heard from former players that he was demanding and held them accountable, but he always had their back. He spent a lot of time with players who needed parenting and general counselling. He was their favourite coach, to play a certain way, to buy in and by how they were treated.
“It’s something I’ve tried to carry over into my career. I got to know some great coaches — Dave Cameron, Craig Hartsburg, Sheldon (Keefe, with the Leafs). I’ve always enjoyed my relationship to coaches, thanks to my grandfather.”
SEVEN ‘D’ LUCKY FOR LEAFS?
Dubas and Keefe might visit the 7-11 next season.
They’re keen on what coach Jon Cooper did with the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning for a key stretch during the playoffs, using seven defencemen and 11 forwards, which the retooled Leafs roster might be better suited for some nights whenever the NHL resumes.
“Cooper had Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman on the right side, rotating five other guys … Sheldon and I have had that conversation a lot,” Dubas told MacLean. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see us do that, though in the end, it’s Sheldon’s call. In 2016, I know Sheldon called Jon when we were in the (AHL) conference final against Hershey. We felt our depth (that year with the Marlies ) was better on defence and Tampa had used (7-11) a lot (that year).
“No. 1, it creates a difficult match up front. You’re either running your top three lines a lot or, when your fourth line comes up, you have a member of the first line to make it more potent. In our case, that’s Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, with Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford to use last year’s (roster) as a hypothetical.”
Bounced by Columbus during the play-in round, the Leafs bolstered the blueline in the off-season with TJ Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen.
“The group of defence includes some with a specific function, which we’ll have more of this year,” Dubas added. “Lehtonen has been KHL defenceman of the year, a much more offensive guy who thrives on the power play. Bogosian has been an excellent penalty-killer. He’s used to that (seven-man) system in Tampa. Whether it’s Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, they can be worked in.
“The flexes up front and on defence are certainly intriguing and, as shown (by Tampa), it certainly works. You’ll see a lot more if it because the championship teams get mimicked.”
D IS FOR DEPTH
Dubas opted for defencemen when he had high draft picks in the Soo and until he picked high-upside winger Rodion Amirov last month, Toronto’s previous two first-round selections were Sandin and Liljegren.
“I know a lot is said about our forwards; how much they’re paid and their potential. But to me, the focus will always be finding the right group of defencemen and leaving it to the coaching staff to develop the right system so we’re playing as little (in the Leafs zone) as possible.
“The defence will always start the play. They have to stop the opposition and be tasked with creating a play to move the puck up the ice. If you don’t have that, you’ll really have a hard time competing. That was hammered into me by my grandfather back in the late ’80s.
“My first draft in the Soo, the third overall pick was Darnell Nurse. That set the tone for changing the culture. He is 25 now with a lot of room to grow (with the Edmonton Oilers).”
THORNTON SCORES TWO
After more than week off as his Davos team was in COVID-19 quarantine, Joe Thornton had a couple of late goals on Saturday, one on the power play, in a 7-5 win over Rapperswil.
That’s eight points in seven games, with the 41-year-old Leafs free-agent signing used most often on the man advantage.
“He’s just unbelievable,” Davis GM Raeto Raffainer told Sportsnet earlier this month, “so positive and full of energy for every game and every practice. For him, it really doesn’t matter who he plays with and what role he’s got. He just enjoys being in the games.”
REMEMBERING LEAPIN’ LOU
The Toronto Toros gave the Leafs a run for popularity in the mid-1970s, in part through players such as ‘Leapin’ Lou Nistico. The winger, who played 113 games in Toronto with 67 points, died on Friday at age 67. The former London Knight, who fired up crowds with multiple post-goal jumps, was most recently assistant GM with tier II junior A Hawkesbury in the CCHA.
In an earlier Sun interview, Nistico described the Toros’ first home at Varsity Arena as “the coldest rink in Canada — and I’m from Thunder Bay. Eventually, I just took the blowtorch that the guys used on their sticks and pointed it at the bottom of my skates.
“Bobby Hull was my idol. First time we played the Winnipeg Jets, he whipped right by me, his sweater flapping like the Canadian flag. I just froze in awe. Then I heard my dad yelling at me in the stands: ‘What the heck are you doing’?”
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