The real work for Dubas, Maple Leafs still ahead

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Kyle Dubas wants to accomplish the impossible. Again.

Just days after getting John Tavares on July 1 in the biggest free agent signing in recent memory, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager went on Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts podcast and made a declaration.

With the signing of Tavares, the Maple Leafs forced their intentions on the rest of the National Hockey League. They’re a force to be reckoned with now, and they’re an instant Stanley Cup contender.

But one of the lingering questions after the hoopla surrounding the Tavares signing slowed down was this: Can the Maple Leafs, who’ve just given a man $11 million per year for the next seven seasons, also afford Auston Matthews, who may very well command similar money, and fellow studs in William Nylander and Maple Leafs scoring leader last season, Mitch Marner.

Not everyone believes Dubas can. But don’t tell that to Dubas.

“We can and we will,” Dubas said, without uttering another word.

The proverbial mic drop.

The fine folks at CapFriendly have the Maple Leafs counting just over $63 million against the salary cap, which is set at $79.5 million for 2018-19.

Nylander, a current restricted free agent, put up his second 61-point year in as many seasons as an NHL sophomore in 2017-18. He’s a bright, young talent that has meshed well with Matthews, Toronto’s franchise center. And he’s due a significant pay raise and could be thrown an offer sheet at any moment to force Dubas to walk the walk.

“I think the easy answer is there’s only one of them that doesn’t have a contract for next season and that’s William,” Dubas said. “These are all very important players to the Maple Leafs and to our future. Rather than rushing to get them done on the first day, if a player is going to be signing up here long term … you need to sit with them and convey to them what the vision for the team is and what they’re signing up for, for the next however many years it is.”

And things really start to hit the fan after next season with Matthews, Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Leivo and Connor Carrick all needing extensions as RFAs.

That’s a hell of a lot of wizardry that needs to be performed to keep the kids together, even with James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov coming off the books. But Dubas is confident, despite the massive task ahead of him.

Matthews is getting a big money deal, but perhaps Dubas can chain together some bridge deals, especially for Marner and Nylander, which would be ideal given their cap situation next season.

But the Maple Leafs still need help on defense. Sure, they got one of the best spines in the league down the middle on forward, and some very good players flanking them, but their backend wasn’t exactly world-beating this past season.

(Who knows. Maybe Dubas is going to sign Erik Karlsson for seven years at $2 million per season because, well, Dubas.)

The Leafs aren’t the first team to encounter their current predicament.

The Winnipeg Jets are in a similar situation at the moment with their host budding stars.

And there’s proof that teams can sign several players to monster deals and put together complementary pieces around them.

Our own Adam Gretz wrote this for the Sporting News:

Consider that the 2017-18 Capitals had more than $30 million going to Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby on a significantly lower cap.

Or that the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Penguins had $32.2 million going to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel on even lower salary caps than that one.

Or that the 2014-15 Blackhawks had more than $24 million going to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith on an even lower salary cap than all of the previous three.

The Caps just won the Cup, the Penguins won the previous two, and the Blackhawks, despite a poor season last year, have been one of the most dominant teams over the past decade.

The blueprint is there, but it takes more than signing four or five guys to big money to accomplish.

Time will tell if Dubas can be put on the same pedastal with the likes of Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford. Opening the cheque book is one thing, expertly crafting a team that can win a Cup or two is something entirely different.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.