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Leafs GM job means huge challenges, opportunities for Dubas

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Earlier today, the rumblings were confirmed, as the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that 32-year-old Kyle Dubas was promoted to the level of being their new GM. By many accounts, the push for Lou Lamoriello’s successor came down to Dubas or more experienced executive Mark Hunter.

However Leafs fans feel about this bold (if expected) choice, it should be grab-your-popcorn-level fun to see how everything plays out. Well, if you’re enraptured by nerdy team-building stuff, that is.

(Raises hand emphatically.)

The good news is that Lamoriello & Co. left behind a great situation for Dubas, who’s been learning the ropes since joining the organization in July 2014. With great organizational powers come great responsibility, however, and the young executive faces an array of short and long-term decisions that will make a huge impact on the fortunes of the massively popular NHL franchise.

Let’s take a look at some the opportunities at his fingertips, the obstacles in his way, and ponder some important situations that could go well or blow up in Toronto’s face.

An outstanding young core, a fairly clean slate

The best is almost certainly yet to come for this outstanding nucleus of young players.

Auston Matthews is 20, Mitch Marner is 21, William Nylander is 22, and even Morgan Rielly is only 24. Frederik Andersen should have prime years left at 28.

Toronto managed to get rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s contract, while Joffrey Lupul will no longer need to shade the Leafs about using his deal as a loophole. Aside from a few exceptions (Matt Martin, Nikita Zaitsev), there isn’t the baggage you normally see amid a regime change. Chalk that up to the Shanaplan if you want, but the world is Dubas’ oyster.

A small window and some big extensions

According to Cap Friendly, the Maple Leafs have $50.1 million devoted to 15 players for 2018-19. Dubas faces some intriguing possibilities considering the fact that the cap ceiling is expected to range between $78-$82M.

Sure, some of that space will be eaten up by RFA deals, most notably that of William Nylander.

The bottom line, though, is that the Maple Leafs should be flush … for one summer. The entry-level contracts for Matthews and Marner are set to expire after 2018-19, with those two becoming eligible for proactive extensions as early as this July.

First things first, Dubas is charged with pushing the right buttons as far as signing Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to team-friendly deals. Any free agent moves would surely be made realizing that those three will make this cushion evaporate with considerable speed.

With that in mind, Dubas might opt for creative one-year contracts. If James van Riemsdyk ends up unhappy with the market, would he take a rich, one-year deal to stay with Toronto? Would the Maple Leafs be able to convince a useful player to take a one-year deal under similar circumstances in the more likely case where JVR leaves?

Tavares or another blockbuster addition?

Again, with just about any situation, a team should make it work if John Tavares is interested in signing up. Of course, the Maple Leafs join the Sharks on the short list of teams that make the most realistic sense for Tavares if he doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders. The Maple Leafs could give Tavares a real chance to win it all; on the other hand, he might not appreciate being under such a magnifying glass with Toronto.

(Personally, I think Tavares would love the challenge, but it’s tough to know for sure what he actually wants to do.)

The Maple Leafs could get some ancillary benefits from signing Tavares to what would almost certainly demand a $10M+ cap hit. Signing Tavares could conceivably help to set a ceiling of sorts for Matthews, and perhaps Marner and/or Nylander would be more willing to sacrifice a bit of cash to be a part of what could really be a contender? One wouldn’t expect these RFAs to take an extreme cut from what they might otherwise get, but even a million here or there could be huge if Toronto ends up scraping against the cap ceiling with rapid speed.

There’s also the amusing thought of Tavares signing close to the maximum for one year, although it’s difficult to picture the star player signing such a risky deal.

Interestingly, similar circumstances could arise if the Maple Leafs landed a big fish in a trade. The Senators wouldn’t trade Erik Karlsson to their bitter rivals, but maybe he’d sign there in the 2019 summer? Maybe the Maple Leafs would land another would-be 2019 free agent in Drew Doughty or Oliver Ekman-Larsson?

This flexibility in 2018-19 could help the Maple Leafs into the future, especially if Dubas gets creative.

Liked by Mike?

Mike Babcock might have his old-school tendencies, yet he’s also shown plenty of signs of being pretty progressive, especially for a coach with his impeccable resume. Chances are, he’ll be fair to Dubas.

Still, there’s a human nature element to this that should be fascinating to watch, even if the juicy stuff would likely only happen behind closed doors.

Consider this. Like Mark Hunter, Babcock is 55 years old. Lou Lamoriello is old enough to be Babs’ father at 75, while Dubas could be the grandchild at 32. As professional as everyone involved surely must be, that could make for an odd dynamic when inevitable turmoil surfaces. Granted, it certainly helps that Dubas has already been with the organization for about four years, giving him plenty of chances to build chemistry and trust.

You wonder how often Dubas will feel compelled to “throw Babcock a bone.” Like just about every NHL coach, Babcock has “his guys.” Will Dubas grudgingly sign off on some minutes for Roman Polak if the Maple Leafs otherwise embody a more modern approach?

It’s going to be a little uncomfortable at times for Babcock to take orders from a guy who’s 23 years younger than him. Here’s hoping that the situation doesn’t devolve like Art Howe grumbling about analytics in “Moneyball,” although it might be fun to banter about which Hollywood actor would play Babcock.

***

As expansive as this post is, it doesn’t cover everything facing Dubas. That tells you how complex a GM’s job can be, particularly in a high-pressure market such as Toronto.

Dubas will be charged with finding ways to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense. He’ll need to manage the cap with those sweetheart rookie deals set to expire. Eventually, it will be crucial for the Maple Leafs to find new sweetheart rookie deals by drafting well, even with less favorable draft positions.

It’s been ages since the Maple Leafs boasted such potential at just about every level, not to mention a coach who can get the most out of those players. Toronto fans have been patient with the process so far, but that honeymoon stage probably won’t last longer than Matthews’ ELC.

Fair or not, Dubas will be judged as a failure if he can’t mold this potential into a contender, if not a flat-out champion.

He’s been handed the keys to a great situation, but Dubas must avoid some serious pot holes. Either way, it will be fascinating to observe, and considering his age and preferences, it might just change how NHL teams conduct business.

No pressure, barely-not-a-kid.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.