Nine biggest off-season questions facing the Maple Leafs

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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Kyle Dubas does not shirk responsibility.

“The buck does stop with me, and if our team doesn’t reach its potential, it is on me,” the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager reminded last week, as he answered questions from fans via the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran.

“Whatever the economic landscape is, we will have to adapt and find a way to put the best team possible on the ice as we continue to grow toward our goal of being a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup,” he continued.

“We have a long ways to go, but how we overcome the obstacles along the way will likely be the biggest determinant of whether we get there.”

As the 2020 off-season feels more and more like the present, let’s dive into those obstacles towering before Dubas and his Leafs before the puck drops on 2020-21. Here are nine compelling questions that will need answers.

How do they improve the blue line?

To the haters, Dubas will point out a positive defensive trend. When Sheldon Keefe stepped behind the bench, the Leafs ranked 25th in goals against per game (3.44). Under Keefe, they’ve chopped that figure to 3.04, but the GM hopes to whittle that down to 2.5.

Dubas believes part of achieving that is the team’s mindset.

“We have shown at times that we can really give an excellent defensive effort against some of the best offensive teams in hockey and then other nights leave our entire organization and fans feeling frustrated,” he wrote last week.

Part of that is personnel. In addition to ranking bottom-six in goals allowed, the Leafs rank bottom-10 in shots allowed (30.5 per night). They are crying out for a reliable defender on the right side and a greater portion of their salary allotment to the back end.

Landing a dependable, right-shot defenceman in free agency is a long shot. So, if Dubas can’t find a way to sign Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Tanev, Travis Hamonic, Justin Schultz, or Radkos Gudas, he’ll be exploring trades for righties with term.

Candidates such as Matt Dumba, Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller and Josh Manson fit that bill.

How can Toronto get its penalty kill trending in the right direction?

Die-hard Maple Leafs fans (as if there are another type) will recall Dubas standing at the podium when 2019’s season concluded in misery and assuming the blame for the club’s porous PK. The GM said he’d set out to cut down on the goals against with a man down.

The defensive assistant coach was changed (exit D.J. Smith, enter Dave Hakstol), the personnel was tweaked and the kill only got worse.

Toronto’s special teams are a microcosm of the team as a whole. The Leafs’ expensive, star-studded power play ranked sixth-overall (23.1 per cent) in 2019-20, as it should.

But for the third consecutive season, Toronto’s penalty killing got worse, settling in at disappointing 21st overall (77.7 per cent).

It’s a problem. And one that rings back to the roster’s need for more experienced, determined stay-at-home defenders and a reliable face-off man on the PK unit.

Consider this glaring discrepancy: This season, Toronto ranked third overall in face-off wins (52.5 per cent) but 25th in short-handed face-off wins (43.1 per cent). If you don’t start with the puck, you can’t clear the puck.

Can Dubas sit out Round 1 of the draft and still find gold?

Surrendering 2019’s first-round pick as part of the Jake Muzzin trade has increasingly felt like less of a sacrifice.

For one, Muzzin re-signed for four more years a month ago, alleviating fears that the blueliner would be just a year-and-a-half rental.

Secondly, Dubas appears to have knocked 2019’s second-round draft pick out of the park. Nick Robertson (53rd overall) led the OHL with 55 goals this season at age 18.

A steeper challenge will be hitting on a similar pick in the top-heavy 2020 draft. Dubas, you’ll recall, dealt away his 2020 first-rounder to the Carolina Hurricanes last summer in order to clear Patrick Marleau off the books. He also forfeited his 2020 third-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche as part of the Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot acquisitions.

As a result, the pressure to turn 2020’s second-rounder into a real player (or find a way back into Round 1 via trade) has intensified.

Where will the Leafs’ leadership and experience injection come from?

During the last week we had hockey, Sheldon Keefe confessed his dressing room was thin on strong vocal leaders.

“At times, it has to be the coach, and the coach is the guy that’s got to kind of bring the energy and get the team going,” Keefe said. “Sometimes the coach has to do a little bit too much, (and I’d) like the players to do their thing. At times, that stands out to me as a problem for our team, something we’d like to do a better job of.”

We’d anticipate an element of that maturity and ownership to evolve organically, as a young, letter-wearing core ages.

But we’re also a firm believer that surrounding the young stars with a few of the right thirtysomethings is essential. (Hey, there’s a reason Dubas kicked tires on Justin Williams midway through the season.)

Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza have been fine fits on the bottom six. Can those impending UFAs be retained at a reasonable rate? Spezza, who turns 37 in June, is on record saying he wants to keep playing.

On paper, the Leafs’ already inexperienced back end is scheduled to get even younger, with veterans Cody Ceci and Barrie both heading to the open market. This would leave Muzzin and Morgan Rielly as the only Leafs defencemen with at least 250 NHL games under their belt. Who else can fill that void of wisdom?

What kind of agreement can be reached with the RFAs?

While Toronto’s upcoming wave of RFA negotiations feels like a ripple to the Nylander-Matthews-Marner-Johnsson-Kapanen tsunami that preceded it, some compelling decisions await nonetheless.

We feel confident that head-turning rookie Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000 cap hit) and defenceman Travis Dermott ($863,333) will be retained. Due to injury plagued seasons, neither should command overwhelming raises, and the smart path for both sides would be short-term extensions that give the players a shot to excel and management time to better evaluate their ceiling.

More compelling will be the fates Denis Malgin, who’s been just OK in his eight Leafs games, and fourth-line centre Frederik Gauthier, who enjoyed more lineup security under former coach Mike Babcock than Keefe.

The lovable Goat is wrapping a bridge deal over which he’s shown steady improvement and is eligible for arbitration. He needs a $700,000 qualifying offer, and considering the organization’s lack of centre options, he’d be easy to keep in the fold — but a reasonable area to look at upgrading.

Without the need to rely on LTIR, how can Toronto fit everyone under the salary cap?

The 2019-20 Maple Leafs took full advantage of the salary relief provided by a crowded long-term injured reserve.

In 2020-21, the contracts of Nathan Horton and David Clarkson will finally come off the books, and Johnsson and Mikheyev should be healed, lessening the need for LTIR.

Subtract that payroll cushion and factor in a potentially flattened salary cap (a subject we explored here), and Dubas may be pushed to trade from his forward group and will lean heavily on entry-level talent and free agents willing to skate for close to the league minimum.

Who gets traded?

As was the case in the 2019 off-season, the only way we can see Toronto continuing to cut cheques for the Big 4 — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander — is by taking a bite out of the middle class.

It’s not personal. It’s math.

How does that impact the future of Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson and/or Kerfoot, none of whom have trade protection?

And which of those middle-six calibre forwards can yield the best return?

Which prospects get their shot to stick?

The 2020 call-ups of defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren indicate the prospects are likely staples of the 2020-21 blue line, ready or not. They will need to train for more minutes and tougher assignments.

Upfront, does the inevitable roster turnover open opportunity for bubble guys like Egor Korshkov and Nic Petan, who are already under contract for less than $1 million each?

And where does the organization go with Marlies Jeremy Bracco, Adam Brooks and Max Veronneau? All three forwards need new contracts. All three are getting anxious for a true big-league shot after two or three years in the minors.

The two big important extension decisions must be delayed, right?

On the horizon await the contract expirations and near-certain pay raises for two integral Maple Leafs.

While Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen, both headed toward UFA status in 2021, can re-sign as early as July 1, we anticipate player agents and team execs will push such significant negotiations down the road.

Hopefully, there will be more clarity on the salary cap, the Canadian dollar, the impact of the U.S. broadcast deal and Seattle expansion, and the global economy by this time next year.

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