TORONTO — It is not really a question of how badly Kyle Dubas wants to make a trade right now because it’s abundantly clear the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager is prepared to push a stack of chips to the centre of the table.
What remains to be seen is how much of a limit he’ll impose on spending future assets in order to strengthen the odds of a run towards the Stanley Cup.
The unique dynamics at play during a Covid season have created a headwind for someone in his situation. He may well have to overpay in order to get something done. Prices on the available players have been set high and aren’t likely to retract on a timetable that fits a Canadian-based buyer.
Put yourselves in the shoes of a seller like Nashville or Buffalo or New Jersey: You might as well try and leverage the Canadian teams anxious to get an early start on trading season because of federal quarantine rules since you know that their U.S.-based counterparts are likely to continue shopping right up until 3 p.m. ET on April 12 if you don’t get something done.
The unofficial trade deadline in Toronto passes earlier than that. Dubas is anxious to make his move immediately and with each day that passes, it affects the internal calculation because he’s largely focused on adding players on expiring contracts.
“I think given the quarantine that’s in place right now and the 14 days where the player’s going to come in and sit for 14 days in their hotel and then join the club, we’re going to be in a tougher spot to certainly get as much out of it as we can,” Dubas told reporters Tuesday. “And if you look at the schedule where it goes, where April 12 is the deadline and then if you go the two weeks beyond that you’re April 27 or 28 before they get out of their hotel, and then they’re only with the team for I think it’s like six games or 10 days or something like that [before playoffs].
“So it certainly provides an incentive to try to make the moves earlier. It takes two to make that happen, though.”
The odds of Dubas finding a fit are greatly increased by his willingness to deal from the organization’s prospect pool. Nick Robertson or Rasmus Sandin or Rodion Amirov are arguably more appealing to a trading partner than a 2021 first-round pick likely to land 20th overall or later.
It also speaks to the stage the Leafs have reached in their development.
While trying to sustain a period where they contend as long as possible, each season with this core represents a priceless opportunity. The stakes are arguably even a notch higher with Toronto sitting atop the North Division at 19-9-2 and looking at a clear path to the conference finals if it can outlast Winnipeg, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
In the two previous trade deadlines since Dubas took control of the Leafs, he prioritized trade targets with extra years of team control — acquiring defenceman Jake Muzzin in 2019 and goaltender Jack Campbell last winter.
But that was before the pandemic and a collective bargaining extension that will see the NHL’s $81.5-million salary cap ceiling essentially remain fixed for years to come. The circumstances have changed and so have his preferences.
“Usually you’d put a premium on getting a player that has future years,” said Dubas. “It’s a little bit more complex this year knowing that very likely it’s going to be at $81.5[-million] again, the cap.
“So it’s a rare time where probably a rental is the better fit.”
Were he to trade for Filip Forsberg, for example, that would significantly limit what he could do this summer because of a $6-million cap hit that carries through next season. And while the Leafs would obviously love to have a player as good as Forsberg through 2022 and beyond, they would also have to use a valuable protection spot on him in July’s Seattle expansion draft if they emptied the cupboard to make that kind of blockbuster deal.
That’s why a rental player makes more sense and the list of forwards currently in that position includes Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Alex Iafallo, Nick Foligno, Kyle Palmieri and others.
Speaking an hour before Montreal Canadiens counterpart Marc Bergevin downplayed the likelihood of a significant acquisition in his own meeting with reporters, Dubas left the door wide open to a big move in Toronto.
He expressed hope that he and assistant GM Brandon Pridham could find “creative” solutions to their tight cap squeeze. And he said the team’s play would signal it’s the right time to boldly sacrifice future assets for short-term help.
Dubas sounded incredibly bullish on his Leafs despite the recent stumble that saw them lose five of six games, saying their No. 1 placing in the division is “probably a very fair indication of our overall quality in the first half of the season.”
So step back and survey where the methodical manager found himself on Tuesday afternoon: Running a first-place team he believes in; seeking to fill a specific forward need in a marketplace with options; possessing prospects and draft picks he’s willing to part with; and recognizing that each passing day lessens the value of his return because the federal quarantine squeezes the amount of time a player has to get comfortable and contributing in Toronto
It’s safe to say that the next time Dubas holds a virtual media availability it will be to discuss a trade he’s just made.
Keep your calendars clear because it could be tomorrow.