In each of the last two springs, I’ve done a piece-by-piece review of every NHL-relevant move Kyle Dubas did as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The first one covered his first year; the second one took place in the COVID-imposed season pause last March, when we had little else to do but twiddle our thumbs and brace for plague. This means that, unfortunately, the Toronto Maple Leafs have managed the rare feat of two disappointing playoff exits in one year. A special achievement, but if any franchise were going to pull it off, you’d probably bet it’d be ours.
So it’s time for Round #3 (for us; for the Leafs it is seemingly never time for any round but #1.) I’m going to cover every signing and trade Dubas made that seemed to me to have NHL significance, as well as a mention of the draft, since April of 2020. As I’ve done in past editions, I’m going with this breakdown:
- One-line summary: What it sounds like.
- How significant was it? Did this make a big difference in impacting the team and its future prospects?
- How difficult was it? Was it a gimme, or did it require some real management finesse?
- How good was it? How has it turned out?
As always, I am greatly indebted to the good people at CapFriendly for making this information much easier to find that it was when I originally did this for Lou Lamoriello. Should the NHL pay them for building a massive resource everyone in hockey uses? Yes. But the NHL sucks.
Anyway, if you’re an impatient soul, the conclusions are at the bottom. Otherwise, let’s roll.
April and May 2020: Let’s Remember Some Guys That We Signed
The Toronto Maple Leafs signed KHL forward Alexander Barabanov (one year at $925,000), KHL defender Mikko Lehtonen (1 x $925K), and maturing Leafs centre prospect Adam Brooks (2 x $725K).
One-line summary: The Leafs play the European free agent market again and not much comes of it.
How significant was it? Not very. Neither Barabanov nor Lehtonen gained the trust of Sheldon Keefe and both were gone before the end of the season. Adam Brooks actually showed well as a fourth-line centre after dumb bloggers gave up on him, and might make the team in a depth role next year, but he wasn’t impactful enough that I made a whole different section in this article for him.
How difficult was it? Brooks was already in the organization, they just extended him. Barabanov and Lehtonen are further evidence of the Leafs combing the European FA market, and they do seem to have devoted resources to attracting these players, possibly with the hint that if things don’t work out, Toronto will trade them somewhere they get more NHL opportunity. That takes some investment, and good on the Leafs for that.
How good was it? It didn’t lead to much, but that’s fine. Every now and then one of these deals will turn up a viable NHLer like Ilya Mikheyev, and when they do, it’s gravy. It’s essentially like a free depth draft pick: nice to have, and you shouldn’t expect most of them to work out.
To avoid making this long article even longer, I’ll wrap up the stories of Lehtonen and Barabanov here. In March Lehtonen got flipped to Columbus for AHL goalie Veini Vehvilainen; in April Barabanov went to San Jose for Liiga forward Antti Suomela. Barabanov actually looked good enough in SJ that he got an NHL contract extension, but I don’t think he’s a huge loss or anything. Good luck to all involved.
August 25, 2020: The Kasperi Kapanen Trade
The Leafs flip speedy winger Kasperi Kapanen, depth forward Pontus Aberg, and depth defender Jesper Lindgren to the Pittsburgh Penguins for AHL defender David Warsofsky, fourth-line forward Evan Rodrigues, forward prospect Filip Hallander, and the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
One-line summary: The Leafs clear some salary and get two good, young assets in the bargain.
How significant was it? This was pretty big. Dealing with the little pieces first: Aberg, Lindgren, and Warsofsky are, I’m sure, very nice men, but I wouldn’t be surprised if none of them ever appears in the NHL again. For the rest, the Leafs opened up some cap space and got two futures people seem to think are moving along well, while the Pens got a prominent top six forward.
How good was it? Before moving to the main event: Rodrigues was a free agent and a decent depth F, and he promptly returned to the Penguins and played 35 games this year, so they win that component, for whatever it’s worth.
Boiled down to Kapanen for Hallander and the pick that would become Rodion Amirov: the Leafs needed to clear money, and so the only question was what Kapanen would return. In an offseason where it was extremely difficult to dump salary and competent middle-six Fs like Tyler Johnson went unclaimed on waivers because of their cap hits, Dubas looks to have done well here. Kapanen had, predictably, the best year of his career in points per game, scoring at a 60-point pace playing alongside Evgeni Malkin. The Leafs are likely quite happy with the return...but it feels notable that the Penguins made a win-now trade, and the Leafs made a trade you’d expect more from a team that was retooling. So this was a good trade, but it’s telling that the Leafs had to make it.
October 5, 2020: Signing Jason Spezza
The Leafs sign veteran C Jason Spezza for one year at $700,000.
One-line summary: Like in an action movie when the old legend comes out of retirement and absolutely kicks ass.
How significant was it? Spezza played 61 games for the Leafs this year, including playoffs, producing at a 50-point pace as a kind of super-fourth-liner. He’s no longer a top-six guy, and he ran obscenely hot, but my lord that’s incredible.
How difficult was it? Spezza was already here and was explicit that he only wanted to play in Toronto, his home city. He even threatened to retire if another team claimed him on waivers. So Kyle Dubas had some real help on this one from Mr. and Mrs. Spezza choosing to raise their son in the GTA, but hey, whatever.
How good was it? Spezza is one of the few people in this infuriating franchise who consistently makes me happy and joyful. His speed (never a strength) has declined and there’s a reason he was playing limited minutes despite clobbering them; nonetheless, his offensive instincts remain superb and he capitalized on seemingly every opportunity his grab bag of linemates could scrounge up. Father Time comes for us all, and Spezza is about to turn 38, but I want the Leafs to be the team Spezza plays for until he chooses to retire.
October 6-7, 2020: The 2020 NHL Entry Draft
The Leafs select:
- F Rodion Amirov (15th overall)
- F Roni Hirvonen (59th overall)
- D Topi Niemela (64th overall)
- G Artur Akhtyamov (106th overall)
- D William Villeneuve (122nd overall)
- F Dmitri Ovchinnikov (137th overall)
- F Veeti Miettinen (168th overall)
- D Axel Rindell (177th overall)
- F Joe Miller (180th overall)
- D John Fusco (189th overall)
- F Wyatt Schingoethe (195th overall)
- F Ryan Tverberg (213th overall)
As long as we’re here, I’ll note the pick trades: the Leafs traded down in the second round; they gave the 44th overall to Ottawa to get the 59th and 64th overall picks, which they used on Hirvonen and Niemela. They traded up in the fifth round, giving up 153rd and 212th overall to Florida to get 137th overall, which they used on Ovchinnikov. And they gave a 2021 seventh to the Bruins in order to pick Tverberg at 213th overall. I guess they really like him.
One-line summary: One day, 2020 will be known as the Wyatt Schingoethe Draft.
How significant was it? Very, we just don’t know if it’s a good significance or a bad significance, and we won’t for four or five years.
How difficult was it? Drafting is hard! But then, drafting badly is easy. Maybe they just threw darts at a board. That would be easy if they did that.
How good was it? Not being a draft expert or a fortune-teller, I obviously can only say so much about a draft eight months after it happened. Let’s focus first on the first-rounder and then on general trends.
Rodion Amirov was an expected and reasonably popular pick, a good skater and creative offensive player who is still in the process of putting it all together. When the 15th pick rolled around and names like Marco Rossi and Seth Jarvis were off the board, Amirov was the next name on our lists, and so it was not a shock to see him selected. He had an up and down season in the KHL where his coach frankly said he expected more from him, and I think it’ll take some time, but I am fine with this pick. I also wonder if all the people who screamed about how Dubas should have drafted a defenceman have had any change of heart now that the Leafs seem to need supporting forwards more than they do defenders, but mostly those people just seem to be angry a lot.
As for the trends, this was Kyle Dubas’ third draft as sole GM, and he followed the same trends we saw in the first two. He picked players with a focus on hockey IQ and with no regard at all for height, such as when he picked adorable Smurf Veeti Miettinen. He also went ahead and selected a whopping twelve players, presumably on the draft nerd principle that you might as well maximize your opportunities for one of the lottery tickets to pay out. This is partly why I expect him to make some trades at the draft this summer; otherwise he’s only going to have three picks in 2021.
We’re still at a point where we’re waiting to see the returns on Dubas’ drafting outside the first round, and I do sometimes wonder if he gets premature credit because he does things that public analysts like. Still, the only pick of his that I questioned (Rasmus Sandin over Joe Veleno in 2018) looks pretty fine in hindsight, so l will trust the process.
October 9, 2020: Signing Wayne Simmonds
The Leafs sign aging power forward Wayne Simmonds for one year, $1.5M.
How significant was it? Not as much as name recognition would suggest. Wayne Simmonds was once one of the most feared power forwards in hockey, charging his way to the high-danger areas of the ice and doing everything to put the puck in once he got there. At this point he was mostly a fourth-line winger. And—here’s the beginning of a sad theme—his much-vaunted character and toughness did not save the team in the playoffs.
How difficult was it? Simmonds took less money to sign in Toronto, and like Spezza, him being from Scarborough may have been a factor. He apparently turned down slightly more money from Montreal. I wonder what he thinks of that decision now.
How good was it? Simmonds was fine in a depth role—his on-ice stats, like most of the Leafs, wound up very good in the regular season—and he added a bit of toughness to Toronto as the first real fighter the team has had since Matt Martin. His year was derailed by an injury just when he seemed to be getting in a groove. But the Leafs paid $1.5M, seemingly based on what he once was and based on intangible traits the team was deemed to lack. It was perhaps unfair to expect Wayne Simmonds to instill these qualities in others, but Dubas paid him as if that was what he was going to do. By that measure the surplus on this contract looks like money thrown towards a wish Simmonds couldn’t grant.
October 9, 2020: Signing T.J. Brodie
The Leafs sign defender T.J. Brodie for four years at $5M.
One-line summary: For the first time in his NHL career, Morgan Rielly gets a good, consistent partner.
How significant was it? Very! This was the big move of Dubas’ offseason; his $20M committed to Brodie dwarfs any other signing (the next biggest totaled less than $3.3M). Brodie played heavy minutes on the top pairing throughout the year.
How difficult was it? The consensus was that the Leafs really needed to address their defence (as it had been for years), and there were a number of options on the market, from big ticket Alex Pietrangelo on down. To Dubas’ credit, I think he really did pick the best choice for the Leafs and signed him to a fair contract.
How good was it? Very positive. Brodie is one of the best stick-on-puck defenders I’ve ever seen, with an incredible gift for killing dangerous plays with a well-timed pokecheck. He can make it look easy, but very few NHL defenders are as good at it, and it’s a particularly useful skill if you’re going to pair with a glass cannon like Morgan Rielly, who sometimes leaves his partners trying to shut down odd-man rushes against. Brodie is turning 31, so age is a bigger concern for the last three years of the deal than the first. Despite that, Dubas can rightly be proud of the early returns on this contract.
October 10, 2020: The Andreas & Anderson Trade
The Leafs trade creative forward Andreas Johnsson for tough depth forward Joey Anderson.
One-line summary: The Leafs clear more salary.
How significant was it? Reasonably, mostly for the money freed up.
How difficult was it? Finding takers for salary this offseason was brutal. I’m not surprised the return was a B prospect.
How good was it? Johnsson had a dreadful year in New Jersey, struggling to produce on a basement-dwelling team. Anderson popped into one game for the Leafs and looked fine, and there’s some chance we’ll see more of him in years to come as an interesting bottom six forward. So on its merits this deal is fine.
Have you noticed that the Leafs keep having to go cheap on their supporting forwards? Hmm.
October 10, 2020: Signing Zach Bogosian
The Leafs sign gritty veteran defender Zach Bogosian to one year, $1M.
One-line summary: Dubas continues to sign players analytics guys used to make fun of, and shows them up a little bit.
How significant was it? Bogosian was a fixture on the third pairing most of the year, playing with a rotating cast of younger men in Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Dermott, and Rasmus Sandin. He wasn’t a key player, but he was a regular player.
How difficult was it? Hey, Zach, would you like one million dollars?
How good was it? Honestly pretty good! Bogosian surprised some nerdy observers, including me, by providing quiet competence. Some Internet friends of mine who cheer for Buffalo and Tampa Bay advised me Bogosian was slow, but had a good head for the game and could be the solid veteran on a third pairing. That was exactly what he did. If Bogosian wants to come back to do the same job again for a similar paycheque, I wouldn’t mind.
October 10 & 11, 2020: Signing Vesey and Boyd
The Leafs sign bottom-six forwards Jimmy Vesey (1 x $900K) and Travis Boyd (1 x $700K)
One-line summary: When you saw the section headline, you said, oh, right, those guys.
How significant was it? Barely at all, I hear you saying, and you’re right, but I think there’s a related point here that isn’t insignificant. Jimmy Vesey started the season at second-line left wing with John Tavares and William Nylander. I can’t imagine it’s too common for 33% of a line to make less than 5% of the salary outside an ELC, but this was what Toronto went into the season with. And that means something.
How difficult was it? Boyd was a neat find for the pro scouting, I think, a player who had slightly more to give than his anonymous name would suggest. Vesey, well, he had to do something, I guess. He may not be in the NHL next year.
How good was it? Both of these players were eventually waived and claimed by the Vancouver Canucks, which says dire things about how things were going in B.C. this season. Boyd was a nice bottom six guy who was easily replaceable, while Vesey showed what happens to players whose only real use is scoring once the scoring stops. The price was nothing and the contracts were easily disposed of, and yet with Vesey, doesn’t it give you pause that we had him penciled in to do so much when he wound up delivering so little?
October 13, 2020: Signing Aaron Dell
This doesn’t need a full section. The Leafs signed what looked like a decent NHL backup for a year at $800,000, then lost him on waivers in the chaos of the early COVID season. Dell was awful in New Jersey in a few games, but we can follow this thread of Kyle Dubas trying to insulate the goaltending position. We’ll follow it to names we might remember more than Aaron Dell, whom we will never mention again in this article.
October 16, 2020: Signing Joe Thornton
The Leafs sign legendary, 41-year-old playmaker Joe Thornton for one year at $700,000.
One-line summary: We got one of the greatest players of all time and one of the oldest players of 2021, and unfortunately, we weren’t playing in the All Time season.
How significant was it? More than the contract would suggest. Thornton signed a deal to match Travis Boyd, and the contrast between them in name, fame, and anticipated game was meaningful. Thornton started the season at 1LW and gradually tumbled down to playing with fellow oldster Jason Spezza.
How difficult was it? Thornton’s great career has always stopped short of a Cup, and he comes from St. Thomas, Ontario. This was yet another homecoming for an aging southern Ontario ring-chaser.
How good was it? At the time this deal happened, we basically said it was no-lose, and the money couldn’t have been better. Thornton also produced 20 points in 44 games, which is entirely respectable. But he slowed noticeably as the year went on, and it’s fair to ask whether a player of the same level and lesser renown would have been scratched by the time the playoffs started. There’s always some risk with older players that you overplay them for sentimental reasons, and I think we saw a bit of that with Joe, which tarnishes a reasonable signing a little bit. At least we got to have a player with an insane Civil War beard.
October 20-23, 2020: Signing Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev
The Leafs extend defender Travis Dermott (1 x $874,000) and forward Ilya Mikheyev (2 x $1.645M).
One-line summary: The Leafs extend a third-pairing defender who might be more and a third-line forward who can’t seem to be more.
How significant was it? Mikheyev played a lot and won the Michael Grabner Memorial Award for lowest finishing percentage on breakaways.* Dermott was probably the best of the third-pair rotating trio that involved him, Sandin and Lehtonen, and he has a fair case he deserves more ice time. Let’s hope he gets it, probably in Seattle.
*This is not a real award and Michael Grabner is not dead.
How difficult was it? Assessing Mikheyev’s 2019-20 at the time of this deal was tricky; he came into the league with a hot shooting percentage and an endearing quote about soup, and then he suffered a brutal wrist injury before returning for the Leafs’ ignoble loss to Columbus. The question was how much offence we could count on from him; this contract would have looked excellent if he’d scored more. As it is, it looks...okay.
Dermott was kind of just there waiting for a contract and had little leverage to demand more money. He’s a good example of why I think teams should use low-level offer sheets more often, but that’s another article.
How good was it? Dermott delivered on his deal just fine, though as mentioned, he had a weak bargaining position. Mikheyev has been an energetic penalty killer and good defensive forward who can’t quite finish enough to reach the next level, or to hold a spot on the second line. I don’t have a problem with the contract, but you’d love to get just a little more offence out of him.
October 30, 2020: Signing Michael Hutchinson
Another short section, and it’s mostly for me to rant. Look: Hutchinson is a decent AHL goalie who had a rough NHL year in 2019-20; the Leafs signed him as their fourth goalie, and it was due to inevitable misfortune that he was called on to be more (injuries to Campbell and Andersen, waiver claim on Dell.) Some online dummies made fun of Dubas for saying Hutchinson had a good year in his end-of-year-presser. These people are silly. Hutch had a .919 in eight games. That is indeed a good year for a fourth-stringer. This contract made sense even if, had things been different, I wouldn’t be mentioning it in an article about NHL moves.
February 15th, 2021: The Alex Galchenyuk Trade
The Leafs trade AHL defender David Warsofsky and much-lamented forward prospect Yegor Korshkov for reclamation project Alex Galchenyuk.
One-line summary: A guy who wasn’t an NHLer and a guy who likely won’t be an NHLer for a guy who was once productive, and might be again.
How significant was it? Surprisingly. We kept our expectations modest, but Galch won the second-line LW job out of the misfit squad that fought for that role.
How difficult was it? Well, not very, considering Galchenyuk was waived a few days earlier. But since he didn’t have to clear again, his waivers exemption gave the chance for Galch to work in the AHL a little bit and get his feet under him, which seems to have proved helpful.
How good was it? People have rhapsodized about this deal and probably gone overboard, and we don’t need to get carried away. But the Leafs took a player who had struggled for the last couple of years and helped him get back to being a complementary NHL scorer. It’s not a miracle, but it’s nice piece of work both by him and by Dubas.
April 9, 2021: The Riley Nash Trade
Let’s not linger on this one. The Leafs paid a conditional 2022 seventh-round pick, which became a sixth, for injured defensive forward Riley Nash. Nash struggled through the two playoff games in which he appeared. He may not have been fully recovered. This feels like a sixth down the drain.
April 11, 2021: The Nick Foligno Trade
The Leafs give up their 2021 first round pick and a 2022 fourth to Columbus for gritty forward Nick Foligno. They pay a fourth to San Jose for some salary shenanigans whereby some of Foligno’s salary gets left in California on the way to Toronto. The Leafs also pick up depth F Stefan Noesen in the deal.
One-line summary: There is nothing quite like the pain of looking back at a rental trade after the team loses in the first round.
How significant was it? A first-rounder in the 20s, where Toronto’s will be, is not the same as a first-rounder elsewhere, but it’s nonetheless painful, to say nothing of the two fourths. Foligno wasn’t healthy in the playoffs, nor was he especially effective, so the significance is mostly negative.
How difficult was it? Creative work on the salary retention, not that anyone cares. Brandon Pridham continues to earn his money.
How good was it? I’m going to first note I was reasonably good with this deal at the time. The Leafs were en route to winning their division, and [laughs hysterically] should have had an easy path to the third round. It made sense to go all-in, and Foligno has been a great defensive forward throughout his career. The idea was to provide some of the defensive solidity that Columbus used to drop the Leafs last year, and maybe a bit of complementary offence alongside Nylander and Tavares.
It all went to shit. Foligno missed playoff games with injury and was ineffective when there. It’s also fair to say the Tavares injury derailed both the roles we might have anticipated Foligno filling: as 2LW with two great scorers, or as a super defensive third-liner. Instead he was thrown into centering the second line with William Nylander. The injury luck around this trade was unquestionably bad, and makes it look worse than Dubas can fairly be blamed for.
Still, the Leafs struggle against Montreal was not defence, despite what a bunch of particularly dumb anonymous executives will tell you. It was offence. And when Taylor Hall—who has been producing quite nicely for a Boston team that’s still in the playoffs—went for a lesser cost, this deal soured in the minds of many. It looks even worse now.
Now is probably where we have to acknowledge the painful reality that also applies to the Thornton and Simmonds deals. When you get guys for their intangible qualities that will help your team hang tough in the playoffs, and the team goes out in the first round in an embarrassing choke job, you have failed. There is no getting around it. We did not get whatever it is we were supposed to get here, and that stings.
April 11 & 12, 2021: Trading for Rittich and Hutton
The Leafs trade a 2022 5th to Anaheim for depth defender Ben Hutton, and a 2022 3rd to Calgary for goaltender David Rittich. Rittich has 50% of his salary retained.
One-line summary: For sale, playoff depth, never used.
How significant was it? Only in that the Leafs don’t have these picks anymore.
How difficult was it? Not very.
How good was it? Well, the idea of playoff depth is to give you a security blanket against injury. Trading a fifth for Ben Hutton looks kind of bizarre in hindsight since he was clearly at least eighth on Toronto’s defence depth chart, and never appeared in the playoffs. At that point you might as well ride with who you’ve got. Rittich, although he also never played in the playoffs, made some sense given that both Jack Campbell and Frederik Andersen struggled with injuries this year. It just sucks to have bought insurance for a failed playoff run.
- To start with the good: the defence was mostly fine, and mostly to Dubas’ credit. Rielly-Brodie and Muzzin-Holl formed a better top four than the Leafs have had in years, and for the first time, defence was not a real weakness. Even the third pair, anchored by Zach Bogosian and occasionally featuring Rasmus Sandin, delivered.
- The draft is too early to judge, but at least it looks fine so far. Let’s hope Amirov pans out.
- What overhangs this whole season of mostly-secondary moves are the signings Kyle Dubas made before. The gigantic money paid out to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander—with a total cap hit over $40M, or just shy of half the upper limit—echoes through these moves. You see it in the shedding of middle-six Fs like Kapanen and Johnsson and the acquisition of mediocrities like Vesey, reclamations like Galchenyuk, or greybeards like Thornton and Simmonds. And you see it in how high in the lineup they played. The Leafs were always going to be a top-heavy forward lineup, and this year we saw in the most painful fashion what that looks like: when one of your Big Four is hurt and two of them are silenced by a checking line, you can be left with a full cap sheet and a long summer.
- In justice to Dubas, some of that cheap supporting talent might have been expected to come from maturing draft classes, and aside from the gimme pick of Auston Matthews at first overall, the Leafs got depressingly little out of their drafts in 2016 and 2017. Responsibility for those misses rests on Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter. But it’s a rare GM who gets to take over unhampered by the mistakes of their predecessor.
- We heard again and again about culture, work ethic, determination and intangibles. These were supposed to be injected by the veterans that were signed and traded for. We can’t know what the inside of the Leafs’ dressing room was like, and we can’t know at what points these things helped. All we can know is that the test of these things was to come in the playoffs, and in the playoffs—when the series got difficult—the Leafs wilted.
- I haven’t mentioned it here because the signing happened in the second season, but whatever your opinion of the coaching, Dubas owns that too. Sheldon Keefe is his hand-picked favourite, as he has been at every level of hockey. If the coach is an asset, he’s to Dubas’ credit, and if he’s ineffective, it’s to Dubas’ blame.
- Virtually every move that Dubas made for the NHL was premised on the idea that the forward core would be enough to carry the team. It wasn’t. And while I’ve criticized some of his moves, what it seems now is that the real issue may have been trusting that core. I can’t say I foresaw this, although I did think the Matthews deal was a slight overpay and the Marner deal was a massive one. I don’t worry much about the Matthews deal, except how early it ends. I worry about the Marner deal very much.
- Dubas has signaled clearly that he intends to keep his core together. He might be being disingenuous, but he was very emphatic about it, and I tend to believe he said it because he means it. With few mid-level contracts he’d want to trade and depleted draft capital, he has limited options to make changes around them. In short, he remains committed to the big bets he made earlier in his tenure, and so the Leafs will stay with that commitment.
- I think Kyle Dubas is both a clever GM and a decent man. I like him and I’ve liked most of his moves. But I would be lying if I said the repeated playoff failures haven’t shaken my faith in a team so invested in its top forwards. I suppose from one perspective it’s admirable that Dubas’ faith in the core is stronger than mine. From a less optimistic angle: maybe he’s committed to them because he doesn’t think he has a choice.
- As fans of the team, there’s not much else to say. Dubas sounds like he’s going to retool the supporting cast, and the top four forwards on the team will be the same as they’ve been since 2018. He will live or die with the core he’s invested in. If that bet pays out next summer, all these worries will look silly, and the failures will be what Dubas has called them: a prelude to success. If it doesn’t, then the fourth season of Kyle Dubas running the Toronto Maple Leafs will likely be the last.