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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.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

Laying it on the lines: Maple Leafs rolling after adjustments

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

It’s kind of crazy how a little tinkering can completely change the complexion of an offense.

On Jan. 23, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in a rut. For the better part of the past month-and-a-half, dating back to Dec. 12, they’d essentially spun their tires.

With a 6-7-3 record during that 16-game span, something needed to change, even if they were still sitting comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Still, limping into the playoffs wouldn’t be ideal for Mike Babcock, so he did what he’s done best over his long tenure as an NHL bench boss: he adjusted.

Gone were the lines that weren’t working and in came something to experiment with.

Mitch Marner moved up to the second line. Leo Komarov dropped down to the fourth. Gone was Frederik Gauthier, who went from the fourth line to the minors. Matt Martin took a seat in the press box. And the Leafs brought up 21-year-old prospect Kasperi Kapanen, who put up good numbers in the American Hockey League.

The result looked like this:

Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander

Patrick MarleauNazem Kadri – Mitchell Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown

Leo Komarov – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen

Babcock must be quite the alchemist. His concoction has proven effective. Really effective.

Kadri and Marner have benefitted most. The former had two points in his previous 20 games before welcoming Marner on his right wing. Kadri, during the team’s 9-1-0 run as of late, now has seven goals and 15 points (including a hat trick and a five-point night on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 6-3 win).

Marner had just one goal in his previous 11 games before linking up with Kadri and Marleau. Since then, he has seven goals and 13 points.

Even Kapanen is getting in on the fun. He’s got two goals and three assists in that span playing a less offensive role on the team’s fourth line.

Babcock wanted balance, and he got it.

The Leafs, for all their offensive successes during this stretch — they’ve scored 43 goals during their past 10 games — could give Frederik Andersen a bit of a break.

Andersen is seeing a lot of rubber. In Wednesday’s win, Andersen saw 19 shots come his way in the first period and another 22 in the second. The barrage continued in the third with a further 16. Yes, the quick math says 57 total shots. The man made 54 saves.

Wednesday’s result could have been much different if not for Andersen’s heroics.

In four of the past 10 games, the Leafs have surrendered 40 or more shots.

As good as Andersen has been for the Leafs, that isn’t sustainable.

The good news for the Leafs and their fans is that Andersen is in the top-five among starters (minimum 1,500 minutes played) when it comes to goals saved above average, one of the better goalie metrics to judge how good a puck-stopper is.

Andersen is also sixth in adjusted save percentage, which takes into account shot location when determining a goalie’s save percentage, taking the traditional metric one step further.

It’s all working right now for Toronto. And within their reach is the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs are just four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.


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

Matthew Tkachuk suspended one game for unsportsmanlike conduct

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Another day, another suspension for Matthew Tkachuk.

On Thursday afternoon, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced that they have suspended the Flames forward for a game because of an incident that occurred in last night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

During a first-period scrum in front of the Flames bench, Tkachuk, who was on the bench, used his stick to spear Maple Leafs tough guy Matt Martin, who was on the ice at the time.

After the game, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock called the move “junior hockey stuff”.

If you missed the incident, you can watch it by clicking the video at the top of the page. 

What this means is that Tkachuk will be forced to miss tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, which is a big deal considering his team will have to play their second game in two nights after losing to Toronto.

Here’s the full explanation of the suspension:

‘Junior hockey stuff’: Matthew Tkachuk earns hearing for spear on Martin (Video)

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Matt Martin would like you to know that he’s fine. That spear from the bench by Matthew Tkachuk during Wednesday night’s game? He didn’t even feel it. In fact, he wasn’t even aware of it until after Toronto’s 2-1 shootout win over Calgary when the media requested to talk to him about the incident.

It was during a late first period scrum in front of the Flames’ bench that Tkachuk jabbed his stick into Martin’s midsection.

That wasn’t missed by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which announced that Tkachuk, who wasn’t penalized, will have a hearing on Thursday.

Martin, who didn’t want to offer an opinion on whether Tkachuk should be punished, did have some advice for the young forward.

“I guess if he’s going to do stuff like that he should probably make it count,” he said. “It’s whatever. That’s child’s play. I don’t really get involved in that kind of stuff.”

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock wasn’t a fan either.

“The guys told me in-between periods. I mean, whatever, that’s junior hockey stuff,” he said. “He’ll learn over time. You gotta give Tkachuk credit, he played a good game, he played hard. No reason for that stuff.”

Tkachuk, a well-know shift disturber around the league, has had a busy first few months of the season in the area of discipline. He was suspended one game in November for inciting a brouhaha between the Flames and Detroit Red Wings, which earned Luke Witkowski a 10-game ban. Just 10 days later he was on the receiving end of a Gabriel Landeskog cross-check to the head that caused the Colorado Avalanche captain to sit for four games.

Already holding repeat offender status, Tkachuk will likely find himself sitting out at least one game for this.

UPDATE: One game ban for Tkachuk.

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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.