Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s easy to get lost in all of the distractions and lose sight of the fact that the Maple Leafs have, in a lot of ways, built something special in Toronto. And GM Kyle Dubas played a huge role in bringing in some of those special elements.
A mixture of contract/cap struggles and playoff letdowns obscure that notion, and it’s difficult to blame people when they’ve felt disappointed, if not downright anxious, about this Maple Leafs team. After all, despite splashy signings from John Tavares to Mike Babcock, this team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003-04.
Credit fans and media for being relatively calm and patient with the Maple Leafs’ rebuild over the years, but desperation is bubbling up, and Dubas is under pressure to hold everything together long enough for this team to finally deliver on all of that promise.
Consider the challenges Dubas faces and you’ll understand some of the pressure.
[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]
Signing Mitch Marner: The most obvious challenge is also the most daunting one. It feels less like the elephant in the room and more like the room itself. (We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re spouting out “Oh Hi Mitch” yet, so at least it isn’t “The Room.”)
The Marner situation remains a mystery, as it’s unclear when he’ll sign, for what dollar amount, and for how long. We’re close to September, and the Maple Leafs’ cap situation is convoluted enough where you wonder if this could stretch out to Nylanderian lengths, maybe eating up regular season games.
Either way, it’s on Dubas to win this game of chicken, and you can argue that he’s had mixed results so far.
Nylander’s near-$7 million cap hit figures to be pretty team-friendly if he can get back on track, yet that protracted holdout almost certainly hampered his ability to keep his game in tidy rows. The Maple Leafs didn’t seem to get much of a discount on Auston Matthews, either, as he’s at $11.634M for just five seasons, not eating up much in the way of UFA years.
The Maple Leafs were bound to face cap issues, but they haven’t enjoyed the sort of sweetheart deals in the same way that their divisional foes in Boston and Tampa Bay have. If the ship has sailed on Marner drawing a Nikita Kucherov-type discount, Toronto at least needs to get something done there, so the pressure remains on Dubas.
Managing Mike Babcock: After another Game 7 exit at the hands of the Bruins, many wondered about the dynamic between Dubas and Babcock. Dubas said all the right things in bringing Babcock back for 2019-20, yet it seems like the two don’t always see the game the same way.
Frankly, for all of the impressive bullet points on Babcock’s resume, it sure feels like this talented Toronto team hasn’t always been “optimized” under Babcock lately. Matthews’ minutes could be more robust, and they’d ideally take time away from lesser players.
People will look for signs of this relationship cratering, particularly if moves like the trade to bring in Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot end up looking a little rocky.
Beyond the core: As tricky as it is to retain that nucleus of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander, the toughest challenge is to find the right electrons at the right price. (Thus concludes any shaky scientific analogies I can make.)
So far, Dubas has done a pretty splendid job of maneuvering around the obvious guys, whether that involved getting rid of problem deals (Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev), retaining mid-level support (Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen), or identifying bargains (Tyler Ennis, and then maybe Jason Spezza).
But, like with any contender once star rookie contracts have all expired, the work will basically never be done. Dubas will need to eventually find replacements or new deals for Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, who are both entering contract years. Frederik Andersen is in line for a raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2020-21.
Ideally, the cap ceiling will rise more significantly in future offseasons than it did this year. Even if that happens, Dubas will be under pressure to find creative ways to make this all work.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.