Kyle Dubas could only watch as his Maple Leafs went through their paces the last few weeks.
Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol featured voluntary on- and off-ice workouts with plenty of social distancing and, at least to start, no coaches. The players were basically on their own to set up drills, push each other and prepare for a potential league restart that was far from certain.
Toronto’s general manager came away impressed by what he saw, and hopes that commitment pays off when the games matter.
“We had been on them from the beginning about their conditioning level,” Dubas said Sunday of the conversations with players since the season was suspended in March because of COVID-19. “Their fitness is going to be really important for us as we begin rolling. That was something that we hammered home to them on every Zoom call and conference call.
“That’s been a real positive.”
The Leafs and 23 other teams are primed to get an unusual summer training camp going Monday morning, the next sign post in the league’s plan to resume its pandemic-halted campaign.
Auston Matthews ‘is fit to play’
Dubas expects his roster, which has been in town for at least the last week, to hit the ground running.
And Auston Matthews — the star centre who The Toronto Sun reported last month had tested positive for COVID-19 in Arizona — is among them and ready to go.
“Auston is fit to play,” Dubas said in his shortest answer of a 40-minute video conference call with reporters.
The Leafs, who were in a playoff spot at the time the NHL schedule was stopped in its tracks, are preparing to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-five qualifying round for a right to make the usual 16-team playoffs.
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Even though Toronto now has to win three more games than the usual 16 to reach its ultimate goal, there won’t be any griping.
“I don’t think it’s unfair,” Dubas said. “The NHL has done a great job of building out its plan and trying to execute this as safely as possible.”
That includes the naming of Toronto, along with Edmonton, as a hub city that will host 12 clubs in a so-called “bubble” away from the general public.
“The only advantage is that we don’t have a flight to get here,” Dubas said. “We’ll just take a bus.”
Salary cap an issue for Leafs future
The NHL’s return-to-play plan to resume the season was tied to a new collective bargaining agreement that spelled out some of the harsh economic realities facing the league, its teams and players in the coming years.
One aspect that could impact the Leafs is the fact the $81.5-million US salary cap will remain stagnant for the foreseeable future. Some observers believe that means there’s even more pressure to win now, but Dubas doesn’t see it that way with the likes of Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander signed long-term.
“If we were facing a situation where some of our core players’ (contracts) were up at the end of this year … I would feel a bit differently,” he said. “But with everyone signed going into this off-season, we’re going to have some space to take care of our restricted free agents that we have and potentially look at some of our own UFAs.
“I don’t feel this season there should be any added expectation. The players have an expectation and we have an expectation that we’re going to be competitive and that we’re trying to contend.”
Toronto’s script was already a page-turner before the coronavirus knocked hockey, and the rest of the sports world, off its axis. There was Marner’s contract resolution, off-ice issues that grabbed headlines, a coaching change, an embarrassing loss to emergency backup goalie and Zamboni driver David Ayres, and maddeningly inconsistent performances from a talent-rich group.
Dubas expects to learn plenty about his team in the coming weeks and months.
“This is so different and it’s a major challenge,” he said. “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, our commitment to the protocols that are in place to keep each other healthy and keep each other safe and keep our community safe.
“If we’re willing and able to get uncomfortable and accept some of the differences that we’re experiencing, and in the way that we normally do things, and embrace those differences and embrace the uncomfortability of what we’re dealing with, I think it’s a great growth opportunity.”
That path, which now requires 19 victories, starts Monday.