Deadline day came and went without a significant addition or subtraction by Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The team did snag a fifth-round draft pick out of Vegas to help facilitate the Robin Lehner deal, reacquired Calle Rosen in exchange for Michael Hutchinson, completed another minor-league swap of Jordan Schmaltz for Matt Lorito, lost Dmytro Timashov to a waiver claim, and made official the long-rumoured Jake Muzzin contract extension. As Dubas pointed out in his media availability, in the end, he got his biggest piece of trade work done a few weeks in advance of the deadline with the acquisitions of Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford.
For some Leafs fans, it fell well short of the fireworks they were demanding after a brutal week for the team in the lead up to the deadline.
Panthers shake it up while the Leafs stand pat
The contrasting approach at the deadline between the struggling Panthers and the struggling Maple Leafs is notable as the two get set to battle for the final divisional playoff spot down the stretch of the 2019-20 season.
There are ownership factors behind the scenes in Florida that make it an imperfect comparison, but seeing a big-time shakeup in one dressing room — a multi-piece hockey trade that sent Vincent Trocheck to CAR for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, and other pieces — versus a largely stick-the-course approach in the other is interesting.
Kyle Dubas, overall, was quite gentle and hands-off with the team in both his public assessment of the situation and his deadline activity yesterday. It’s ultimately his job to accurately read the temperature of the players given his job and proximity to them every day, but there could’ve been an argument made for pulling the trigger on a Tyson Barrie trade followed by a Bill Guerin-like statement on how any signs of letup down the stretch, with a playoff berth in reach, is going to be a sure sign of more drastic changes to come.
That really would’ve been putting the onus on the group to step up, but it depends on the dynamic of the group as to how effective or counterproductive that type of move might be. In Toronto, this is a younger team that has been called immature and fragile at different times by its coaches. Dubas’ approach may have come in recognition of the reality that the team is struggling to deal with the pressures of this market — and perhaps some of the expectations associated with the big new contracts handed out — and may not have benefitted from having even more heat imposed on it by its own GM.
You could also make the case that embarrassing defeats don’t seem to be enough to wake this group up based on recent and historical evidence, and maybe a more aggressive intervention from Dubas was needed here. Interestingly, Dubas mentioned at one point in his media rounds yesterday that Jake Muzzin’s call-out of the team — when he said the team “wants it to be easy” — was the kind of “old school,” hard-truths approach the team might’ve needed.
In any event, it will be fascinating to see how the team responds with a tough schedule ahead.
The decision to hang onto Tyson Barrie
There is an essential piece of information missing from any analysis of the decision to keep Tyson Barrie yesterday: What were the actual offers? Keeping Tyson Barrie with the team in a playoff spot — however precarious its hold on one may be — obviously looks much different if the potential return was a mid-round pick and a middling prospect than if it was a first-rounder.
Brady Skjei is not as productive as Barrie historically and is left handed, but he’s a productive 5v5 contributor, is signed long-term, and is top four D who is 25 years old. He went for a first-round pick (no other pieces in the deal) to Carolina.
A right-handed rental with similar numbers to Barrie, Sami Vatanen went to the Canes for a conditional fourth, an AHL defenseman in Fredrik Claesson, and a former second-round selection in 21-year-old winger prospect Janne Kuokkanen, who has been a solid AHL contributor over three seasons but hasn’t broken the league yet.
Barrie did have the benefit of being cheaper than Vatanen thanks to the retained salary arrangement with Colorado, but I think the realistic return was more along the lines of the Brenden Dillon or Andy Greene trades — a second-round pick and AHL depth D in the Green deal, or a second and a conditional third in Dillon’s case. That’s definitely not nothing for a team that is without its first-round pick two years in a row and does not have its third-rounder this season. It’s a deal I’d have contemplated more seriously than Dubas appeared to — a second and a solid prospect, with a condition placed on the second to move to a first if Barrie re-signs, may have been a deal that was out there.
However, I don’t think throwing Timothy Liljegren to the wolves makes a ton of sense at this time, and Dubas has limited control over how much the coaching staff trusts him and how many minutes they play him anyway. Martin Marincin playing on the right side in the top four while the team waits for Cody Ceci to return late in the year — as if he’s a saviour here! — comes pretty close to kneecapping the team down the stretch. You could make a subsequent move to add a warm NHL body on the blue line, but you’ve got to part with an asset or two to do so, and now it’s starting to sound more like a pretty marginal gain overall.
To be clear, though, if a first-round pick was somewhere out there, the fact that Barrie is still a Leaf is inexcusably poor asset management given what the team has shown us to date this year (particularly recently), what Barrie has shown us, and how tough the path is in the division, with the top two teams in the league ahead of them both loading up at the deadline.
The other point worth mentioning is that no one is really going to care how mediocre the potential return might have been at the deadline if the Leafs miss the playoffs, Barrie walks, and the Leafs have only Alex Kerfoot and a downgraded draft pick (from a third to a sixth) to show for Nazem Kadri — a top-six, cost-effective center who was in some ways the heartbeat of the team. Same goes if the team makes it in and is turfed in round one by superior opposition.
If the team gave up one of its best trade chips to address the right-side of the defense only to end up there, it’s bad asset management and a move that unquestionably set the organization back in a notable way.
A strange answer from Dubas on the David Ayres debacle
This was a bizarre response by Kyle Dubas yesterday when asked about the embarrassing loss to Carolina on Saturday night, although it may just be a case of awkward wording.
If we had won the game, it would be embarrassing as well. You’re down 4-1 and it would be a whole other set of controversies that would come up. “Oh geez, the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s their own employee.” I think everyone can imagine what that would have been like as well. We were in a no-win situation in that game, and we were in a no-win situation because we put ourselves there. We did that in three of the four games last week.
If his point was that everyone would’ve diminished the win if the team came back from a brutal 4-1 start to beat their own Zamboni driver — and/or that people would’ve questioned why the emergency backup goalie can be employed by one team but enter the game for the opposition — that is fair. But it was the furthest thing from a “no-win” situation; it should’ve been an extremely fortunate break that led to two points in the standings.
The Leafs have been making international headlines over this debacle for 48 hours. It would’ve been a funny footnote and received a couple of minutes of coverage on the TSN and Sportsnet panels the next day if the Leafs came back and won. It would’ve also meant the team didn’t totally buckle once the pressure set in to win a one-goal game entering the third period with Ayres in the net.
Also, who knows where the team’s confidence level is now after Saturday? While a great showing against Tampa tonight would do wonders, morale could easily be at an all-time low.
On patience, internal growth, and the Washington example
The example of Washington is a popular one for Kyle Dubas to cite in the media when it comes to the process of learning from setbacks and persevering.
That message of learning from failures and growing together, in and of itself, is totally valid. But I wanted to echo Anthony Petrielli’s point from the other day: The Capitals were an absolute force in the regular season — as in multiple 50-win seasons, four straight divisional crowns, and so on. They had also won their fair share of first-rounds before running into upsets (granted, the playoff format was different).
On top of that, dial the schedule back to the start of the calendar year 2019, and the Leafs are below the median in wins league-wide with 52 (that’s 18th in the NHL… No, it’s not just because of Mike Babcock).
Of course, the Washington example, as far as this season goes for the Leafs, also ignores the iterations the team underwent to gets its overall personnel mix where it needed to be so it could win in a variety of ways in the postseason — it wasn’t only star players learning what it takes, although that had its role to play. It just starts to feel like we’re talking about this Leafs team as though it’s some world-beating, elite squad in the regular season that simply can’t break through in the playoffs when that’s not been the case based on the evidence at hand.
That’s not me making a statement on the limits of the current core’s potential — which I still view quite highly — but it’s important context to keep in mind when evaluating where the team stands in its evolution toward really giving itself a great chance at a deep run in the postseason.
To his credit, Dubas did not buy like a drunken sailor under the pretense that the team is a little bit of timely regular-season adversity away from sweeping through the East. The team could get healthy and catch lightning in a bottle here after all it’s been through, but betting real assets on that actually happening is another thing altogether. The Jack Campbell trade was long overdue and addressed a need for this season and beyond.