There wasn’t too much to take away from Maple Leafs’ locker room cleanout day — other than Auston Matthews’ reassuringly strong statements about his preference for staying put in Toronto — until Kyle Dubas stepped up to the podium.
The Leafs GM visibly wore the stress of the job throughout the playoffs this Spring and certainly appeared to be affected by it in the press conference on Monday. He also made it clear that it will be Toronto or nowhere else for him this offseason.
It seems unlikely that Dubas was as open to other job opportunities as many media reports made him out to be all year long. In any event, at this point, for him to emotionally state he is not relocating his family away from Toronto only to take another job with a different organization a few weeks from now would be a really odd move. Announcing that it’s the Leafs or nowhere else (for now) isn’t exactly a master leverage play for any contract negotiations currently underway, so it read as a pretty honest revelation.
Heading into the year-end interviews, I was personally hoping to hear an indication that Dubas wanted to be back in Toronto and was truly open to making substantive changes this offseason. Press conference quotes only mean so much, but I think we basically heard that.
Dubas left the door open on coaching changes and core changes, even going out of his way to invoke the example of the Panthers, who both fired their coach (similarly, the one with the highest regular-season winning percentage in franchise history) and shook up their core player group last offseason. This tone shift was mostly expected — it’d be the definition of insanity at this point to take those possibilities off the table entirely — but it’s still a very notable change over past locker cleanout days.
While Dubas seems more likely than not to stay on at this point, nothing is set in stone as we now sit and wait for Brendan Shanahan and the ownership board to make their final determinations, with possible bombshells to come on the management and coaching fronts.
Some scattered thoughts on locker cleanout day:
I know we’re all consumed by the drama of potential firings and major trades, but to reflect on the playoffs briefly (the reason we are in this position in the first place), I wish the media pried for more details on the issue of the lack of offense Kyle Dubas mentioned (and seemed particularly disappointed by).
Clearly, a big part of this story is the one goal on 67 shots from Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares in the Florida series — the latter two specifically had more than enough opportunities one-on-one vs. Sergei Bobrovsky, and as two elite shooters, they simply needed to win those battles against the goalie more than often than they did.
There is also a temptation to look at Bobrovsky vs. the Leafs and then suggest they need more forwards who can get to the hard areas and make life difficult on a dialed-in goaltender (that’s already underpinned a lot of their deadline additions in recent seasons). There may still be some truth in that, but when Dubas mentioned building in “the offensive principles” to score more goals in the playoffs, my mind immediately went to the defense core.
Outside of Rielly, the group of Brodie/Holl/Schenn/Gio/McCabe/Liljegren was an adequate enough one defensively but definitely not good enough offensively.
Only one of their regular seven D scored a goal — Rielly. They received nine total points in 11 games (all assists) from their other six regulars (we’re including Liljegren’s five games here). The Hurricanes have received five goals and 19 points from their five regular defensemen not named Brent Burns. The Panthers’ D core, by no means the envy of the league, has three goals and 14 points from their five defense regulars not named Brandon Montour.
There is the one component of better solving the aggressive and effective forechecks of Florida/Tampa by moving the puck up the ice more efficiently, and there is also the creation of scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. In addition to the ability to activate into the rush, Rielly’s skill for walking the line, patiently buying some time up high, and finding a lane to fit a shot through proved effective a bunch of times in the playoffs. The Leafs didn’t really have any other defensemen doing this consistently or effectively.
Every second of time a defenseman up top can create for the net-front attackers to shake loose and establish inside positioning, the harder it is for the opposing defenders to hold their checks, and the more likely the Leafs can create those screens, tips, deflections, and rebound goals that are often the main way through a goalie who is stopping everything he is seeing as Bob was.
Dubas’ compliment of the coaching staff’s adjustment between Game 1 and 2 of the Florida series to better match up with the Tkachuk line ignores that the initial game plan of running the Tavares line against them in Game 1 was a suspect (and costly) choice — really, a correction for an entirely unforced error. I award the coaching staff no points for this one.
Dubas’ answer was a pretty weak endorsement of the coaching staff overall.
Sheldon Keefe was telling on himself for not having the team prepared for the second-round series when he made his comment about the team’s surprise at the “wide open” style of game they encountered against Florida. To me, it’s unacceptable that the coaching staff didn’t have the team prepared for this tendency from the Panthers.
Keefe has been a strong regular-season coach, but it’s undeniable at this point that there have been difficulties preparing the team for playoff series and making the right adjustments as they progress. The team also doesn’t seem to come out with their hair on fire for playoff games almost ever.
Why do they so often wade into games? Why were they so passive through the neutral zone all series against Tampa even as the Lightning tilted the ice on them all series long (the Leafs lost the territorial battle in most of the games)? Why was the team constantly regrouping and stalling out so often in the third period when trailing in an elimination game vs. Florida (they had almost nothing going on offensively until William Nylander’s solo effort nearly saved the season)? Why is riding an exhausted Matthews-Marner duo into the ground the only answer Keefe has when the chips are down?
Seven straight playoff games of two goals is brutal for a team with the scoring talent on this roster.
Interesting to note: President Brendan Shanahan is said to be announcing something in the coming days. When Raptors Pres. Masai Ujiri didn’t address the media until eight days after the Raps’ locker cleanout, he was cooking up a head coaching change.
As far as a core move, Mitch Marner is somewhat in the sweet spot for me — he’s paid $11 million, regularly under-delivers in the playoffs, probably has the most value of anyone but Matthews given the term on his deal, and would represent a bit of a culture shift/shock to the system of a team that probably needs one at this point (there was a very cozy-sounding “we love each other and want no change here” vibe to most of the player interviews).
If the Leafs could find a younger scoring forward with some jam (ideally a C) and a defenseman with the ability to eat minutes and drive some offense off the backend, I think the Leafs have to keep their ears to the ground on this. It’s easier said than done in terms of manifesting that kind of deal or series of deals. This move would need to be handled very delicately, and there is nothing forcing them to deal him for anything but the right return, but Dubas definitely sounds more open to undertaking the job of thoroughly exploring the markets for his core pieces.
Lots of players were asked about injuries, and only Auston Matthews half-indicated he was nursing something beyond the usual bumps and bruises, but I was most curious to hear what TJ Brodie’s issue might have been if anything. I have never found his game to hold up as well in the playoffs as it does in the regular season, but this was a steep dropoff this year. If there is an injury-related explanation, it’s one thing, but if it’s a partially or entirely age-related decline in action, this is a real issue.
Between Holl likely being gone, Giordano looking more like a 6/7 for next year, Brodie entering the final year of his deal looking really rough this spring, and Muzzin being unofficially retired, it’s a D core in need of a pretty notable revamp.
Matthews’ responses to the contract questions couldn’t have been much more encouraging if you want him to re-sign in T.O. this summer, which most fans do (and should). It’s time we shrink who we consider to be the core of this team to be basically just Matthews. The rest is open for discussion.
Given his championship experience and Conn Smythe-winning pedigree, you have to take an opinion like Ryan O’Reilly’s seriously when he categorically stated that the team did not match the physicality of Florida and that it wore on the Leafs throughout the series. I am not sure how much weight I put onto this aspect of the series yet, but let’s entertain it for a moment (Paul Maurice also mentioned countless times how much less physical the series was compared to the Bruins one, FWIW).
Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne is fond of asking the question, “Can you really tape grit to the core?” When Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander are the tone-setters and major ice-time loggers on the team and none really take to the physical part of the game naturally, is it ever going to be able to match up in this area of the game? Dubas has made serious efforts to supplement his core players in this area. Each of their younger core players has shown some improvement in their ability to play through contact and pay the price in the postseason, but is it enough as a collective whole? I find myself wavering over this issue a lot.
I hate reading between the lines too deeply on what are dreaded media obligations for players who are still raw from the disappointment of the season ending and are spewing out canned answers to get through the five-minute interview as quickly as possible.
But I couldn’t help but notice ROR was the only one in all of the interviews — at least those made available on the team’s website — that actually stated the words “I needed to be better” or indicated/sounded like he was truly disappointed in his own performance.
The path to retaining O’Reilly seems tricky barring a hometown discount.
If we assume ROR can still earn himself at least $4.5-5 million on the open market on a medium-term deal, it’s a real challenge to invest ~$16 million into two centers in Tavares and ROR who are not exactly “skating” Cs. Maybe Tavares shifts to the wing full-time, but it’s still a lot of money into a bunch of mid-30s seasons from average to below-average skaters.
If Tavares was shipped out and ROR was staying at a much cheaper number while using the difference in space on an impact forward or D, that gets very interesting, but we all know Tavares’ is a tough contract to move. ROR brings so much value to the table, but it’s balanced against him likely feeling out the open market first (from the sounds of it), and the Leafs needing to upgrade their team speed and probably get a little younger overall. I don’t think Tampa qualifies as a fast team at all right now, and yet the Leafs really didn’t outskate their opponent in their first-round series, either.