31 Thoughts: How will Dubas handle Maple Leafs’ off-season?

David Amber, Elliotte Friedman, and Brian Burke spoke about the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit at the hands of the Blue Jackets and what the team needs to change going forward.

• Will one of Leafs’ “Big Four” be traded?
• Winnipeg could add beef on the blue line
• A suggestion for future NHL draft lotteries

I’m going to start this week’s blog with a personal belief: I think GM Kyle Dubas’s plan was to give Toronto’s “Big Four” (Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares) one more season, no matter what happened in this year’s playoffs.

But, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”

There’s a danger in overreacting to the insanity that is 2020. A heartbreaking five-game defeat after five months off. Eight teams were going to be disgusted about a quick exit after spending so much time and energy to return from “the pandemic pause.”

In Toronto’s case, here’s the reality: There’ve been changes to the group (Tavares being the biggest), but it’s had four chances to win a series the last three seasons with two general managers and two head coaches. They are 0-for-4 in those games.

The results must change or the front office will.

The Maple Leafs have more flexibility than some realize. Nylander’s actual cash payments drop below his cap hit the next four seasons, Kasperi Kapanen’s for the next two. (My understanding of the post-signing no-trade promise to Nylander was that it was intended to be solely in the immediate aftermath of the agreement.) In 2021–22, Andreas Johnsson and Alex Kerfoot join that list. That has value in a tight-cap, tight-cash world. Toronto will test the market to see what dance partners pop up.

Marner, Matthews and Tavares also get there in another season, but let’s be realistic. Matthews (Toronto’s best player in the series) and Tavares aren’t going anywhere. In the aftermath of the defeat, there were rumours Marner could be moved, but I’d be surprised. There’s some paranoia around him (but not necessarily from him) that creates noise around the winger. Over the years, I’ve learned that what you hear about him, and what the organization actually thinks about him, may not be the same thing.

One thing I do know about Marner is the Maple Leafs were very proud to make him their nominee for the King Clancy Trophy. There’s a significant community involvement component to the award, and the Leafs are impressed at how available he made himself, especially after a difficult contract negotiation. Apparently, he was an easy choice. So, when someone says the Leafs don’t like him, toss that in the garbage.

He had a weird series. One of the advanced analytic people I enjoy is Corey Sznajder, who does painstaking work on things like zone entries and puck touches. He had some interesting data on Marner, crediting him with just five scoring chances despite 22 full-strength shots. That confirms my personal eye test: He had the puck, but didn’t create like he usually does. However, I think Dubas believes Marner will only get better.

There’s a Frederik Andersen decision due, too. He’s one year from unrestricted free agency, and there are several uncertain goaltending situations — Chicago, Edmonton, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Washington among them. The list of unsigned No. 1s (or good No. 2s) is strong.

The other question to ask is this: If the Maple Leafs believe this group needs a change, do they also believe their style needs a change? There are whispers Dubas considered some things around the trade deadline that, as one executive said, fans and media “wouldn’t have expected” from him. One of those was Kyle Clifford, who he knows well. But I think there were more.

I can’t see him entirely changing his belief that Toronto should play a certain way, but I can see him modifying it. Someone else with some bite is coming, and I’d guess it’s on the blue line. (Mark Borowiecki? Radko Gudas? Who knows.)

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1. At some point in the next couple of weeks, there will be a conversation with Jason Spezza. If Toronto had not come back in Game 4, Spezza’s career may have ended with a fight. That would have been something.

It’s hard to say where this goes, but the Leafs thought he had enormous impact on their young players and went above and beyond to be a positive influence. Things could have gone totally sideways after he was scratched on opening night — which, in hindsight, was the moment that ended Mike Babcock’s tenure — but Spezza refused to let that happen. The Leafs felt he gave them everything he had.

2. It may depend on what happens with Spezza, because I don’t know if you can have both of them, but I think Joe Thornton will be on Toronto’s radar, too. Not the first time I’ve predicted it, but someday I might actually be right.

3. The Maple Leafs have an opening on their coaching staff, as power play specialist Paul McFarland heads to OHL Kingston. Out-of-the-box thought: Bruce Boudreau. He will want to be a head coach, first and foremost. That’s what he is. However, he’s always had a fascination with the team he grew up watching and played for.

4. Great debate question: If there were fans in the building, would Toronto have come back in Game 4? (And yes, I realize Columbus was technically the home team. Work with us here.)

5. Looking at those Toronto wingers, I wondered if Edmonton is a fit. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid need help. The Maple Leafs and Oilers have been close on some things before. Connor Brown, before he went to Ottawa. Matt Benning and Jujhar Khaira, although that one fell apart when the forward got hurt. But Oilers GM Ken Holland is determined to avoid previous mistakes and not give up on young players too soon. So I’m not sure it works. I do think it is unlikely Edmonton qualifies Andreas Athanasiou, because the tighter cap and his arbitration possibilities make it difficult.

6. On Jesse Puljujarvi, it sounds like the Oilers thought a signing was close, the player not so much. We will see where this goes. A trade is still possible.

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7. There was a lot of expectation Florida would make Eric Joyce GM after parting ways with Dale Tallon. They didn’t pass it up because of a lack of experience, I don’t think. Joyce has been there seven years — he knows everything good and bad about the franchise. It’s more to do with needing an outside view of the organization. That process started with Joel Quenneville, and will continue with whoever comes in.

Word is that Quenneville felt life was “too comfortable” for the group, which had a lot to do with Vincent Trocheck’s trade. I’ve heard he’s worked hard with the Aleksander Barkovs, Aaron Ekblads and Jonathan Huberdeaus to detail what he thinks is necessary to improve the team, but the loss to the Islanders indicates there is much work to be done.

8. I think Chris Drury is high on Florida’s list, but I’m not convinced it’s a fit. You’re also going to hear Scott Mellanby, Laurence Gilman, Michael Futa and more. (Mellanby’s history there is not insignificant.) Those names have something in common: They’ve been around and want the opportunity. The Panthers spent a ton in free agency last summer and want to get away from that. Identifying players before you have to throw barrels of cash at them is key, and they are going to look at organizations that do it well.

9. I’ve said a few times that Winnipeg’s mental fortitude impressed me this season. They had every excuse to fall apart and didn’t. The injuries doomed them against Calgary, but a good organization will look past that and ask, “What else happened here?”

My read is they look for some beef on the blue line. Not having Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers caught up with them against the Flames. It’s not about fighting (although Nathan Beaulieu gamely stood in against Milan Lucic) — it’s simply about the way the post-season ratchets up the physicality.

Their power play fell apart without Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele. That’s hard to replace for sure, and the Jets’ first unit gets a ton of time. But they could look for an insurance policy, someone who can fit in should this (knock on wood) happen again.

10. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford threw gasoline on the off-season fire Tuesday by questioning the Penguins’ will in Game 4 versus Montreal (not that he’s wrong about it), saying, “There is something wrong — changes need to be made,” then adding the changes won’t involve Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang.

In the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Canadiens, Sidney Crosby was asked if the Penguins’ window had closed.

“With age, it’s a possibility,” he replied.

Crosby just turned 33 — same as Letang. Malkin’s birthday, a week before Crosby’s, has him at 34. Questioning these three is not wise, but Father Time is undefeated. Is it possible that the only way to truly jolt Pittsburgh is by moving one (and we all know who isn’t going anywhere) for a haul from another team that’s close?

11. Another GM who didn’t sound overly patient was a Rutherford protegé, Minnesota’s Bill Guerin. The Wild’s boss showed a great deal of calm during the season, especially when it came to Kevin Fiala. That decision paid off handsomely in the long run, but Guerin made it clear he sees holes — particularly in goal. There were times during the season where he indicated a willingness to listen on Jonas Brodin and/or Matt Dumba, but other teams said Guerin wasn’t in a hurry to move either one. Whatever the case, he has an idea about the market if that’s the route he chooses.

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12. Decision for Nashville: hold onto Kyle Turris for one more year and see what transpires around the expansion draft, or buy out at $2 million per year the next eight years? They are tight to the cap and need room to move. It’s so strange how this hasn’t worked.

13. Wanted to draw attention to a pair of skates Dumba is auctioning off. His brother, Kyle, an artist, did the work on these. Proceeds go to the Lake Street Council, a Minneapolis-based non-profit dedicated to rebuilding Lake Street’s small businesses and community organizations.

14. Dumba’s momentous speech on opening day of the NHL’s Return to Play resonated with top draft prospect Quinton Byfield from OHL Sudbury.

“I watched it a few times,” Byfield said last week. “Really powerful. Inspiring. The confidence he had (to do it), I don’t know if I’d have that in me. But I know how much it means to a lot of people that he did it.”

Byfield also watched David Amber’s feature on the Dumba family, and was struck by the story of Dumba’s maternal grandparents, who adopted seven children of different nationalities. Byfield added that the kneeling done before the Dallas-Vegas game inspires a lot of young players of colour, “Letting them know that they can get involved and be welcome to play.”

Would he consider something similar?

“It crossed my mind, but right now I don’t really know what I’d do or say,” he answered. “I’m going to think about it some more.”

Byfield, who is biracial, said he’s had a couple of great experiences where, “a parent will say something about how their kid has seen me and is a big fan. That makes me feel good, that I’m doing something to help (diversify) the sport. I’ve been very lucky, growing up in Newmarket (Ont.) and playing in Sudbury, that I’ve never really had a problem.”

15. Byfield said he’d done Zoom calls with about 10 teams before the draft lottery, but was seeing a bit more focus with Los Angeles and Ottawa (picking second and third) afterwards. He’s watching a lot of hockey after spending his summer mornings training with Gary Roberts. What’s some of the hardest stuff?

“I was riding the bike for an hour the other day,” he laughed. “Intervals. Two on, one off, 20 seconds each. That was a tough one. I was saying, ‘Are you serious right now?’”

He likes the warmup, which includes spikeball. Who’s good at it?

“Chris Tierney, he’s the best one,” Byfield answered. “I finally beat him the other day.”

Who’s the worst? He paused, clearly thinking about who he wanted to jab — finally going with OHL Windsor’s Connor Corcoran, a 2018 Vegas pick.

“But,” Byfield added, “he’s come a long way.”

Good luck, Quinton.

16. The OHL and WHL are planning for a December start, but the QMJHL is still targeting October. That sets up a Rimouski return for the likely No. 1 selection, but Alexis Lafreniere said post-lottery he’s not yet sure where he’ll be in the fall.

17. Watching the Phase 2 draft lottery, I think the NHL should do it right in front of the cameras from here on in. Every year, Chris Johnston tweets out the winning four-digit combination after its completion, solely (I think) to torture the fanbases that just miss.

Why not publish all the combinations on the NHL website, then reveal each number in front of the cameras live like it did on Monday? That way, everyone can follow along in real time as the suspense builds. It’s slightly counter-intuitive, because you’d be revealing No. 1 at the beginning, going the opposite of what we are used to. But it’s different and fresh.

Bonus: No one locked in a room for two hours, especially those who are furious they lost. No amount of wine and party sandwiches is going to sate that anger.

18. That the Rangers were — by points percentage — a non-playoff team when the pause hit saved the NHL from a major outcry. Fans might have hated Edmonton or Toronto getting No. 1, but if Pittsburgh (seventh overall) got it, teams would have gone insane.

The lottery win is huge for New York, which was greatly disappointed by how it performed against Carolina. All of a sudden, they’ve gone from rebuilding to rising with extra assets.

19. If this post-season doesn’t convince everyone to expand the playoffs, it will never happen. To social media, everyone!

20. What I totally got wrong: the competitive juices of many of these players. On the 31 Thoughts podcast a couple of weeks ago, we discussed how someone told me not to bet Montreal because the Canadiens weren’t that thrilled about playing. (A similar point was made about Chicago.) It is an excellent reminder that once elite athletes with great attitudes get back into the right frame of mind, that will to compete/win takes over — even in August. These games have been intense and nasty, right from 10 seconds in when Brady Skjei ran over Jesper Fast.

21. One GM said it best upon his arrival at the bubble, “Life is what you make of it.” There was a hotel in Edmonton and a hotel in Toronto that had air-conditioning problems, but no one took to Twitter to complain about it. That’s generally been the attitude.

I don’t know what everyone else thought, but this whole thing has exceeded my expectations. Funniest complaint: one player joked that the teams in the round robin “were getting bombed every night because their games don’t matter as much.”

22. Big hit: The golf simulators. “Some guys are dressed up as if they are playing the Masters.”

23. Five Columbus Blue Jackets saw at least 75 minutes of five-on-five action against Toronto and weren’t on for a goal against: Gustav Nyquist (75:09), Nick Foligno (80:07), Cam Atkinson (80:25), Vladislav Gavrikov (95:24) and defensive stalwart David Savard (105:54). Only in Atkinson’s case were the Jackets ridiculously outshot.

Unrelated: Does Gavrikov say the same thing to his imaginary phone when he scores, or is it a different shoutout every time?

24. Savard and Gavrikov were one-two among defencemen in minutes played without a goal against. Third among defenders was Shea Weber. (Credit: Natural Stat Trick.)

25. The optimist is thrilled because New Jersey has three first-rounders in a deep draft: theirs, Arizona’s and Vancouver’s. The pessimist thinks: Man, we could have done better. Arizona’s first-rounder in the Taylor Hall deal was top-three protected, and the Coyotes’ victory over Nashville erased the Devils’ possibility of a second lottery selection. (New Jersey appealed to the NHL about this, saying Return to Play guidelines devalued the Devils’ return in the original trade.)

As for the Canucks’ selection, I’m betting Jersey would have happily gambled to see what occurred next season. If Vancouver missed the playoffs this season, the Devils got their number one next year no matter what.

26. It says a lot that the Canucks were able to beat Minnesota without a top-form Jacob Markstrom. I’m learning my way through ex-NHLer (and current Rangers’ broadcaster) Steve Valiquette’s excellent Clear Sight Analytics. Kevin Fiala’s Game 1 was the first “clear shot” goal Markstrom allowed all season. He faced more than 500 such chances, the only goalie in the league who was perfect against more than 200 such opportunities. He allowed another Game 5, which means he was beaten by shots that hadn’t eluded him all season. If I’m Vancouver, I’m betting Markstrom figures it out.

Speaking of Vancouver, I’ve been listening to Satiar Shah and Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 650 during my drives home after Canucks games. That’s late in Eastern Time, and Walker tells me they stay on until 3:00 a.m. as the calls keep rolling in. That’s a lot of people telling Walker they hate him.

27. QMJHL Shawinigan announced that Gordie Dwyer stepped down to pursue professional opportunities. Wonder if one possibility is AHL Ontario. If not that, might be some NHL assistant roles.

28. I feel for North American-based players trying to find places to go. One European coach said he’s getting calls from guys offering to play for no salary, just room and board — as long as there’s an out clause to return whenever leagues re-start in the fall. Exhibition season is underway in the KHL, an enormous challenge. China-born Kunlun Red Star (facing a lawsuit from its former coaches) is now based in Russia; restrictions in Finland and Latvia might force those teams to play in Russia, too. Not easy.

29. Sami Kapanen, who played 831 NHL games for Hartford, Carolina and Philadelphia, is joining the agency business, with Quartexx.

30. Back when I was a CFL sideline reporter, the league’s winningest all-time coach, Don Matthews, told me, “Don’t ever ask me what I say to my players. I won’t give you a thing.”

Every time I hear John Tortorella say that, I think of Matthews.

31. Biggest compliment for Bob McKenzie: He got to call his own shot. Doesn’t happen often in this business. Enjoy semi-retirement.

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