Kyle Dubas’s aggressive deadline sends strong message to Maple Leafs, fans

Maple Leafs' John Tavares and Sheldon Keefe discuss all the great qualities that Nick Foligno is bringing to the team to help bolster the lineup, and checks so many boxes to help the team win when it counts the most.

TORONTO – “It’s go time now.”

That sentiment, expressed by Morgan Rielly on trade deadline day, sums up the Toronto Maple Leafs mindset as they stare at their best chance to embark on a deep playoff run since the No. 71 FOLIGNO sweater belonged to a guy named Mike.

Already dominant at 28-10-3, the best hockey team and most aggressive buyer in Canada splashed the pot over the past 72 hours.

GM Kyle Dubas outbid the competition for Mike’s son, Nick Foligno, and supplemented his core with a handful of useful depth pieces: goaltender David Rittich from Calgary; left-shot defenceman Ben Hutton from Anaheim; bottom-six centre Riley Nash from Columbus; and forward options Stefan Noesen and Antti Suomela from San Jose.

Dubas rewarded a group that has built a plus-34 goal differential and provided a consistent level of performance and defensive responsibility that exceeds anything Toronto fans have witnessed in decades.

“I felt that the group of players and coaches deserved every effort on our end, on management, to bolster the team and try to give us as great a chance as possible down the stretch in our division and into the playoffs,” Dubas said.

“Certainly, Alex Galchenyuk’s rise to prominence on our roster altered a little bit of what we were looking for and really let us focus up front on the thing I really felt that we needed from the beginning — which was to try to find a player that can play up and down our lineup, that had tremendous character, competitiveness, defensive responsibility, but also had skill and ability to play with any of our top three lines. So, that was accomplished with Nick.”

Coach Sheldon Keefe views Foligno as a guy “who does whatever it takes to win.” And although the coach is keeping Foligno’s starting spot a secret until quarantine is served, the versatility he brings excites a coach who loves to mix and match.

“Can play any position anywhere in the lineup. Can play the game any way you want. Great leadership qualities. Plays extremely hard,” Keefe raved. “He just checks so many boxes that you need to win when it counts the most.”

Creative cap management, third-party salary eaters, waiver-wire losses, and a pillaging of draft picks were all necessary for Dubas to fill gaps at every position.

But when you spot a unique path to something special — the Maple Leafs’ first two playoff rounds will remain in-division, and they’ll be favoured to survive the North — you plow forward by any means.

As rival GM Ken Holland put it Monday, after taking a more conservative tact: “I don’t think that you can be all in every year. I think you pick and choose.”

There is no confusing Dubas’s choices here, which are fittingly being documented by an Amazon Prime Video series titled All or Nothing.

Toronto has surrendered eight of its next 14 draft picks, including its first-, third- and fourth-rounders in 2021.

Eleven players on the Leafs roster are impending UFAs. Ditto for three more on the taxi squad.

In a year with an expansion draft, Dubas is playing catch-and-release on an elite level.

Dubas has now overstuffed a room with 12 players who’ve worn a C and/or an A at the NHL level.

“I don’t think you can ever have enough guys who possess leadership,” the GM asserted. “We just wanted to have the locker room and Sheldon have as many options as possible to remain as competitive as possible.”

Not a single piece of the Leafs’ current prospect pool — Timothy Liljegren, Rodion Amirov or Nick Robertson, who plays Monday night in Montreal — was sacrificed here.

“It wasn’t an absolute non-starter for us, but we’re excited that we got through the deadline with those prospects still part of our system,” Dubas said.

There is a purpose and an urgency to how the executive has approached the business side of the game that must now be mirrored on the ice.

“It speaks volumes,” Rielly said. “As players, we have to take that as a big responsibility. I think if you look at the group we have and the results we've had this year, there's an opportunity for us to play some good hockey here.”

Added captain John Tavares: “It’s great that we have the belief and the trust from our management team…. It’s up to us to make the most of it.”

Dubas noted that he would’ve been operating shorthanded without the expertise of tireless assistant Brandon Pridham in all of the roster juggling necessary to make all of these transactions fit.

“He’s an indispensable part of the group,” Dubas said, upon crawling out of the makeshift war room the Leafs brass had set up in a Montreal hotel. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Brandon. Whatever awards there are for that position, I certainly think he should win them.”

Capologist of the Year? Deadline champion of the world?

Nah, these aren’t the awards the Maple Leafs are chasing this season.

Their eyes are affixed on a much shinier prize.

And the space for excuses has shrunk significantly in light of how Toronto’s roster looks post-deadline.

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