The NHL draft and free agency periods are roughly a month and a half away, but the Maple Leafs have all sorts of questions to answer before then.
The most pressing one, of course, is who is going to be in charge.
We haven’t heard from Brendan Shanahan in any official capacity since last year’s locker room cleanout day. Before the 2022-23 season began, Kyle Dubas addressed his own contract status. Throughout the season and playoffs, Brendan Shanahan did not sit in the management suite. Notably, the Leafs President was not present during this week’s locker room cleanout day, either.
We’re told he will be speaking at some point in the coming days, but until he does, let’s sort through the season that was and the closing comments from the players, coaches, and GM on Monday. Predictably, there were enough platitudes to make your eyes glaze over, but there were also a few takeaways of note.
One standout quote is this statement from Kyle Dubas:
The one thing I would say about this spring, as I sit here, and obviously there is a lot that will need to be cleared in the coming stretch… In terms of the goal, it remains the same, but perhaps the path needs to shift slightly. It needs to be adapted slightly.
You get in between persistence and full belief versus being a little too staunch and rigid. I think that is a question I would take the time for myself in reflecting on the year and then decide on that heading into the spring toward the draft and free agency.
After last season ended, Dubas spoke about evaluating the entire group and determining a path forward – comments that, in retrospect, appeared to have been lip service. Ultimately, he elected to tinker. This week, though, we heard a different tone.
The quote above is an important admission and is particularly relevant if Dubas stays on as GM. Over the past several years, there has been so much debate about the right approach to winning with this team – including the credibility of the core and coaching staff – and it’s fair to wonder how much of the approach was shaped by trying to win a certain way with a certain group of players (think back to Dubas’ declaration of, “we can and we will”). The specific sentence, “You get in between persistence and full belief versus being a little too staunch and rigid,” speaks volumes here.
To the public’s knowledge, the Leafs have never engaged with other teams about trading any of their core players. It certainly appears as though none of them were ever really made available; seemingly, their value has never truly been gauged in terms of a potential return.
At one point, Dubas explicitly stated that William Nylander would be here as long as he is GM. I understand what Dubas thought he was trying to accomplish with those statements, but it’s an unnecessary level of hubris. William Nylander is a very good player, but there are a number of players in the league that any GM should trade him for straight up without thinking twice.
The parameters for change were always set at modifying the supporting cast surrounding the core in place. In five years, the most notable player moved was Nazem Kadri. After Kadri, who is the next most notable player Dubas traded away? Connor Brown? Trevor Moore? Funny enough, we could look back over the five years and argue it’s Rasmus Sandin.
My point isn’t that Dubas needs to trade away quality hockey players – any GM should obviously want more of those, not less – but over the years, it has been fair to question the mix of this group and ponder the alternatives. Whenever these conversations about major trades happen, it’s seemingly always framed as an instant loss in which the team would receive pennies on the dollar in return, but this is a fallacy. You can trade good players for value in return, but it has always been the GM’s steadfast (or Dubas put it, “rigid”) belief to stick by this core.
Prior to last season, I wrote the following about his approach, and it still holds true to this day:
“In Kyle Dubas’ end-of-season press conference, the Leafs GM mentioned that the easy thing to do would be to make bold changes. I’d argue the opposite at this point. The easy thing to do is to not shake the boat or roll the dice on making a change that could push the team over the top. Running back a strong regular season team that has looked good in one of the last three playoffs is the easiest possible thing to do. It requires almost no work… Running it back pretty well ensures 82 risk-free games. It’s a virtual certainty the team will be good in the regular season.”
The Leafs put together a strong season in 2021-22 and their top players would have held value given their performance and production in the regular season (plus the term on their contracts). They also generally showed well in the playoffs. There were opportunities to explore, at a minimum. With one less year on all of their contracts now, extracting good value becomes all the more difficult.
At this point, it’s fair to question if there has been too much loyalty at times, potentially even as a response to criticism. This goes beyond the core and extends to the coaching staff, support players (such as Alex Kerfoot), and anyone from the SSM Greyhounds.
In that sense, it’s important that Dubas acknowledged a need to adapt and not be handcuffed by his own “persistence.” I do think Dubas has evolved since he took over as GM, especially when it comes to building proper forward depth instead of plugging in the Nic Petans and Dmytro Timashovs of the world.
In fact, throughout the roster, we can definitely argue he has improved as far as developing and adding depth to the roster. The seventh defenseman is no longer the likes of Martin Marincin. The backup goalie this past season was not Michael Hutchinson or Garret Sparks. He has made a number of good bets adding quality players via free agency: TJ Brodie, Michael Bunting, Ilya Samsonov, and David Kampf, to name a few.
The flip side of the argument is that the Leafs have struggled to make so-called “hockey trades.” The best player he ever traded away was Nazem Kadri, a move that did not turn out well. What are Dubas’ other hockey trades? Acquiring Jake Muzzin for Sean Durzi, Carl Grunstrom, and a first-round pick? Moving Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford for Trevor Moore and two third-round picks? The Kasperi Kapanen trade?
The notable deadline moves are placed in a different category given it is a buyer acquiring talent from a seller. In terms of hockey trades, there hasn’t been much to go on, but for most of those above-mentioned deals, the other team would make them again.
Ultimately, if Dubas is retained, I think his earlier comment will be one to focus on and evaluate him by. He is acknowledging a need to veer from his original course. How would he go about it? Who would move? How does he handle the coaching staff that he put together?
I would argue that the Leafs have been outcoached – or neutral, at best – in five straight playoff series now. Over four seasons under Sheldon Keefe, they won one playoff series and a North Division title over a 56-game campaign. For a team that has conducted itself and bought as though it’s a Cup contender for three of those four years, those are not good enough results.
Dubas and Sheldon Keefe are obviously good friends and have a strong personal relationship. It is not easy to make this type of decision, but it is one the organization needs to be honest about before moving forward.
The other standout part of Dubas’ press conference on Monday was the emotional toll this entire season appeared to take on him. He was clearly emotional when speaking, and he mentioned his family and the impact it made on him a few times.
The most important thing to mention here is hoping Dubas and his family are okay. Secondly, I have been told the organization was ready to move forward with an extension of some capacity heading into Monday’s press conference, and that Dubas’ comments have thrown a bit of a wrench into it. Ownership wants to know about potential burnout before greenlighting a new contract.
The job of GM of the Maple Leafs is a difficult one at the best of times. I am not going to speculate on what is happening with Kyle Dubas personally. It will be up to him, his family, and the organization to decide whether he is in the right mental/personal space to move forward and what it would look like if he were to continue.
A few additional scattered thoughts on the offseason decisions ahead:
– Alec made a great point about the responses Ryan O’Reilly gave on locker cleanout day as opposed to pretty well the entire rest of the team. It brought to mind Sheldon Keefe’s past mentions of ROR as the team’s most vocal player on the bench. At times, Keefe would move ROR around to try to jolt some life into a player or line. There were all sorts of clips during games showing ROR’s vocal presence on the bench.
Against Tampa Bay, he was one of their best players and scored one of their biggest goals of the playoffs, tying Game 3 late and putting up three points. He is a captain, Cup champion, and Conn Smythe winner. I don’t think what he brings off the ice – especially to this group – is insignificant.
His game has never been predicated on speed, and while it would be challenging to run with two slower centers in John Tavares and ROR, he provides plus value and will always bring something to the table because of how strong he is defensively. The number has to make sense, but this is worth exploring.
– Luke Schenn loved his time here, which he made clear time and again, and the fans loved his time here, too. He made $850,000 last season. This sounds like a no-brainer. The same applies to Noel Acciari (who made $1.25 million), too.
– It was surprising to hear Sheldon Keefe note, “I thought the game [vs. Florida] was really wide open. Frankly, we weren’t expecting it to be as open as it was early in the series.” This is a division rival. They played them multiple times down the stretch, and this is how the Panthers have played for a few years now. They are one of the best rush teams in the league. We noted before the series how aggressively they attack with two forecheckers; this leads to wide-open play. I don’t know how the Leafs could have possibly been surprised.
– The other thing that stood out was in regard to the offense: “We weren’t able to play long enough for them to find their way through that.” The team can’t just throw its hands up and chalk it up to the other team’s goalie every year. They have to find ways through it.
It’s not about treading water and waiting for the percentages to bounce back in their favour – this isn’t an 82-game regular season. Despite the fourth line, depth players, and defensemen all scoring multiple goals in the Florida series, the correct framing is that the top players weren’t able to fight their way through traffic and good goaltending in order to play longer.
– Due to age, decline in play, and one year left on his contract, TJ Brodie is a reasonable trade candidate. Should he return, it is noteworthy that he struggled and only really rebounded once he was moved back to the left side (his strong side). There are defensemen across the league who can play their opposite side, but at the end of the day, it is always easier and more natural on the strong side, where a defenseman can transition the puck up ice without having to rotate their hips and pivot.
Should Brodie return, it should be a goal to get him on the left side permanently. With Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe already locked in, that would make up the whole left side.
– At the beginning of the season, we discussed how the Leafs should move Michael Bunting down the lineup to see how he performs when he’s away from superstar linemates. Keefe eventually did that, and his impact waned with his move down the lineup. Bunting deserves to be paid – he has never landed a big contract in the league before – but it’s hard to picture the Leafs offering him big money. If there is something reasonable to be done, it’s worth a discussion.
– It will be interesting to watch how the Leafs approach their goaltending carousel. Matt Murray only played 26 games and was the backup to Joseph Woll in the playoffs. Ilya Samsonov needs a new contract.
On the UFA market, there are some younger-ish goalies available like Tristan Jarry, Joonas Korpisalo, and perhaps Alex Nedeljkovic. There are some veteran options available, too, like Cam Talbot, Semyon Varlamov, and Frederik Andersen. It is slim pickings.
Joseph Woll flashed a lot of promise this season, but it is important to note that – dating back to his college career – he has yet to play more than 37 games in a regular season. Since turning pro in 2019-20, his career high is 32, which came last season. He has battled a lot of injuries.
It is tempting to argue Woll should simply be the backup, but Samsonov has never played more than 44 games in a season, and Woll’s career high in games played wouldn’t even make up the 82-game difference. Maybe it’s still the best path forward anyway, but it is food for thought.