Two hockey teams pushed the Boston Bruins to seven games this spring. One of them won the Stanley Cup. The other is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Watching their roommate Raptors quench the city’s 26-year major championship drought (we see you, TFC) — and choke the parade route with so many happy people that the double-decker buses carrying the sports heroes needed three extra hours to trudge through all the love — must’ve sparked the notion of what might be if the hockey team were to make the type of bold moves that pushed MLSE’s basketball side over the top.
So close yet so far (three consecutive Round 1 exits) away from their ultimate goal, this weekend’s NHL Draft marks the first one of the Dubas-Babcock Maple Leafs that must be more about the present than the future.
For the first June since 2010, the Maple Leafs do not have a selection in the first round, a fair casualty of the January trade for defenceman Jake Muzzin.
But that doesn’t mean Dubas will be sitting on his hands Friday night in Vancouver.
The 33-year-old exec is busy puzzling one of the league’s most complicated salary-cap crunches, exploring his limited trade scenarios for Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev while trying to lock up superstar Mitch Marner and beef up a thinning blue line via free agency and/or hockey deals.
On the heels of re-signing Erik Karlsson Monday and making Toronto’s Jake Gardiner the best impending UFA defenceman, the Sharks’ Doug Wilson dropped this nugget on his conference call: “There’s been more conversation and communication between GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM.”
Dubas must be involved in much of this chatter, while preparing his employees to uncover gold deep in Saturday’s edition of the draft.
Unless he trades up — and he certainly has the candidates to do so — Dubas won’t pick until 53rd overall.
The prospects prognosticators have slotted in that range feature plenty of defencemen (Daniil Misyul, Antti Tuomisto, Artemi Kniazev, Mattias Norlinder) and a few intriguing forwards (Samuel Fagemo, Robert Mastrosimone, John Farinacci).
The Leafs’ recent second-round bull’s eyes include a couple 2015 picks that now look like NHLers, Travis Dermott (34th overall) and Jeremy Bracco (61st).
Dubas is counting on his advisors to uncover a couple gems deep, with a pick in the third, two in the fourth (St. Louis), the fifth, and two in the seventh round (Dallas).
“Our scouting staff is going to become even more important than our development staff,” Dubas said. “These are all important drafts for us, and for a long time.
“I’ve often said to our scouts this year that the drafting part when we were picking at 1, 4, 8, in those are the picks, those are the picks you have to [get right]. There’s no room for error there.
“But the way we can sustain this and keep this moving forward is by when we don’t have a first and we’re picking in the second or picking late in the first, is to make hay.”
The haymaking of the Maple Leafs’ 2019 draft class will require patience and years in the pipeline. The headline-making at Rogers Arena, however, could arrive swift and loud.
Top-four defenders Gardiner and Ron Hainsey can start interviewing with competing clubs Sunday. RFAs Marner, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are permitted to field offer-sheet overtures as early as next Wednesday.
“Without an answer on Mitch, we’re going to be in a stalemate. It is a top priority because we’re not going to jump around and chew up our cap space we are going to need for Mitch or with fringe signings either. It’s important. We just have to get right on it and get it done,” Dubas said.
That was eight weeks ago.
Deadlines spur action. So do face-to-face meetings, and all of Dubas’s 30 potential trade partners are only a short walk and a handshake away.
The process of shaping a 2019-20 Maple Leafs roster that can defend and contend must take a significant step forward on this weekend’s draft floor.