Kyle Dubas has a dream.
It not only includes what it might be like to watch his Toronto Maple Leafs one day stop the city with an extended playoff run the way the Raptors have this spring, but also what that particular team will look like.
In the eyes of the general manager it includes Mitch Marner, the unsigned 22-year-old winger whose ongoing contract talks have become a plentiful source of speculation. While some muse about the possibility of Marner signing a July 1 offer sheet to play somewhere other than his hometown, Dubas envisions him as a lifetime Leaf.
“I’ve told him and I’ve told [agent] Darren [Ferris],” Dubas said Thursday in Buffalo, during a media scrum at the NHL draft combine. “[Mitch], Auston [Matthews], Morgan [Rielly], they’re the types of guys that should play their whole career here. William [Nylander] would be in that same bucket, right?
“I think that’s what the dream is when you’re with a franchise, you want the players to play their whole careers, especially when they’re core parts of it, and then the rest is history.”
In other words, those are the cards Dubas is comfortable going all-in with. He’d take a hand that includes Matthews, Marner, Rielly and Nylander — not to mention John Tavares, already under contract for another six seasons — and try his luck in the NHL’s highest-stakes poker game until either the Leafs won the Cup or they found someone else to do his job.
It’s a sensible approach.
That’s what Boston has done with Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand. That’s what Washington did with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson. That’s what Pittsburgh did with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
There’s no guarantees, as each of those championship cores has demonstrated in their own way, but until you establish a group of reliable, proven drivers you’re not really in the conversation.
Solving the Marner equation will be akin to locking the Leafs’ final cornerstone in place, at least until Rielly’s second contract expires in 2022. It will provide a clearer picture of how much money is available for dispersal among the support pieces — including Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, who, like Marner, are both RFA’s this summer — and place an even greater emphasis on the need to find NHL talent deep in the draft.
It’s a crucial piece of business — labelled the organization’s No. 1 priority by Dubas last month — and the GM remains confident that the parties will find a happy resolution.
“I’m very hopeful,” Dubas told reporters. “I’m a very optimistic person, so I’m hopeful that we are and we’ll keep working towards that. I think that’s what’s been expressed on everybody’s end, so I think if everyone is in on it that way we should be able to get there.”
The challenge is finding a contract that provides fair market value, satisfies Marner’s wishes after a 94-point season and leaves the organization with the ability to build around the stars. The Leafs likely aren’t in a position to pay him at the same rate as their top two centres — Matthews earns $11.634 million, Tavares $11 million — but must find a compromise.
(One industry source not connected to the talks believes a $60-million, six-year deal is the sweet spot since it would make Marner the NHL’s second-highest-paid winger behind Patrick Kane and still leave him in position to cash in again well before age 30).
Marner’s leverage is restricted in these negotiations. The Leafs can reasonably assume he’d prefer to continue playing for his childhood team in a city where he resides 12 months a year and have the ability to match any offer another team could theoretically entice him to sign.
The same goes for Kapanen and Johnsson.
“There’s a system in place and they’re all restricted free agents and the market has kind of beared out where everyone fits in,” said Dubas. “It’s just trying to work around the edges of that to come to conclusions.”
With the calendar about to flip over to June, he is managing a couple different situations. Dubas acknowledged Thursday that Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev has requested a trade, which will be no easy transaction to pull off with five more years at $4.5 million still remaining on his contract.
As much as the GM is willing to try and accommodate the player’s desire for a fresh start, he’s not guaranteeing anything.
“It’s not any definitive type of [promise] he’s definitely not going to be back because I think especially as the year went on, especially as he was paired with [Jake] Muzzin, I think his value began to shine through a little bit more,” said Dubas. “His penalty killing, he’s a right shot, plays in our top-four and is signed reasonably for a long time.”
It’s already clear there will be some significant changes at the margins of the roster.
Jake Gardiner is a pending UFA who isn’t expected back. Ron Hainsey’s status is up in the air. Then you have trade possibilities with Zaitsev, Nazem Kadri (whose name is circulating in the rumour mill), Connor Brown and potentially one of Johnsson or Kapanen, depending how negotiations play out and the overall cap picture takes shape.
The one thing Dubas has avoided doing is looking at the current Stanley Cup Final and believing that the Leafs were a fraction of a hair from that kind of run after squandering a 3-2 series lead to Boston in Round 1. He joked that it would take “some real manipulation of the space/time continuum to forecast that.”
Still, he can’t think they’re too far off if he manages his cards right.
“You see the Raptors and what’s happening around them and how amazing the city is, I can’t imagine what it would be like if we were…,” said Dubas, before catching himself.
“Well I do imagine what it would be like at this point. I think that’s part of being in sports is you dream about that stuff all the time. You’re trying to make it happen for the fanbase and the city and for everybody.”