Kyle Dubas is sitting at the poker table with a pair of queens in his hand.
Great hand. One of the best.
But then a king shows up on the flop. Then an ace at the turn.
Suddenly, the cards in hand look fallible.
So, do you commit harder? Do you still believe? Are you pot committed?
Or do you survey your new surroundings, back away, and save your serious push for another day?
Josh Manson — a rugged, right-shot defenceman who Toronto has been eyeing since the Babcock era — was traded to Colorado this week. Useful, playoff-tested Calle Jarnkrok moved to Calgary, and net-front bulldozer Ben Chiarot went for a haul to Florida, the Leafs’ divisional rival and a potential playoff foe.
To varying degrees, Dubas explored all three rentals, none of whom went for cheap.
With all due respect to Ilya Lyubushkin, a fine early pickup, what does it mean that the Maple Leafs GM has yet to make his big decision?
Is he slow-playing the market? Or is he having second thoughts about where to direct his efforts and how much of the future to mortgage — when his own future could be impacted by his next play?
“You kind of get the feeling that things are starting to happen. There's been a couple of moves now,” Morgan Rielly said.
“As a guy who likes to watch hockey, it's interesting. I'm always curious what's going to happen around the league.”
Few teams will drum up as much curiosity as the Maple Leafs, who are under a tremendous amount of pressure and have no obvious solution in sight.
Tick, tick, tick …
Projected deadline cap space (plus LTIR): $3.72 million
Cap space committed to 2022-23: $69.46 million
2022: TOR 1, TOR 2, TOR 7
2023: TOR 1, TOR 2, TOR 3, TOR 4, TOR 5, TOR 6
Dubas faces the unenviable task of knocking down three targets with one shot.
In perfect world — i.e., one without a salary cap — the Maple Leafs would scoop three gobs of cash from the MLSE coffers and plop one down on a top-six left winger, one on a top-four defenceman and one on a trustworthy goaltender.
Alas, Dubas has already spent plenty of picks and prospects capital to shape his contender and admits he probably only has one shot left by Monday. (Although a secondary depth add, for the right price, is not out of the question for a creative front office.)
As the GM has stated publicly, his primary deadline focus has been directed at his blueline, and rightly so. The back end has lacked consistency since Jake Muzzin left the lineup. Toronto once ranked top-five leaguewide in goals allowed per game; now it ranks 16th, and the goaltending shares blame with the team’s commitment to defence on that one.
Callup Erik Källgren has, at least for a week, stabilized a disastrous goaltending drop-off, with Jack Campbell (rib) and Petr Mrazek fighting through injuries and delivering alarming levels of inconsistency.
Up front, the Leafs have been coasting mostly on the explosive Michael Bunting–Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner trio offensively and David Kämpf’s steady third unit defensively. John Tavares and William Nylander could benefit from an impact winger, and the aging fourth line lacks could use a jolt of energy.
The 38-year-old left-shooting defenceman may not be best deployed on a contender at 21-plus-minutes a night the way he is now. But in Toronto he wouldn’t need to run a power play or be counted on to fuel offence (six goals, 23 points in 55 games). That would just be a bonus to smart, D-zone play and experienced penalty killing.
Another bonus: Giordano would like to come home, and Seattle GM Ron Francis — who has a close relationship with Dubas — may be inclined do right by the franchise’s first captain. (Thought: Could Dubas leverage Giordano’s interest in Toronto the way Don Sweeney leveraged Taylor Hall’s interest in Boston last season and whittle the price down?)
The best defence rental option on the board is Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm, but the steep asking price (first-round pick plus a mid-round pick plus a decent prospect) could (should?) be cost prohibitive.
The Leafs have reportedly also poked around on Philadelphia’s Justin Braun, Chicago’s Calvin De Haan, Dallas’s John Klingberg as well as San Jose’s Jacob Middleton, an enticing 26-year-old left shot and pending RFA whose $725,000 cap hit would slide in easy.
The dream fit may be Islanders righty Scott Mayfield, particularly because Dubas prefers to trade for term, but Lou Lamoriello won’t easily part with the rugged 29-year-old.
Will Chicago drop its asking price — first-round pick or equivalent prospect — for a goaltender it acquired for free?
Would Fleury agree to come to Toronto if his other options dry up? Or would the 37-year-old be content to ride out this spring with his family and forgo a shot at a fourth ring?
Aside from Fleury, how certain does Dubas believe another available goalie — Anton Forsberg? James Reimer? Semyon Varlamov? — actually makes his crease better?
Could Källgren really be lightning in a bottle? Will Campbell be mentally and physically in top shape when it matters?
So many questions when it comes to the Maple Leafs’ crease. Obvious answers are more difficult to drum up.
We love the elements Winnipeg’s middle-six forward could bring to a contender in these playoffs, and we strongly believe it would be in Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s best interest to manage this asset properly a reap a return.
Copp can play wing or centre. On track for his second consecutive 15-goal, 35-point campaign, he provides secondary scoring. He’s tough, smart and fierce on the check.
The Leafs inquired on Flyers centre Claude Giroux, the prize of the forward rental market, but do not appear to be a frontrunner.
For the right price, a role player like Copp — or, say, Vancouver’s Tyler Motte — could complement Toronto’s high-end skill nicely. Ottawa’s Nick Paul is another name worth consideration here.
ASSETS TO TRADE
Once the undisputed blue chip of Toronto’s prospect pool, the 20-year-old winger with the big injury history and bigger heart will be expendable if the Maple Leafs take a swing on a major asset that’s ready to play now.
With every game Robertson gets in the top six, it becomes more apparent that his dogged attitude and heavy shot are being showcased. (Plying, say, Matthews Knies or Nick Abruzzese or Topi Niemelä away from the organization will be much more difficult.)
As likable as Robertson is — he’s the type of strong character fans will root for — his two-way game needs more polish for him to earn the staff’s trust and to make a tangible impact in these playoffs.
For a rebuilding team that has more patience and more openings on its power play and scoring lines, he could eventually thrive.
First-round or second-round pick
Perhaps snake-bitten by how the Nick Foligno trade shook out, Dubas is telling teams that he’s not so keen to shed another first-round draft pick for rental help.
Therefore, he’s watched as a couple of the most coveted D-men, Manson and Chiarot, swap sweaters for high prices.
There is a game of chicken being played by Dubas and the sellers.
Does Dubas buckle and subtract yet another high pick from his amateur scouts? Can he pull off that rare trade for term?
The GM is firmly in win-now mode, and his past indicates that, with the clock ticking, he will pull this trigger if he truly believes in the piece coming back.
Dermott has fallen out of favour with coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff, but we could see the 25-year-old grabbing hold of a more permanent role on a thinner roster and with a fresh start.
Dermott is a lefty who can play the right side, and he’s looked strong the past couple of months — when he gets in the lineup.
With the Leafs tight to cap ceiling, money will have to be cleared out to accommodate an incoming contract. Dermott — and, to a lesser extent, righty Justin Holl — could be in play to help balance the books.