TORONTO – When Kyle Dubas vowed “we can and we will” sign the Core Four, when the general manager then plunked down $40-million plus to do so, what some may have failed to do is read the fine print.
Keeping an elite-skill nucleus of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander intact also means “we can and we will” discard anyone filling time on the fringes.
The past two off-seasons have been a culling on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ middle-class forwards.
Patrick Marleau was a sentimental favourite but, alas, an overpay who needed to be shipped out to facilitate the Marner raise.
But taken at individual face value, the contracts of Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier and, now, Andreas Johnsson weren’t so bad. (A couple were downright bargains.)
However, taken in the context of a salary-cap world — particularly a flat-cap, pandemic-purging world — any Leaf forward not named Zach Hyman, whose cap hit is more than $1 million but less than $6.96 million, should consider himself expendable.
There is a reason new guy Wayne Simmonds made certain to negotiate a no-move clause, even when those seldom come with $1.5-million deals. And there is a reason Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million) has heard his name casually tossed into the rumour mill.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Toronto’s financial blueprint might feel callous to a feel-good story like Johnsson.
The affable Swede grew from a seventh-round draft gamble to a Calder Cup champion and AHL playoff MVP, to a top-six winger with an offensive NHL juggernaut.
But the blueprint is calculated.
So, Dubas traded “Mango” — whose nickname literally means “nice guy” in Swedish — to the New Jersey Devils in a move impossible to disguise as much more than a salary dump.
Out goes 25-year-old Johnsson, a feisty 20-goal man in his only fullish NHL campaign.
In comes 22-year-old, five-foot-11 NHL/AHL ’tweener Joey Anderson with a chip on his shoulder and strong skates under his feet. He may turn into a decent role player. He may get caught in third-line limbo, like a Nic Petan.
Anderson is a restricted free agent in need of a new contract with Toronto.
Erasing Johnsson off Toronto's left-wing depth chart can open up coveted minutes for rookie Nick Robertson, expected to produce on his entry-level deal.
Shedding Johnsson’s $3.4-million AAV for the next three seasons clears room for a fresh influx of bargain bets up front — Simmonds, former Washington Capitals centre Travis Boyd ($700,000), KHL import Alexander Barabanov ($925,000) — as well as Saturday night’s fine value acquisition of Zach Bogosian ($1 million for one year).
We give the Bogosian signing two enthusiastic thumbs up.
Heck, dollar per minute, the recent Stanley Cup champion might provide even better value than Friday’s lock-up of T.J. Brodie.
A pure right shot with strong underlying numbers, a mean streak and a knack for killing penalties, Bogosian fits the bill of the “presence” and “different type of depth defenceman” Dubas acknowledged he wanted to add to his roster this week.
Haters, give the GM some credit.
Dubas is not lighting fire to the blueprint (i.e., catering to the “Trade Nylander!” sector of the fanbase), but he is adapting to survive, to improve, to get playoff-ready. Hopefully.
He is sacrificing goals for defence. He is giving up a few scoring chances in order to prevent some scoring chances. Because, hey, even the greatest possession team only holds the puck 58 per cent of the time.
And with the Bogosian signing, the GM is simultaneously guarding against inevitable injuries and challenging young defenders like Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to earn their ice time.
Soon it will fall upon Dubas’s assembled players to also adapt. They must to succeed in the playoff trenches.
“I don’t find myself transfixed on one thing,” Dubas said, in those heated hours upon early elimination by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“The vision, for me, always has to be changing. I don’t think any business or any team that just has one vision or way of doing things and doesn’t change is going to be successful in the long run.
“I am not someone that is stubborn with that. The goal will be to get us into a different position next year, certainly, to the point where we are making progress and sustaining ourselves as a contending team year in and year out.”
In the wake of Saturday’s moves, restricted free agents Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev (the latter filed for arbitration) still need contracts. Dubas has approximately $1.3 million in cap space to work with.
The 2020-21 Maple Leafs roster is hardly in stone.
It is getting tougher to play against, though.