Maple Leafs Mailbag: Who could GM Kyle Dubas target in a big trade?

Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander speaks to the media after being eliminated in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs during a press conference in Toronto on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (CP)

Another swift postseason exit has left Leaf Nation with more questions than answers about where their favourite hockey club goes from here. How the Toronto Maple Leafs might possibly reset, reshape and return stronger for 2022-23.

The fans have concerns and curiosities, and we did our best to answer them in our first off-season Maple Leafs Mailbag.

If this is truly the “Summer of Masai,” who could be the Leafs’ Kawhi Leonard? Which Marlies might make the leap? What about that shrivelled power-play? And how much is too much for UFA Jack Campbell?

Let’s dig in.

Great question.

Despite GM Kyle Dubas’s reassertion of his belief in his assembled talent, I do believe the GM will at least explore changes at forward, defence and in goal.

Now, the Kawhi thing is an imperfect parallel. I don’t see an MVP on the market, and one basketball player can influence the outcome way more than one hockey player. (Otherwise, Connor McDavid would have multiple rings by now.) Further, hockey managers are generally a conservative lot, hesitant to part with their stars for someone else’s.

Hence, those ultra-rare Taylor Hall or P.K. Subban or Patrik Laine blockbusters will feed us headlines for months.

Prime William Nylander — scorching-hot off a career-best 34-goal, 80-point season — could return a haul, and he’s the closest thing the Leafs have to a DeMar DeRozan. (Jake Muzzin and Alexander Kerfoot, members of the extended leadership group, should also hold some value on the trade market.)

Should Dubas dare the big splash, Vancouver’s J.T. Miller — the NHL’s only top-10 scorer who could conceivably move — is the name I like most.

No clue if they’re available, but for fun: How about trading for Timo Meier or Nikolaj Ehlers or Dylan Larkin while their salaries are less than their worth?

Dubas had interest in Jakob Chychrun, whose cap hit is beautiful. Does he take another stab it now?

Is Tyler Bertuzzi’s vaccination status too big of a hurdle to revisit those trade conversations?

What about a stud right-shot defender such as Colton Parayko out of St. Louis? Fans should crave more size on the back end.

John Gibson’s All-Star pedigree between the pipes is enticing.

Alternatively, Dubas could free cap space and go shell out on a veteran UFA. Kris Letang, John Klingberg, Evgeni Malkin, or Filip Forsberg would make major waves.

David Perron, Darcy Kuemper, Andrew Copp or Vincent Trocheck less so.

You’re correct.

In a series so rich with special-teams time, one or two timely power-play goals could have tilted the scales the Leafs’ way.

Toronto operated the No. 1 power-play in the regular season (27.3 per cent) but converted on just 14.3 per cent of its opportunities in the Tampa series.

More concerning is that the Leafs were granted significantly more man-advantages (four per game) in the postseason than in the 82 games prior (2.82 per game).

The NHL’s most expensive 5-on-4 unit went ice cold at the worst moment again. The Leafs went 0-fer in three Game 7 opportunities. Toronto’s power-play has not scored in its past 18 chances during games in which it can eliminate an opponent.

Give the Lightning credit for taking away space for primary option Auston Matthews.

“That’s just the nature of playoffs,” point man Morgan Rielly said. “There’s a lot of pre-scouting being done. Obviously, their penalty kill is very important to their game plan, and for us to not be able to execute at the rate we were during the regular season is not ideal. But that being said, we got some big goals. You want your PK to be ready, your power-play to be ready. But in the playoffs, it’s a lot tighter.”

True. Yet coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff failed to adapt. Tampa’s power-play was more fluid and direct, plus it had the threat of Victor Hedman blasting a bomb from up top.

Keefe replaced Rielly with Mark Giordano on the point in Game 5, and he assisted on a big power-play goal that helped trigger a comeback win. Curiously, Keefe went back to Rielly for the rest of the series, even though the Giordano look clicked.

“You have hopes or expectations that the power play is going to be the threat that it was (in the regular season). So, having it not be at that level was disappointing, and thus makes it something we’ll continue to look at,” Keefe said.

“The opponent has a say in it, both in their structure, how they play against you, and the goaltender, ultimately. But there’s some process-related things in there that we’ll continue to look at. We’re certainly not content with where we were — even in the regular season. And certainly in the playoffs, we need to be better.”

Certainly.

Anecdotally, yes, there seems to be some truth to this.

Because of my job, I end up spending a ton of time speaking with diehard Leafs fans at my own shinny games or when chauffeuring my 11-year-old son to rinks around the city.

The furious anger and frustration that seemed prevalent after collapses and blown chances against Boston, Columbus and Montreal has been replaced with some apathy. It’s not uncommon to hear fans say that (a) they’re done with the Leafs or (b) they’ll wait to tune in once they win a round.

The bar, which seemed sky-high in 2017 and 2018, has lowered.

Despite the absence of playoff success, I don’t hear a loud demand for change, as this poll of 27,200 indicates:

Sports fans have a ton of power, perhaps more than they realize. They vote by their attendance, their merchandise purchases.

If Brendan Shanahan is still A-OK in the public’s eye, there isn’t pressure on ownership to rock the boat.

A deeper theory: We’re about to enter Year 7 of the Dubas-Matthews-Marner-Nylander-Reilly we-can-we-will run. A generation of fervent Maple Leafs supporters identify themselves with this specific core. (And why not? These players are talented as hell.)

If they ultimately fail, that means all the energy the fans poured into them went for naught.

When the plane starts shaking, you hold on tighter.

Matthew Knies, the most prized prospect at this point, feels like a virtual untouchable, as his forthcoming cap-friendly contract will be leaned on to provide value once his NCAA season concludes.

But if, say, a Nick Robertson or a Roni Hirvonen can be exchanged for a developed player that can improve the Maple Leafs’ playoff roster, it’s worth considering.

The urgency to go deep in 2023, with Matthews’ UFA status looming in 2024, is difficult to overstate.

If you thought Dubas was all-in before, look out.

Hey, anything is possible.

But if the Maple Leafs have taught us anything so far, the answer is not likely.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were rewarded with eight-year contracts at $10.5 million per season after they had lifted three Cups. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf — these stars were all relatively cheap when they became champions and secured the bag afterward.

By frontloading his pay structure, Dubas has no choice but to spend less on goaltending, top-four defencemen and role-playing forwards. I’d argue that has been the difference in his recent playoff defeats.

So many.

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Three years at $4.4 million.

Which is why I think Campbell reluctantly walks.

In a thin UFA goalie market, a No. 1 like Campbell should fetch, at minimum, the Cal Peterson deal (three years at $5 million). Maybe as high as the Elvis Merzlinkins deal (four years at $5.4 million).

I asked Campbell Tuesday if he’d consider taking less than market value to remain a Leaf. He didn’t say yes. I don’t blame him.

He’s 30 years old with career earnings of $5.78 million. Go get that cheque, Jack.

No one will begrudge you for it. Look how it’s working out for Zach Hyman.

Plenty of free agency columns will be forthcoming, no doubt, but let’s zero in on the top-six left wings who could be on the market.

Johnny Gaudreau and Evander Kane are beasts, and their current teams will do their best to keep them in the fold. Can’t picture either becoming a Leaf.

I’m told Dubas has poked around a Filip Forsberg trade in the past, but his price will be through the roof. That would require a major removal of salary off the current roster.

A Mason Marchment reunion? A Max Domi homecoming? Don’t see it.

Nick Paul, Andrew Copp, Andre Burakovsky and Ondrej Palat are all intriguing candidates — all of whom would improve Toronto’s top nine, none of whom will come cheap.

The more economical path might be to explore the trade market or simply bet on Nick Robertson having the summer of his life.

Bobby McMann, Curtis Douglas, Joey Anderson, Alex Steeves and Pontus Holmberg, in addition to Robertson, will all be invited to challenge for a roster spot this fall.

The way Dubas has designed his salary structure, it’s imperative the Leafs get meaningful contributions from a few guys still on their entry-level contracts.

Absolutely.

The Maple Leafs are a fantastic regular-season squad that finished fourth overall in 2021-22.

I don’t believe Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo and Detroit will be as horrendous as they were this past winter, but I’m not ready to label any of them a playoff team yet, either.

Tampa Bay could lose Palat and Paul and still be considered a contender. If Patrice Bergeron retires, it’ll be nearly impossible for the Bruins to maintain a 107-point pace.

The Presidents’ Trophy–winning Panthers finished a healthy seven points ahead of the Leafs, but that gap could be closed if Toronto shows up against some of its weaker opponents.

The Leafs left a bunch of points on the table against non-playoff teams.

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