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