While the Toronto Maple Leafs’ wild inconsistency, rash of injuries and some train-wreck third periods have led a segment of observers to conclude that this roster and this season isn’t worth further investment, the general manager wants to seize every spring that he can roll out his murderers’ row of gamebreakers.
Think about all that Kyle Dubas has spent to compensate and surround his core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen to embark on a run like this one: his first fire-the-coach card, his 2019 and 2020 first-rounders, three third-rounders, a fifth-rounder, Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, Carl Grundstrom, Trevor Moore, Calle Rosen and Sean Durzi.
Do you really think he’s going to waste Matthews’ race for the Rocket — plus superb offensive campaigns by Nylander, Marner, Tavares and Zach Hyman — by not trying to do his part to patch up the holes?
"It’s being able to go through the crucible, if you will, when you’re being severely tested — and I think we are being tested now — to be able to endure that and be able to come out on the other side," Dubas said recently. "That’s really something that our whole group and organization needs to do.
"I know there’s some anxiety and panic. But I look at it as one of the best opportunities that we’ve had in the whole time here, because I do have a strong belief in the group. I do think the group is capable of great things."
As ugly as things have looked at times, the Leafs are still in the hunt. And Dubas does not sound like a man who is selling.
Same as always, the Maple Leafs are in need of blue-line depth. They need more responsible players who can break out of his zone cleanly, kill penalties, box out, and do the dirty work. Perhaps even throw the occasional body check.
Dubas did a fine job a couple weeks ago, leaping ahead of the pack and addressing two key needs via his trade with L.A. — a more dependable backup goaltender (Jack Campbell) and a bottom-six winger with edge (Kyle Clifford).
But the gaping hole, for both now and the future, remains. Only two of Toronto’s regular D-men when everyone’s at full health, Morgan Rielly and Justin Holl, are under contract beyond June 30.
No one expects pending UFAs Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie (on whom Dubas has received calls) to re-up here, and while negotiations to extend Jake Muzzin appear promising, the Maple Leafs’ best pure defender may need to be willing to leave money on the table to stay.
True, rookie call-ups Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have tread water in sheltered relief — and hopefully take a step to be valued contributors in 2020-21 — but the mere fact Toronto has rushed to dress the NHL’s most inexperienced defence pairing underscores that the position remains one of weakness.
The Maple Leafs rate fifth worst in goals allowed (3.28 per game), and that figure cannot be hung solely on the goalies. Their penalty kill is the seventh worst (76.6 per cent). They’ve turned the puck over more than all but seven teams (666 giveaways). These are big problems.
No other team with numbers this gaudy in these categories is in playoff position.
"We could add a defenceman, but just to say that we did is not probably something we would do," Dubas said. "We would want someone to move the needle for us in the long run, not in the short run — unless it was the perfect deal."
That perfect deal would be a youngish right shot with term. Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, 25, tops that list. Dumba’s teammate, 26-year-old Jonas Brodin; Anaheim’s Josh Manson, 28; and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, 25, should be considered as well.
The influx of salary-cap space suddenly available with Reilly, Ceci and Andreas Johnsson all on LTIR could prompt Dubas to at least explore a rental market that includes experienced, minutes-munching defenders on bad teams.
Most of the better ones (Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, Andy Greene, Marco Scandella) have already been snatched up. Sami Vatanen, Erik Gustafson and Ron Hainsey remain possibilities, but the pickings are slim.
Pending free agents, age, salaries
• Travis Dermott, 23, $863,333
• Ilya Mikheyev, 25, $925,000
• Frederik Gauthier, 24, $675,000
• Pontus Aberg, 26, $700,000
• Jeremy Bracco, 22, $842,500
• Mason Marchment, 24, $767,500
• Adam Brooks, 23, $759,167
• Kasimir Kaskisuo, 26, $675,000
• Jake Muzzin, 30, $4 million
• Tyson Barrie, 28, $2.75 million
• Cody Ceci, 26, $4.5 million
• Jason Spezza, 36, $700,000
• Kyle Clifford, 29, $800,000
• Michael Hutchinson, 29, $700,000
Potential assets to move
With Johnsson injured, the fastest Leaf on the roster is hands-down the club best movable trade chip. Kapanen has a 20-goal season, kills penalties, is signed for two more seasons beyond this one at a fair $3.2-million cap hit, and it’s widely believed he could skate farther up the lineup on a club not so stacked at right wing. Toronto would only part with Kapanen is if it’s for a top-four defenceman with term.
Kerfoot falls into the same middle-class, middle-six boat as Johnsson and Kapanen, meaning he has a palatable contract that makes him movable. Kerfoot, 25, is versatile enough to play any forward position and brings a mix of speed and grease that allows him to complement high-end skill players.
The organization and Bracco appear to be heading to crossroads. The dynamic playmaker and power-play maestro enjoyed a dominant offensive season on the farm in 2018-19 (79 points in 75 games) but has been consistently been passed over when it comes time for the big club to make a call-up. Bracco is an RFA at season’s end and could climb the depth chart more easily in an organization less flush on the wings.
The Maple Leafs already spent their 2020 first- and third-round picks but could use their extra fourth-rounder and two extra sixth-rounders to sweeten a larger deal or grab a second-tier rental. A gamble would be to put their second-round pick in play, because then the Leafs’ amateur scouts will be sitting on their hands for the first three rounds in Montreal.
2020: 2nd, 4th, 4th (VGK), 6th, 6th (CAR), 6th (COL), 7th (SJS), 7th (WPG), 7th (STL)
2021: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th
One bold move the Maple Leafs could make
Package Kapanen (11 goals, 32 points) with a pick and/or prospect to land a top-four, right-shot defenceman with term.
The math makes it all but inevitable that Dubas will be pushed to deal one of his forwards with a minimum of $3-million AAV in order to free up enough budget to (re-)sign defencemen.
Such a deal certainly doesn’t need to happen before Monday — Dubas could use his time and re-evaluate in June — but if it does, that means one extra playoff run with a better blue line.
I think the Maple Leafs should not…
There is a unique opportunity opening up here. Florida isn’t exactly seizing the third seed in the Atlantic, and a bolstered defence could be the difference between making the dance and talk-radio anarchy.
That Dubas was already willing to spend futures on Clifford and Campbell suggests he believes in this core. The GM should not let this be a lost campaign. If Rielly can throw on a cape and rejoin an improved blue line for the post-season, the Leafs can wheel out a group dangerous enough to upset.
That said, Toronto’s lack of urgency in games leading up to the deadline could give Dubas pause.
"I’m not the GM, so I don’t know what’s going through his head or what he’s thinking," Matthews told reporters after getting spanked in Pittsburgh Tuesday. "We believe in one another in this locker room, but it’s not a matter of saying it. It’s a matter of showing it."