BOCA RATON, Fla. — Kyle Dubas avoided a knee-jerk reaction following one of the most embarrassing defeats in Toronto Maple Leafs' history.
Although it's a small sample size, his players have started to reward their general manager's patience.
Dubas largely stood pat at last week's NHL trade deadline in the wake of a stunning 6-3 loss to Carolina — and two other pathetic efforts ahead of Feb. 24 freeze — that saw Toronto fall to a 42-year-old Zamboni driver pressed into service as an emergency backup goalie after the Hurricanes lost both their netminders to injury.
A sporting laughingstock across North America and in a battle for their playoff lives, the Leafs started to claw back with a gutsy 4-3 road victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But already down defencemen Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and Cody Ceci (sprained ankle), Toronto subsequently lost steadying influence and locker-room conscience Jake Muzzin for a month with a broken hand to further deplete an already-thin blue line and push the likes of rookies Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren even further up the lineup.
That's when Dubas — who periodically shares inspirational articles or messages throughout the organization — dusted off an old favourite, posting a version of "The Story of the Chinese Farmer" to his official Twitter feed.
The message was this: it's impossible to know the ramifications of a situation, good or bad, before coming out on the other side.
"Especially last week when everyone is trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom, I think it's important to remember that until you go through everything, you don't know what the consequences are going to be one way or another," Dubas said Tuesday at the NHL GM meetings. "It's just a great reminder."
The Leafs went out the next night and picked up another road win against the Florida Panthers, the team chasing them for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, and grabbed a third straight victory Saturday back home against the Vancouver Canucks.
Sandin and Liljegren have stepped up along with Travis Dermott and Justin Holl, and even Martin Marincin, in the absence of Rielly and Ceci, who are both getting closer to returning, and Muzzin.
But Dubas stressed the team as a whole, which opened a three-game road trip Tuesday in San Jose with a five-point cushion on the fading Panthers, has rededicated itself following the Carolina debacle.
"A lot of (the young defencemen) hadn't played in these roles before," said Dubas, who re-acquired depth defenceman Calle Rosen from Colorado at the trade deadline after dealing him to the Avalanche in July's Tyson Barrie-Nazem Kadri swap. "It has been nice to see them step up and perform really well."
The Leafs were basically locked into a matchup with the bruising Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs at this time last year — they would fall in seven games for the second consecutive spring — but Toronto could face a number of teams with different styles in 2019-20 if they do indeed qualify for the post-season dance.
"It's exciting," Dubas said. "It doesn't let us get too transfixed on one opponent ... just focus on being at the best we can and being ready for whatever opponent's ahead of us."
But in a roller-coaster season already dotted with an incredible amount of ups and downs — a since-resolved legal issue invloving star centre Auston Matthews in Arizona, the firing of head coach Mike Babcock, a long run of success and that demoralizing loss to a 42-year-old Zamboni driver — Dubas isn't getting ahead of himself after this recent string of victories.
"We're going to have to have that continue the rest of the year," he said. "That's what we'll be watching for now."
MIKHEYEV INJURY HAS LEAFS THINKING AHEAD
Dubas said the frightening sequence that saw an opponent's skate blade accidentally sever an artery and tendons in the wrist rookie winger Ilya Mikheyev on Dec. 27 has the organization looking at ways to protect its players from similar injuries moving forward.
It also gave Mikheyev's teammates pause.
"It was probably one of the scarier things that a lot of them had seen in their career," Dubas said. "Pretty innocent play ... both two guys reaching for a puck escape comes up and catches him in the exact right spot. "
The minimum timeline for Mikheyev's return was the end of this month. Dubas said the 25-year-old remains on course, but it's hard to know when exactly he'll get back to 100 per cent.
The NHL has been sending out information about products from manufacturers that have the best resistance to cuts.
Dubas said the Leafs will insist younger players in their system use the equipment going forward.
"(Mikheyev) usually wears (a sleeve under his uniform)," said the GM. "Just that specific game and that specific day, it was just uncomfortable. So he had pulled it up after the second period."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press