clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kyle Dubas: Gambler

New, comments

Rating the risk of the gambles Dubas is taking with the Leafs roster.

San Jose Sharks v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Everyone loves a prospect. A prospect is only going to get better, and in our imaginations that trajectory upward can have an impressively steep slope. Veterans on the other hand are only going to go down, down, down. Maybe in flames. Likely the day after their 30th birthday.

Declaring players “washed” in tones of disgust is — well it’s hard not to see it as existential fears of our own mortality — but it’s a popular pastime of the jaded online set. A variation is the intonation of doom whenever a player signs a contract with a term of more than one year at an age over 24 that, “That won’t end well.”

Predict doom and despair every time a veteran is signed, and you’ll be right often enough that the pile of times you were wrong, swept carefully under the carpet, won’t trip anyone up. The success rate is almost certainly better than the supremely optimistic takes on every prospect. Everyone eventually gets too old for the NHL while most prospects never make it, so go with pessimism — it’s the smart bet.

Injuries are the joker in the deck when predicting player development. How many prospects coulda been a contendah if only they hadn’t been injured that one time? Stu Percy and hundreds of others. How many veterans look terrible, are declared washed, and then suddenly bounce back because they’ve finally recovered for real from a string of injuries and surgical repairs?

Every time the NHL decides to send the players home for an extended period of time someone benefits.

Teemu Selanne has this set of boxcars:

2003-2004: Colorado Avalanche - 78 - 16 - 16 - 32
2004 World Cup: 6 - 1 - 3- 4
2004-2005: Did not play
2005-2006: Mighty Ducks of Anaheim - 80 - 40 - 50 - 90
2006 Olympics: 8 - 6 - 5 - 11

In 2004, Selanne, whose nickname is the Finnish Flash, was hobbled by a chronic left knee injury. At the World Cup that year, he looked so slow, so feeble — and, worst of all, so dispirited — nobody, least of all Selanne, could have predicted that he would come back to lead all scorers at the Winter Games.

“My knee in 2004 was so bad, I couldn’t skate,” said Selanne, a four-time Olympian. “I decided after that World Cup that I’m never going to play like that anymore. There’s no way. If the knee is not going to be as good as I want, I’ll go play goal for somebody.”

Selanne was 35 at the Turin Olympics in 2006.

So what does this mean for the Leafs who have loaded up on players who are old, slow and likely have had someone bitterly type into the Twitter app, “He’s so washed,” during a recent game?

If the future was fully predictable, we’d never have to sweep our wrong guesses under the carpet, so the answer to that is a very obvious we don’t know yet. But every free agent signing this offseason was a gamble of some kind. Just like every draft pick is.

Dubas had to gamble with his signings because sure things cost too much. Evgeni Dadonov cost $5 million in AAV, Tyler Toffoli $4.25 million. Connor Brown got $3.6 million. If the Leafs had that kind of cap space to spend on forwards, they’d still have Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson and we’d be speculating about their chances of a bounce-back season.

Replacing those two forwards and improving the bottom six, all while adding to the defence, was never going to involve star signings at every position. It wasn’t even going to involve clever moves for that young-ish guy with the neato defensive results who last scored a goal in junior. Gambling is the only method left to fill spots when you’ve run out of cheap players on ELCs to do it for you. Ignoring the injury issue, which no one is immune from, how big a risk were these signings? Should you worry?

TJ Brodie

The only high-priced UFA signed is closer to a sure thing than anyone else. Brodie, 30, is signed for 4 by $5 million.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Brodie could turn out to have been a null factor who was riding on Mark Giordano’s coattails all these years. With four years of term and some trade protection, he’s a Maple Leaf until he’s 34, and age is an unpredictable career-killer. He’s not welded onto the team with an impossible contract like Patrick Marleau was, so at worst if he bombs, he costs something to get rid of in the expansion draft or in trade.

What’s the best case?

Brodie could turn out to be Jake Muzzin the second, only tilted a little more defensively. If he even approaches that, he’s a bargain at $5 million, and if he just manages 75% of Muzzin, he’s still fairly paid.

What’s likely?

More best case than worst. It’s extremely unlikely his results on the Flames are all hot air, and it’s actually more likely that a defensively inclined defender who doesn’t shoot the puck much has been undervalued all along.

Worry factor?

No worse than the Muzzin extension, and there really weren’t any 25-year-old sure things laying around for a similar price. Enjoy not seeing Ron Hainsey back as a top-four defender and try to relax.

Zach Bogosian

But he’s waaaaaaaaaaaashed!!! Yeah, yeah. Watch his end-to-end highlight and then take some deep breaths.

Bogosian, 30, is signed for one year at $1 million, which is the old-school polite amount you give a veteran with a solid reputation. Dom Moore signed for that salary in his final NHL season.

What’s the worst that can happen?

This is Bogosian’s final NHL season, and the Tampa run was all just smoke and mirrors. (His contract is fully buriable, though.)

What’s the best case?

He has a lot to offer still, playing in a more physical depth role, and with some PK skill, he fills a niche the offence-focused Leafs defenders lack. With only two jobs for PP defenders now, PK skills are actually a valued addition, and if he’s a solid PKer who can hold the line while Marner and Mikheyev roar off with the puck on rush chances, we all have fun.

What’s likely?

He gets a good-team bump like Cody Ceci did over his recent results, and he’s fine as a third-pairing guy who won’t be too terrible if he needs to play up in case of injuries. He also won’t wilt in the face of some top six forwards. Connor McDavid will walk the guy, though.

Worry factor?

Sheldon Keefe is not suddenly going to play him with Morgan Rielly. Well. Not all the time, at least.

Mikko Lehtonen

Signed to a one-year ELC for $925,000, Lehtonen will join the Leafs whenever training camp begins.

What’s the worst that can happen?

It might turn out that nifty KHL goal videos are not the measure of the man, and he bombs out entirely. His contract is a two-way, he’s waiver exempt, and if he’s really terrible, he’ll just go home to Europe.

What’s the best case?

Lehtonen roars in to camp as top-four capable, right-side capable without too much loss of quality, and he knocks Justin Holl right down to what is suddenly the hottest third pair in the NHL.

What’s likely?

He can play the second unit power play from the third pair, get some shifts with Morgan Rielly offensively where Brodie would be a waste, and just generally be a good passer who shoots a bit more than I’d like.

Worry factor?

You should be mostly concerned that the hype on the guy will reach a crescendo before the NHL season starts and the fans will have already turned on him.

Aaron Dell

He’s a third string goalie, and the worst that happens is he doesn’t clear waivers. You have to be performing angst to be concerned by this signing.

Jimmy Vesey

Signed for a somewhat shockingly team friendly $900,000, the once overhyped prospect is here to recapture his college glory with Alex Kerfoot.

What’s the worst that can happen?

He says I went to Haaaavaaaard too many times in Toronto bars and someone pops him one. Even if he bombs totally and lands on the fourth line, he’s cheaper than Kyle Clifford is in St. Louis.

What’s the best case?

He earns that second line job and there are too many top-six calibre wingers for cheap on the Leafs.

What’s likely?

That he splits his time between the third and second lines and adds enough offence to make him a decent guy to have around.

Worry factor?

Josh Leivo gets more points in Calgary and it gets mentioned in every game broadcast. Other than that, nothing can go wrong here.

Travis Boyd

Signed for a minimum-salary deal, this potential depth centre is only 27, making him a virtual child on the new Leafs.

What’s the worst that can happen?

He gets mad about being cut to the AHL and does an interview with the Athletic that makes Dubas frown.

What’s the best case?

He’s so obviously an NHLer of quality that he gets traded in training camp because the Leafs don’t need him. The return is a good AHL forward.

What’s likely?

He bounces around as a taxi-squad, callup sort of guy or the 13th forward if there’s cap space for one, and he plays in some games in a way that won’t make anyone long for Frederik Gauthier.

Worry factor?

Two guys named Travis is confusing.

Joe Thornton

Signed at the salary minimum, Thornton’s contract can’t be buried at all because it’s 35+ and he has an NMC.

What’s the worst that can happen?

He regrows that beard.

What’s the best case?

He’s got enough going on to play third line centre all season, and Kerfoot seems a bit superfluous.

What’s likely?

He moves around the lineup playing some third-line C, some second-line wing, and some sneaky fourth-line shifts where he terrorizes the opposition. He is a weapon you use in particular situations, and Sheldon Keefe is really good at that sort of lineup juggling.

Worry factor?

He gets in scoring position, but passes to Mikheyev, who shoots from some stupid spot and we all groan aloud in unison. Otherwise, relax. If he bombs, then his NHL career is over and he’s going to Switzerland.

Wayne Simmonds

Signed at $1.5 million for one year and with an NTC, but not an NMC, Simmonds is Dubas’s big gamble.

What’s the worst that can happen?

If Simmonds totally flames out and is unplayable (highly unlikely) some of his contract can’t be buried and his NTC makes it harder to move him.

What’s the best case?

Simmonds is a big gamble, not because the worst case is so bad, but because he cost more than all the others. If a sure thing costs too much for the Leafs, and it sure does, then a gamble with a chance of a big return requires more than $700,000 in investment. Penny pinching isn’t going to cut it.

If Simmonds rebounds to a middle-six forward who can play the second power play unit and, okay, not just stand around looking blasé when someone cheap shots a skilled player, then he’s more than earned that gamble of a salary.

What’s likely?

Simmonds, for all he’s been lumped in with Joe Thornton in the popular imagination, was born in the 80s not the 70s. He’s nearly a decade younger, and is only two years older than John Tavares. He’s said he’s been recovering from a series of surgeries and major injuries since 2017, and there’s no reason to suspect that isn’t true.

A long layoff from mid-March to whenever the NHL season will start is almost the full season of proper recovery that Selanne came back from. Simmonds isn’t going to get 90 points — his peak years had him at 30 goals a season with a lot of power play time. He’s not going to be playing in that old role, and has been sold as a toughness on the bottom six. A forward equivalent of Bogosian. A fourth liner who is overpaid, and there for the symbolic value. Yet another old and slow player.

About that. That reputation isn’t wholly undeserved. Simmonds played very poorly last year and has always had PIM in excess of his points. But the idea that he wasn’t on the Flyers for his speed, his agility, his passing and his scoring is rewriting history. The tough guy image has clung to him, when agitator might have always been a better term.

If all anyone remembers is fighting and scrums around the net, Simmonds himself knows how to play hockey as well. If he can surpass what Jason Spezza offers as a bottom-six player, and join in on the second power play, that’s well worth his salary. If he can grab a third-line job and make the kids like Vesey (five whole years younger) chase him for ice time, that’s even better. If he can float up to the top-six on occasion, that’s a gamble that paid out.

Worry factor?

I too would like Evgeni Dadonov in the top six. I’d rather have a sure thing improving the forward corps, which I think has always been a big part of “the problem” where the Leafs keep underperforming how they look on paper. In the world where Mitch Marner signed an offer sheet with Columbus and the Leafs have a fistful of first-round picks to spend, there likely is one or two wingers making $5 - $6 million on the top six, and no one would dream the Leafs need to roll the dice on Wayne Simmonds.

We don’t live in that world, and moaning on about it won’t change anything. In this world, with a tight salary cap, and finally — Finally!! — three quality defenders running to $15 million, the Leafs have to roll the dice on the fringe players. Someone has to claim that open wing on the top six.

Wayne Simmonds isn’t going to sink this team. Joe Thornton isn’t going to slow them down and turn them into the boring New York Islanders. The top-five forwards, top-three defenders and Frederik Andersen will decide how this season progresses.

The only reason we’re talking here today about all these gambles on the margins is because there isn’t anyone graduating from the AHL to be the sixth forward or the fourth defender as a sure thing. There isn’t even a third goalie. And the cause of all of that isn’t Mitch Marner or the alleged inability of Kyle Dubas to mesmerize players into signing cheap deals. It’s the decades of bad drafting, bad trades and poor prospect management that still haunts the team. It’s also just luck. Because sometimes you roll the dice at the draft and you get Travis Dermott in the second round, and sometimes you get Vince Dunn. Either way, you have an NHL player, and that means you beat the odds.

Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen were safe trades to make to open up the cap space for Brodie. They were poor performers last year, but they’re good enough to have other teams see them as worth their salaries. Filling the hole they made on the team wasn’t going to mean signing any sort of a sure thing.

I wasn’t expecting this comically large overstuffed roster with five fourth lines all with pretentions to top-nine status, but that’s what we have. For now. I didn’t even mention Alexander Barabanov, the totally unknown commodity or Jason Spezza, the totally understood old man on the bottom six, or Joey Anderson, the last unsigned Maple Leaf.

I can’t tell you what I think the team will be because I can’t guess who is going to be on it. But all of this gambling is just like the draft in that the more picks you have, the more chances you have to win. Spin the wheel, place your bet, and someone making less than a million will end up playing more than 15 minutes a game. We just don’t know who.