These next few games could be big ones for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Meeting the media at the midway mark on this shortened season, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas issued a challenge, of sorts, to his team, which in recent games has devolved into something less than the group that jumped out to the NHL's best record.
Dangling in front of the players who are without a regulation win in their last six games is the promise that management will reward resiliency with improvements to the roster before the April 12 trade deadline.
"This will be a great stretch because it will show how they respond when things aren't going perfectly," Dubas said Tuesday. "It's great waking up every day when you're winning, and it's a lot of fun. But when you start to stumble a bit, maybe you don't get the results as consistently as you have — I think that's a great opportunity for growth.
"The great teams are the teams that have great seasons and go on great runs. They all deal with these types of stretches. They deal with them very, very well. They use them to fuel better performance, better form, and better results. That's what I'm looking for now.
"If our group can do that, I think the onus will be on me to do everything within reason to improve the group."
Dubas referenced the final four from last season when speaking to the importance of not just taking knocks, but building from them. Tampa Bay, Dallas, Vegas and the New York Islanders each came out the other side as better teams after labouring through difficult portions of their schedule before embarking on great success inside the bubble.
"I think that great teams find a way to stop the bleeding," Dubas said.
Should the Maple Leafs effectively apply the bandaid soon after this rare four-day hiatus between games, it will help them not just hang on to the No. 1 seed in the North Division, but also compete with the rest of the league if they were to survive their six Canadian foes.
Dubas suggested he would spare no expense to improve the club, if it indeed earned the reinforcements.
Asked if he would include a top prospect in a deal before the deadline, Dubas responded, unequivocally, in the positive.
That means that if Maple Leafs brass identify the right addition, and are indeed convinced to pull the trigger, we could see a player like Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson or Rodion Amirov plucked from the prospect system which was only recently replenished.
There are, however, several key, potentially limiting things to consider as Dubas endeavours to improve the makeup of his roster. The most important of which is the fact that the Leafs are right up against the salary cap this season and are not in a favourable position to add money in the seasons to come.
That financial squeeze, plus the spectre of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, likely means that Dubas will divert from his usual strategy, which is to acquire controllable assets in favour of the one-and-done rental.
"Anything that we take from next year's allotment," Dubas admitted, "it impacts a number of different things."
Another important consideration is the quarantine process that all players must follow in the event an NHL transaction demands they embark on cross-border travel. Dubas estimated that an acquisition made on deadline day would be with the club for about 10 days before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in May.
For that reason, the Leafs GM is looking to make his moves as soon as possible.
"The sooner we can get a player in here through the quarantine and integrate them into our program systems-wise, and what we're about, the better for them and for us."
No vindication, yet
Despite Dubas's interest in putting his team in the best position to compete for the Stanley Cup, he doesn't believe the organization is close to meeting its potential.
Asked if he felt vindicated by the success the Maple Leafs have had in the regular season to this point, and for the fixes he's brought to what was, as early as last season, a highly flawed roster, Dubas indicated that he's far from ready to pat himself on the back.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, and our group here, to continue to build it and get better," Dubas said. "I don't think it's anywhere close to where we think we can be in time. That's the part that drives us, and drives me. We have had really good stretches this year, but there are times where I think I haven't done a good enough job whatsoever in helping the team. Whether that's what drives me or pushes the group to get better, that's fine."
It's certainly a fair assessment from Dubas.
Struggling over the last 10 days with 10 points left on the table, and allowing teams back in the race, the Leafs have failed to maintain a winning standard for even half a shortened season, let alone across many months, years, and seasons that Dubas expects.
Should the club achieve that, then maybe Dubas will feel the need to congratulate himself.
"The goal for the group is high performance sustained year after year," he said. "Only at the time would I feel any sort of vindication. And even still, the drive would be to continue that as long as we can.
"I feel any criticisms are warranted until we reach that point."
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