We finally got our first taste of preseason hockey over the weekend – which we will get into later in the article – but the most interesting development in Leafs Nation last week took place off of the ice: Kyle Dubas revealed the news that he was informed by team president Brendan Shanahan that no contract extension is forthcoming at this point in time.
It’s been a hot topic of conversation over the last week – one that’s difficult to have an honest talk about among a fanbase that has become increasingly divided, especially on this subject. Really, though, it wasn’t the news of no extension that caught my eye – it would seem obvious that he would not be extended at this time – but rather Dubas saying (twice) that he prefers to be evaluated over the totality of his five-year term.
If we are to undertake such a retrospective, we have to start with the team Dubas inherited. Yes, there were a few awful contracts on the books, but it was also a 105-point team. They finished tied for sixth in the NHL that season with the Washington Capitals (who won the Stanley Cup). The Leafs owned the fifth-best goal differential in the league with a core in place that was yet to hit its prime.
Even if the GM did close to nothing, there was a natural development curve coming that would have made the team better. Three of the Leafs’ current top four forwards and their number-one defenseman were already on the team. Simply referencing the fact that the Leafs own the NHL’s fifth-most wins, third-most regulation wins, and fifth-best goal differential since Dubas took over in May 2018 seems a little disingenuous if we don’t also include the fact that the team he took over was already in that bracket.
Since 2018, the franchise has finished seventh, tied for eighth, tied for fifth (the COVID season), and fourth in the NHL in points. It’s not really a massive jump in the standings. Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are firmly in their primes now, and over four years, the team has gone from a 105-point team to a 115-point team. They’ve won one division title in the abbreviated season spent inside the all-Canadian division.
Of course, most importantly, the team has yet to win a single playoff round. If, after the Game 7 loss to the Bruins in 2018, anyone had told you the Leafs would win a combined zero playoff rounds over the next four seasons, you wouldn’t have believed them. It’s a bet most of us gladly would have taken.
The Leafs enter Dubas’ fifth year as a contender but one with a massive question mark in net that is firmly the GM’s own doing. Maybe we look back next summer and say Dubas is a genius who smartly played the goaltender market exactly for what it often is – a game of magic beans – but few contenders currently have the types of question marks in net that the Leafs do. Ironically, one team that does is Colorado, but winning a Cup and gambling after the ensuing cap crunch earns a little more leeway in comparison to the Leafs’ situation.
At the same time, Dubas has made smart bets with a number of good acquisitions to his name – John Tavares, Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, Michael Bunting, David Kampf, and Mark Giordano, to name a few. He has rebuilt the defense into a strong unit (albeit an aging one now).
He has also avoided any sort of massive franchise-crippling blunder, although there have been moves that have hurt the team to some degree. Avoiding the big mistake is noteworthy; there are countless examples of franchises undone by bad contracts. Anyone who has been a Leafs fan long enough to remember the David Clarkson contract can attest to this.
There have been legitimate criticisms to made about a few of his acquisitions, too. The Nazem Kadri trade saw him move out the best player in the deal, which was clear at the time and requires no hindsight to point out. Trade aside, the biggest issue is that it cost them a difference-making center on a very good contract.
The goalie situation has seen huge peaks and valleys to the point that the Leafs have generally been winning in spite of their goaltending for at least a couple of seasons now under Dubas’ watch.
The contracts of the Leafs’ big three have been a hot topic at times – for good reason. Really, the one that stands out as most problematic is the Mitch Marner contract – and not because he isn’t an excellent player. He is plainly one of the best players in the NHL, but this is a league that works off of comparables and extracting surplus value out of elite talent while under RFA control. Marner’s comparables at the time (players such as Mikko Rantanen and Nikita Kucherov) are making roughly $2 million less than him. This is how contracts need to be framed – it’s not as simple as pointing out that Marner is an amazing player now and probably worth the money in a vacuum. In a hard-cap reality, those are valuable dollars added to a player’s AAV that could be used to upgrade elsewhere.
The pandemic hurt Dubas’ plan on account of the cap flattening, but it impacted every single team in the league, not just the Leafs. He has had ample opportunity to adjust his plan and has made the decision not to. If it works out, he will look like a genius. If it doesn’t? He has had more than enough time to alter his strategy. Dubas has made it abundantly clear that he believes in the core and is willing to bet everything on them. He has yet to be rewarded.
In other moves outside of the NHL roster, there was the whole Mike Babcock debacle where there were clear issues and/or off-ice differences that ended poorly, with the whole saga dragging on longer than it needed to. The Leafs promoted Sheldon Keefe, whose regular seasons have been strong while his playoff appearances have invited fair criticism.
Since the Leafs promoted Keefe from the AHL club, the Marlies have generally struggled. They missed the playoffs last season. In the season before, no playoffs were held, but they finished fourth out of a five-team division and were one game under .500. The season before (cut short due to COVID), they were seventh out of eight teams in their division.
Under Keefe, the Marlies won the championship and went to the third round the season after, and most importantly, they were developing NHL talent. The list is impressive and includes names like Timothy Liljegren, Mason Marchment, Andreas Johnsson, Justin Holl, Pierre Engvall, Kasperi Kapanen, and Trevor Moore. Since Keefe left, the Marlies have graduated nobody to the Leafs full-time. Nick Robertson has had a few cups of coffee so far. The team’s GM and head coach have been handpicked by Kyle Dubas.
In the NHL, the Leafs have enjoyed success with their assistant coach hirings. Dean Chynoweth appears to be a real coup and the penalty kill has been strong under him. Manny Malhotra has had some ups and downs – namely, the power play has gone cold every playoff – but the Leafs owned the number-one ranked unit under Spencer Carbery last season and it cratered again come playoff time. There were mixed results with former goalie coach Steve Briere and a strange sequence of events involving the hiring and firing of Dusty Imoo at the AHL level.
When evaluating Dubas’ tenure to date, the bar should be set at division/league titles and long playoff runs. They have one division title (with an asterisk) so far and no playoff runs longer than seven games. If you want to be technical about it, they actually didn’t qualify for the playoffs when they lost to Columbus in the play-in round, albeit they were in a playoff position at the time of the Covid-induced pause.
Kyle Dubas is the first one to admit it. He has said it over and over throughout the years. The team will almost certainly need to achieve a deep run in order for him to earn a new contract and remain the GM of the Maple Leafs moving forward.
– Beyond his goal, it was nice to see Justin Holl making plays with the puck in preseason. There were a number of times where he held onto it searching for a good tape-to-tape pass, including a good pass he ripped up the middle of the ice between multiple Senators right to David Kampf. He also picked up an assist in the game, too, while playing over 19 minutes and leading all defensemen in shorthanded time on ice.
It’s no secret that Holl really struggled at times last season. With those struggles, he really lost confidence in controlling the puck and making plays. There were countless times when he would inexplicably lose control of the puck or miss a pass by a far margin. Hopefully, the summer allowed him to reset and settle his game back down. It’s just one preseason game, but it was a good start.
– The defenseman who actually led all Leafs players in time on ice in the first game? Filip Kral. He was also second among Leafs defensemen in power-play time and second in shorthanded time.
After a good preseason last year, so far Kral is putting on another solid showing. There’s really nothing flashy about his game – he’s good at everything, excellent at nothing – but the beauty of his game is the steadiness. He showed it again in his first preseason game by consistently making good reads with and without the puck.
In the third period on Saturday, he joined the rush and had a chance in all alone with the goalie after a John Tavares pass. On the power play, he helped facilitate good puck movement as the quarterback. Defensively, he was strong enough to win some battles down low and get the puck out.
– Unlike other options, Kral doesn’t require waivers, so he’ll almost certainly be sent down, but he’s a name to keep an eye on for a callup at some point during the season. Alex Steeves scored twice but only played 9:11 total. It was the lowest TOI figure of any Leaf over both preseason games. Even stranger is that he played over two minutes on the power play. On his goal, he did well to battle at the net and win positioning. The other goal was an empty netter, but it was a little surprising that he was even on for it considering how little he played otherwise.
– In their first preseason games, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews were all dancing out there with the puck on a string, which was to be expected. Veterans like John Tavares and Calle Jarnkrok were both able to create offense, as you would expect them to in the preseason.
I’d also expect Michael Bunting to, but it’s worth noting this is only going to be his second full season in the league, one that now comes with heightened expectations in what’s going to be a big contract year for him. It was nice to see him look like himself. He was in on the forecheck, yapped as usual, created offense, hunted for shots (his four shots on net led all Leafs), and didn’t appear to miss a beat. You never know how a player in his situation will follow up such a strong first act, but initial indications are it’s going to be more of the same from Bunting.
– I thought it was noteworthy that Alex Kerfoot was playing center in his first preseason game. I still have no idea who the Leafs’ fourth center will be; while I’m not confident it will be Kerfoot just yet, he’s generally been their first option whenever someone goes down. They still appear to like him there.
– Although nine of the minutes were on special teams, I was a little surprised to see Morgan Rielly clock over 27 minutes played in his first preseason game.
– I don’t think Zach Aston-Reese surprised anyone familiar with his game. He was physical, simple, in the right spots, around the net (he was screening the goalie on Justin Holl’s goal), won his battles, and chipped in a little on the penalty kill. He’s a professional role player who knows his identity and doesn’t try to overextend himself. He would be a good addition provided they can make the cap dollars work. Alongside David Kampf, it was a duo that allowed the opposition to create a whole lot of nothing on the ice.
“To me, both have been really good. They look like guys who have played in the NHL, which is really what they were signed for — the additional depth for us with guys who, if and when we need them, can play. That is what I have seen so far.
They look to be at a higher level than some of the other depth options out here. There is a bit of a separation for sure between them and some of the guys who don’t have that same experience.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Jordie Benn and Victor Mete
I thought this was a good glimpse into how the Leafs are viewing their defensive depth chart. Both Jordie Benn and Victor Mete would require waivers should they be sent down, so it will be interesting to monitor how the Leafs navigate it knowing all the players they’ve lost on waivers over the past few seasons. Depending on how injury situations play out, they might not even have to make a decision; they could just ride it out and see who plays better during the season.
It’s nice that they have each spent some time on the right side. They also offer completely different elements. It’s noteworthy that between Zach Bogosian and Ilya Lyubushkin, the Leafs have generally liked including a player that fits Benn’s profile on their roster in recent years.
“We talked when negotiations were going on. He was a big help for my brother & myself when he came to Dallas. He’s not putting the gear on anymore, but he’s in the mix & all the guys look up to him.”
– Jordie Benn discussing Jason Spezza’s role in signing with Toronto
I am really curious to watch how Jason Spezza’s role evolves in the organization. Will he eventually take on a more active coaching role, perhaps starting with the Marlies? Will he ever hop on the ice with players to work on certain skills/situations? He can bring a lot to the table, so we’ll see how they develop him as an asset within their brain trust.
“In terms of the situation up front, when the news of Pierre came in, that is when we executed the tryout agreement for Zach Aston-Reese, who we had really considered going into the offseason as well. But this is the first time going into the year where I look at our own internal guys. If you are them, you know you have a great chance, whether you are Nick Robertson — who I know gets a lot of bandwidth — but also the Bobby McManns, the Joey Andersons, the Pontus Holmbergs throughout the organization.”
– Kyle Dubas on the forward depth in the organization and who might be knocking on the door
Bobby McMann is probably the least talked about prospect that the organization appears to be really high on. Dubas and Keefe have both mentioned him during training camp, and I thought he played a good first preseason game.
There’s nothing flashy to his game, but he has some size, knows how to play the game, finishes his checks, and uses his frame to disrupt plays. He had a mini breakaway of sorts while shorthanded, but there wasn’t much that came of it. He has a chance to carve himself out a role or at least be an early call-up.