Maple Leafs' Dubas, Babcock facing as many challenges as ever

TORONTO — It seems introspective summers have inspired new perspectives.

Intentions fine-tuned and messages re-shaped, Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock, both perhaps humbled recently by individual difficulties impacting the Toronto Maple Leafs, presented distinctly different fronts as the team’s training camp officially opened on Thursday at the Ford Performance Centre. This is at least compared to the messages delivered the last time each spoke in a podium setting.

Where Dubas welcomed the burden after the Leafs were once again eliminated in seven games at the hands of the Boston Bruins, Babcock seemed to disassociate himself from it.

Nearly five months later, and following an off-season that brought both significant challenges and widespread change to a roster destined to be ceaselessly threatened by the pressures of the salary cap, the messages from coach and GM had changed.

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Comparatively, Dubas and Babcock’s tones once again didn’t exactly mesh, but there was one important intersection woven through their answers: they both see an opportunity here.

The words came across as a particularly stark contrast for Babcock, who seemed to point at the roster before looking at himself after the Leafs suffered their third first-round exit in as many seasons.

Those expecting a coach antagonized by blows to the roster’s leadership, depth and total team toughness were surprised by one invigorated by a new assembly of talent.

The first real speculation concerning Babcock’s job security could certainly be a contributing factor to his glowing review of the roster construction.

Though it glowed nonetheless.

“To be honest I’m really excited about our group,” Babcock said.

“We have had a lot of change this summer. Our staff has done a really nice job. And we have a really big job here.” he added, suggesting that the onus is now on himself and his new-look coaching staff. “This is as much change as I’ve seen since I’ve been in the National Hockey League. So we have to get up and running and that’s what we’re excited about doing.”

Speaking to that change, the biggest has come to the Maple Leafs’ blue line.

With Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev now with the Ottawa Senators, and Jake Gardiner signing a free-agent contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs won’t return a single defensive combination from last season.

Though trusted former members of the team are no longer at his disposal, Babcock believes that Dubas brought in two players that are not just talented enough to fill the void, but are ready to offer more.

“We believe that (Cody Ceci) is just scratching the surface. We think the same about (Tyson) Barrie. We think there’s growth potential there for sure,” he said.

“Sometimes just the change of scenery — to me it’s invigorating, it’s a new challenge. Instead of coming into training camp relaxed, they are a little antsy. Even though they are veterans, there is more tension. Why? They don’t know what the coach is going to do, what the manager is going to do, their teammates. I think that leads to excitement but also growth opportunities.”

While confident Toronto can organize an improved blue line despite changes to the unit, what will ultimately push the team beyond its ceiling is continued growth from the collection of young stars that inhabit the roster.

Above all, Babcock sees this as the main reason the Maple Leafs should improve on last season.

“We think we’re going to take a step internally,” Babcock said. “And what I mean by that, I believe a lot of our core players have gotten substantially better. They’ve gotten older, they are more comfortable with themselves and they are more comfortable on the ice both offensively and defensively.”

Of course, receiving net improvements from the collection of players that have claimed ownership to large percentages of the salary cap hinges on restricted free agent Mitch Marner finally agreeing to his second contract with the Leafs.

Maybe that’s why things seemed to weigh heavier on Dubas than they were with Babcock.

Marner will not travel to Newfoundland to make at least the first on-ice session at Leafs training camp. The dynamic winger’s hard-line stance in negotiation, and the stress it’s put on the organization, should be as significant a factor as any when considering Dubas’s less assertive media day demeanour.

It’s now two summers in a row that the young executive’s negotiating tactics have come under question. Last season William Nylander fought for dollars and assurances deep into the fall — only to turn in the least productive of his four seasons.

We’re at the point now where there are concerns over the repeated consequences of the to-this-point-failed negotiations regardless of when Marner actually signs, and Dubas will have to wear that.

It’s pretty apparent that he’s still searching for the answer.

“I think in every negotiation everybody thinks on their side they’re being reasonable,” Dubas said about the current give and take with Marner. “Then the major argument then comes down to, ’Who’s more reasonable than the other, right?’”

To his credit, Dubas did a pretty remarkable job working the pieces around to not just accommodate the expanding Marner number, but to improve the roster in the process of clearing out money.

Babcock has legitimate reason to be that excited.

In the event Marner signs, the Leafs host one of the most talented rosters in the league, and one with improved balance and optimization when compared to last season. However, for Dubas, that modest approach to briefing the media will include no bold proclamations.

“I know it disappoints a lot of people,” he said when asked if he’s built a championship-calibre roster for his coach. “But I don’t ever look at it as ‘Can this roster do X?’ It’s really, ‘Can this roster give us chances to accomplish those types of things?’

“Hopefully we get some fortune and we step up in key moments and it results in success.”

For Dubas and Babcock, time was always going to help normalize perspectives in the aftermath of another devastating loss to Boston.

But as one grapples with a negotiation threatening bold claims made previously, while the other aims to prove that he’s still one of the league’s best coaches, they seem to have acknowledged one very important aspect as the organization moves forward.

They’re going to need each other to have success.

Dubas and Babcock both spoke positively about their relationship and its continued growth over the summer months.

And like their approaches to media day, that was a bit of a change-up, too.

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