Draft Weekend Thoughts: The Marleau Deal, Marner Saga, PK Subban on the move again, and the latest on Nikita Zaitsev

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TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 19: Mitch Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts after a goal on the Carolina Hurricanes by teammate Patrick Marleau #12 during the third period at the Air Canada Centre on December 19, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

This is the perfect summation of Kyle Dubas’ weekend:

A picture says a thousand words. On that note, let’s get into a few post-draft weekend thoughts.

The Marleau deal

Patrick Marleau had a really good season for the Leafs in 2016-17 and likely contributed in all kinds of ways we can’t fully appreciate from the outside looking in as far as his impact on the young core off the ice. But it was always the third year of the term — extending past the end of the Leafs’ entry-level window with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — that made you wince about that signing. It came back to bite the Leafs this weekend, as they forfeited their 2020 first round pick in order to expunge that contract from their books, allowing them to get Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen under contract (at very reasonable numbers, it looks like; four years — including one UFA year — for Johnsson and three for Kapanen, both at under $3.5 million AAV).

Dubas was in a pick-your-poison situation, and it couldn’t wait past the buyout period: Subtract from the current roster (be it Johnsson, Kapanen) or give up the first in 2020 and keep your roster assets. The Leafs are in their Cup window and made the choice they had to make, but it’s a tough pill to swallow knowing the Leafs have committed to a program of paying their stars — including committing around $39-40 million to their top four forwards when it’s all said and done — while being ruthlessly efficient on the periphery of the roster.

Cheap, quality young talent is going to be imperative towards achieving the latter goal, so the pressure on the Leafs draft and development staffs — as well as Dubas’ ability to find capable bargain-bin roster depth like Tyler Ennis on short-term deals — just ratcheted up a notch. They’ll need to be better than most teams at unearthing and developing quality NHLers from the later rounds. On that note, the continuity with the Marlies‘ program and Sheldon Keefe and his staff staying put for now is definitely reassuring.

PK Subban on the move again

The fishbowl Toronto market and PK Subban’s larger-than-life personality would’ve been an interesting hypothetical match that one could picture going a couple of different ways. But with three more years left on his term, if there was any possibility the Leafs could’ve gotten significant money retained by Nashville on his contract, it behooved Dubas to get involved there. By all accounts, the Leafs GM put in an effort this weekend before the Devils closed the deal.

Right-handers of that calibre don’t come along often; Subban would have more than capably filled the most glaring hole on the Leafs’ roster as they look to win a Cup before Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Frederik Andersen’s good-value deals expire while waiting for some of their young defensemen in the system to matriculate. Subban had an off-year in 2018-19, but he’s only just turned 30 and was a star-level contributor as recently as 2017-18. Adding his point shot, puck-moving/rushing skills and game-breaker qualities to the right side of the defense would’ve been a boon to the Leafs’ 2020-23 Cup chances.

As a Cup-contending cap team, the Predators jumped at the chance to clear all $9 million of Subban’s deal, something the Leafs weren’t capable of doing without significant subtractions elsewhere on the roster. Additionally, what Nashville would’ve wanted in return for a $6 million Subban might have been — based on my best guess, Nashville’s needs, and what they got in return from Jersey — something closer to Kadri + +. You’d then be looking to fill a pretty big hole at center without having any cap space to do so while also giving up some futures and still being in tough to keep Kapanen + Johnsson and round out your roster.

The Marner Saga

Dubas is clearly not an abrasive person by nature nor one who embraces sending bold messages in the media, so this struck me as the first time he’s tried to tighten the screws a bit on Mitch Marner’s camp as we get closer to the RFA negotiation window opening for other teams around the league:

This basically reads to me as, “Do you want me to try to keep your friends here and keep the team contending? We can’t have this looming over our entire offseason.” It’s true a whole host of notable RFAs are doing the same thing to other teams right now, but the Leafs are really up against it cap-wise unlike the situation in Colorado with Mikko Rantanen, who will come in at a similar number to Marner. It’s different than the Nylander situation last year for the same reason. You could say none of this is Marner’s problem, and technically you’d be right, but the Leafs are attempting to contend here in a tight cap situation with Marner as a huge part of it and there is some urgency to the situation.

There needs to be some mutual respect/understanding, and I don’t get the sense the Leafs are low-balling him by any means at this stage. Management has paid a considerable price to offload the one truly bad contract on their roster (Nikita Zaitsev’s term is very long, but the cap hit AAV isn’t overly egregious), so they’re not asking him to fit himself in and pay the price for their poorly-managed cap structure. It’s unfortunate timing that he’s last to sign among the top talent on the team, but there’s not much the Leafs can do about that.

This entire thing has been really difficult to watch and has zapped a lot of the fun out of what should be a fantastic time to be a Leafs fan. If this regime fails because the front office expected discounts to be part of the plan without foreseeing the cap trouble that was on the horizon or anticipating the tenor of these negotiations, that ultimately falls on management. That said, part of the deal with acquiring Tavares involved Dubas meeting with the players individually about it (Marner and Matthews were directly involved in the courting process to lure JT to Toronto). When Dubas delivered the message, “We have an opportunity to add a superstar free agent at a big number,” with that, you would’ve assumed there was an understanding in place: It’s going to be tight, and while you’re all going to get the money you deserve, everyone needs to be reasonable and work with the team here in your contract negotiations as opposed to clinging to every ounce of leverage available and scrapping it out for every single dollar.

Dubas clearly doesn’t want to be going through this with a star player he has every intention of treating well and paying equitably. I’m all for players fighting for what’s fair, but in Marner’s case, expecting $10.5-11 million on five-year deal, if that is indeed the case (not saying we know any of this for sure), is not a reasonable stance by any objective measure. Marner is an outstanding player in so many facets of the game, but he’s not getting Matthews-adjacent money because he didn’t score 40 goals as a rookie and lead the NHL in even-strength goal scoring since he entered the league (goal scoring obviously being the most valued commodity in the NHL).

I get the sense watching and listening to Dubas speak about the whole affair that he can’t believe it could really be coming to this, with Marner currently on the verge of holding court with other teams around the league. It’s pretty hard to wrap your head around. Of course, there is still time to avoid the whole thing, and it would quickly be water under the bridge if they can find common ground and prove a lot of the noise in the media surrounding this negotiation was just that — noise.

The latest on Nikita Zaitsev

This answer from Kyle Dubas was interesting on Nikita Zaitsev:

You have to be reading that and gearing up for a return to Toronto in the Fall if you’re Zaitsev.

It’s really difficult to picture what Dubas is going to do about his blue line at this point. Barring a deal out of left field for the stud right-handed D they’re forever searching for, the only thing I can think of at this point that is on the menu of realistic possibilities (at least among those that we’re privy to at this time) is returning Ron Hainsey for another year and aggressively pursuing Colin Miller, who could be had without blowing major holes in the roster. (Chris Tanev is a possible plan B/C, but that’s an imperfect scenario for a lot of reasons, too).

Cap wise, that would require moving out Zaitsev. It wouldn’t be a more talented blue line overall with Jake Gardiner presumed gone, but it’s a little more balanced with Miller as Gardiner’s right-side replacement. Jake Muzzin will be here from the start of the year, and Travis Dermott (if he’s not too badly set back by the injury) will be a year older, with Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren looking capable of maybe making a push at some point during 2019-20.

Anton Stralman is just about the only notable right-handed defenseman that makes any sense from the UFA pool, but the Leafs would obviously have to be incredibly careful about term and AAV there with the soon-to-be 33-year-old who ran into injury problems last season.