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Can Kyle Dubas really afford to do nothing?

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Change is coming, but who is getting the axe?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs-Workouts
Jul 13, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (left) and president Brendan Shanahan (right) during a NHL workout at the Ford Performance Centre.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Dubas has never taken a summer off as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Each offseason has brought major changes to the team, in some instances made the team better, and in others made the team worse. Here is a brief synopsis of the major moves Dubas has made in each of his three off-seasons in charge. If you want a full overview of year three, go check out Fulemin’s article here.

I’ve included major new signings, and trades both for players and to remove salary. These moves only include the offseason, so the Jake Muzzin, Jack Campbell, and Nick Foligno trades are not on the list. It doesn’t include re-signing RFAs and UFAs because those don’t involve adding or subtracting players from the roster.

2018-19

  • Signed John Tavares
  • Traded Matt Martin to NYI

2019-20

  • Traded Patrick Marleau to CAR
  • Trade Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown to OTT for Cody Ceci and friends
  • Traded Nazem Kadri to COL for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot

2020-21

  • Signed TJ Brodie
  • Traded Kasperi Kapanen to PIT
  • Traded Andreas Johnsson to NJD

Looking at this list, it’s pretty clear that Kyle Dubas has never been quiet in the offseason. He’s always made moves to change the lineup, where sometimes the result of Brodie, while other times it’s Barrie and Ceci, and he’s found ways to move salary as best he can. Some of those have been great for the return (Kapanen), while others have stung due to the cost (Marleau).

However, one area that Dubas has not touched since signing Tavares is the so called “Core-4.” They have remained intact throughout contract crusades and, well, pretty much just the contract crusades.

In his three years, Dubas has significantly improved the defense and done his best to find the best goalies available. He’s given the core no more excuses, and in the playoffs this year, they had none but themselves.

So now the question becomes, do the players orbiting the core shuffle around again into yet another different arrangement, or is it finally time to make a change to the centre?

Everything but changing the core (worst case scenario)

If this is the rare first summer where Kyle Dubas does nothing to the team beyond retaining what he has, this is the kind of team the Leafs will end up with. This is just a thought experiment to see what the lightest touch would bring.

  • Protect 7/3/1 and offer an asset for Seattle to take Dermott instead of Holl in the Expansion Draft
  • Re-sign Nick Foligno (1 x $2.5 million)
  • Re-sign Alex Galchenyuk (1 x $1.5 million)
  • Re-sign Zach Bogosian (1 x $1 million)
  • Re-sign Jason Spezza (∞ x $750k)
  • Sign Linus Ullmark to backup (3 x $3 million)
  • Sign Ben Hutton (1 x $800k)

I should note at this point, a roster contracted like this would have about $3 million in cap space on a 20-man roster. This is not enough to bring Zach Hyman back, so I didn’t. Foligno is essentially his replacement here.

Foligno - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Kerfoot - Mikheyev
Brooks - Spezza - Anderson
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Bogosian
Campbell
Ullmark

From this base construction, there’s a few things the Leafs could do to upgrade the roster around the edges. The main points of improvement can be at 1LW, 3C/3LW, and the defense.

  1. Trade Morgan Rielly (UFA-1) and sign Dougie Hamilton at $8 million. This uses up all the remaining cap space, but it does refill the cupboards of the organization somewhat.
  2. Re-sign Zach Hyman or sign someone making the same money, and not Foligno. Personally, I’m not sure I want Hyman back with the contract he’s going to demand, but also Foligno is probably my last realistic choice for 1LW.
  3. Trade two of Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall and bring in a more expensive centre and winger pairing to the third line. Katya has mentioned at the site someone like Markus Granlund, whom the Leafs were definitely interested in as reported by multiple sources. He and another $3 million guy would be all that is possible. This would basically be like Nazem Kadri and Andreas Johnsson on the third line, but different.
  4. Trade Nylander for Eichel. Ahaha, JK, unless?

That base construction is pretty uninspiring, and even with another Rocket Richard season from Matthews, I don’t think they challenge for much better than third in the Atlantic Division.

I was being a little coy about how much the Leafs could actually do with the money they have this summer for upgrades. They could bring in a top-six forward, but they would have to strip away a lot from the bottom six to do it. And I mean a 3C Pierre Engvall type strip. This is not something I would be interested in, because a good team really does need some quality on the third line, if for nothing else than injury insurance for the top six.

I could be wrong and this might be fine, but I really believe Kyle Dubas has the ability and vision to aim higher. I believe he has a chance to go get another difference maker, to inject some real oomph into the top-six, to shake up the core and make them the offensive juggernaut a lot of people thought they had, but were disappointed to find out doesn’t exist to the level it needed to be.

Going Big and Going Bold

As I’ve said, Dubas hasn’t been afraid to be bold with most of the roster, while being very delicate with most of the core. I think this is the summer where where Dubas can no longer shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic, but that he needs to fix the actual boat. There’s no money or assets left to make a difference any other way. To answer the question in the headline, no, this team needs some new parts.

Based on everything he’s said, it’s pretty clear Dubas is among the group of people who truly believe in Mitch Marner. He believes in his talent, his potential to work through the playoff failures, and that he’s worth his contract. I also think he talked himself into a corner with him and it would be an admittance of failure if he traded Marner and broke up the Core 4. If a Marner deal doesn’t get done, this is probably why.

Yes, trade Marner. My opinion of Mitch Marner has been pretty clear since the offseason started. I think he’s good, but not great, and I think the things that can make him great get neutralized in the playoffs pretty quickly. I think he has immense trade value, despite his contract, because of the many reasons why he has so many fans. He’s incredibly talented, motivated, and he’s a likeable guy.

The other issue that we’ve gone over many times already at this site is that there is a deficit in value between what Marner makes and what he’s worth. If the Leafs are losing cap space in his original overpay, and then more in the playoffs when he isn’t able to break through, the Leafs are suddenly working with a hand tied behind their back. If there is a trade out there for a skilled player with a bit more of a well-rounded offensive game, but making less in salary, this is why the Leafs should be interested.

Now the question is what does a Marner trade look like, and what does it yield in terms of the roster?

Trade Targets

Here are the trade targets we think are available: Sam Reinhart (25), Jack Eichel (24, inj), Elias Lindholm (26), Travis Konecny (24). All are from around the same draft as Marner and have similar or better impacts. My two big pet peeves with Marner is him being a lack of a shooting and lacking the ability to individually drive a line, all four of these players here do that.

Obviously on the trade front, any deal would see the Leafs take in additional assets. This is because Marner now makes a lot less in salary than he does in cap hit, and that’s important to a lot of teams after the pandemic. It’s likely the Leafs get a 2021 first round pick, or a recent first rounder from previous years. This gives the Leafs some desperately needed ELC talent in the coming years.

Free Agency Targets

As for the freed up cap space, the Leafs would instantly be in on all the top forward free agents this summer immediately. Taylor Hall, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Getting any one of these guys on the top line at between $6 to $8 million alongside Matthews and Nylander or one of the trade targets above would instantly give the Leafs a better first line than last season.

A Marner trade, even with a big free agent signing, makes Dougie Hamilton an even stronger possibility. In order to make room, trading Rielly as a one-year rental (perhaps to Carolina to replace Hamilton) would bring in even more talented ELC players that can fill in the cracks in the bottom six in the next year or two.

Prospects to target

I’m not great at this nitty gritty stuff with picks and prospects that perfectly balances trades, but here are some prospects from the past couple drafts on teams that might dance with the Leafs who I think are pretty good. Dylan Cozens, John-Jason Peterka, Dillon Dube, Connor Zary, Ryan Suzuki, Noel Gunler, Bobby Brink, Zayde Wisdom. Pick up a couple of these guys in Marner and Rielly deals and I think the Leafs will be pretty chuffed about their work.

My vision right now is for the Leafs to get deeper up front, and make up for lost time with ELC forwards. The Leafs lost a lot of value paying those three RFA contracts so much, and in the loss of Hyman and his $2.25 million deal. This is how you make up for it.

Alright, drumroll, here’s the “Going Bold” team:

Landeskog/Hall/Nuge - Matthews - Nylander
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Reinhart/Konecny/Lindholm
$1.5M winger - Kerfoot - $2M winger
ELC/Brooks - Spezza - ELC/Anderson
Muzzin - Hamilton
Sandin - Brodie
Dermott* - Liljegren
Campbell
Ullmark

ELCs on the cusp: Robertson, Hallander, Amirov, Peterka/Suzuki/Zary/etc

* A note: in this scenario, the Leafs would simply lose Holl in the Expansion Draft as he is the team’s fourth defenseman. Choosing to lose Kerfoot makes the team’s job harder to fill out the third line, but gives them more cap space.

The Costs

Trading Morgan Rielly breaks my heart a little bit. I love him as a player and believe it or not he’s been really good in the playoffs the past few years. Unfortunately, the writing is on the wall for him as his contracts comes to an end. It just comes down to when to pull the parachute.

For Marner, I’ve been very clear stating that there’s a chance he makes us look silly from time to time and succeeds wherever he might end up. He’s a very good player for a reason. The hope is that the return (players, prospects, cap space) outweighs the cost, and in general gives the Leafs a different makeup going into next season. Change is needed, I’m resigned to that.

The Benefits

Maybe it’s just me, but this roster gets me excited for both the short and medium terms. The possibility of a versatile top six with good centre depth and reliable two-way playdriving, the possibility of young talent bubbling up is exciting, the possibility of a strong top-four defense set in stone for the next several years is exciting (but more comforting).

The Leafs will lose a lot of talent and players who mean a lot to a lot of people here, but I think this team brings back more in terms of talent and more in terms of a well-rounded, competitive team that can go challenge for a Stanley Cup. Because that’s the goal.