TORONTO — “No.”
Sometimes the simplest quotes are the ones that blare loudest, especially in places where the microscope is capable of viewing its subject at roughly half the width of a hydrogen atom.
That’s basically where we are right now with the Toronto Maple Leafs following a fourth straight season that didn’t include a playoff series victory, and was punctuated by a rare one-word response from Kyle Dubas during a post-mortem that stretched more than 50 minutes on Wednesday.
Dubas paused briefly when asked if it’s possible his organization had misjudged the potential of its $40-million core four. And then he said simply, “no.”
It’s not as catchy as “we can and we will” but it amounts to roughly the same message: He will continue to bet on the talent of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander even if it handcuffs him in other areas because of the NHL’s hard cap system.
That’s an important public expression of faith, if not an unsurprising one, from a general manager who just saw his team score three 5-on-5 goals during a five-game qualifying series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the rational places where a debate about the makeup of the Leafs is happening, the conversation rises above the individual talents of those players. No one should be suggesting that each isn’t elite and impactful in his own right. But where you find a variance of opinion is if they can be good enough collectively to form a championship core while eating up almost half of the allowable cap space.
Dubas has staked his mark here. He didn’t leave himself any wiggle room on that fundamental issue of roster construction, which is probably best given the storm he unleashed at this same media availability last year when he responded to a question about Mike Babcock’s future by saying that everything is subject to a deeper review.
That kind of answer wouldn’t have served him well on the subject of his stars, if for no other reason than trying to preserve the trade value of his top assets in the event he has a change of heart between now and next season.
Dubas also served up additional context to justify his belief. In his analysis of how championship teams have been built across various sports, the third-year Leafs GM identified patience as a key attribute once the drivers were put in place.
“When they know that the group that they have at the core has the character and the talent to do it, they stick with it and try to continually alter what goes on around it and make moves to help it if they can or alter it if it’s the perfect move for the group and continue to build on the progress that comes and not overreact,” he said.
There’s been a strong reaction to the most recent playoff defeat in part because frustration has been building among the fanbase over decades, not just years, but also because of the pedestrian regular season that preceded it.
Columbus was a difficult draw stylistically for the Leafs and probably didn’t receive enough credit entering the qualifying series. However, Toronto could have avoided the matchup entirely by earning more than one of six points against three of the NHL’s worst teams during a swing through California right before the COVID-19 pause, or by beating Carolina the night David Ayres had to play goal for the Hurricanes, or by finding a more consistent level of performance during multiple other rough stretches.
In 2019-20, they were in a middle-of-the-pack team that scored a ton and gave up a ton and by Dubas’s own admission “right now the middle isn’t good enough.”
That’s because they are paying top dollar to more high-end forwards than any other competitor and seeing each of those guys deliver individually. You really can’t complain about what each gave this season:
• Matthews took giant strides on the defensive side of the game and was challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy when the schedule wasn’t paused. He still had a career-best 47 goals and 80 points.
• Nylander bounced back from a year marred by a contract dispute, with a career-best 31-goal performance and .87 points per game mark.
• Marner struggled out of the gates, missed 11 games with injury and still put himself on pace to crest 80 points.
• Tavares fought a lingering oblique injury through training camp, broke a finger in October and finished on pace for 31 goals and 71 points.
Rather than viewing the playoff series with Columbus as a warning sign, Dubas believes it’ll be part of a non-linear step towards a future run. The Leafs owned a significant edge in offensive talent over the Jackets and only clearly outplayed them in Game 2. That’s why fundamental faith is required to watch a best-of-five like that from the Leafs suite and not be inclined to shake things up.
“I think we’ll be fine with those guys because I know that they’ll step up and produce and it will be on me to fill around the edges of it,” Dubas said.
The flat $81.5-million salary cap won’t force Toronto to shed useful bodies the way Tampa is going to have to. But when accounting for Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci walking out the door as free agents, and Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev getting new deals (perhaps through arbitration), there isn’t much wiggle room left for other upgrades.
The Leafs didn’t fully leverage their rights over RFA’s when Matthews, Marner and Nylander needed second deals and they’re feeling a little extra squeeze now as a result. They are high-end talents and fall under the classification of a good problem to have.
“I think those players are just going to continue to get better and the value that we’ll get from those contracts will continue to be strong,” Dubas said.
Where the questions about continuing with the core four fundamentally come from is whether they’re getting enough results for the expense.
As it stands now, their cap allocation completely precludes them from trying to dive into the free-agent market for a 1A defenceman like Alex Pietrangelo this fall. It would also likely prevent them from adding second-tier depth at that position like Joel Edmundson — at least not without a corresponding departure from the middle of the roster.
They have potential value with Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Nick Robertson and Alex Barabanov all set to play next season on entry-level contracts, but the Leafs are going to walk a tight line with the cap ceiling once again.
By sticking with his core four, Dubas is going to have to get pretty creative in the margins.