Babcock clears air about ‘depth’ comments, talks relationship with Dubas

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When Mike Babcock entered the NHL head coaching ranks with the Anaheim Ducks his general manager was Bryan Murray. The late GM imparted some wise words with his rookie head coach that have stuck with him 17 years later.

“As a coach and a general manager, never let anyone get in between you and if you do you’re going to be in trouble,” recalled Babcock after Friday’s practice. “That relationship is so important.”

Babcock was bringing up Murray’s advice on the heels of a week where speculation was rife that there was some brewing tension between him and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. The head coach’s comments earlier this week about a lack of depth on an injury-tested roster raised some eyebrows.

“All good players, let’s not kid yourself, you’re way better when you have all guys on deck,” Babcock said on Monday. “The thing about a team is you have 23 spots on it and you have a minor-league team, you’re supposed to build the best program you can to have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep on going. There are other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state you’re at and you have to keep adding better players.”

That came two months after he said, “There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work,” following the Maple Leafs’ acquisition of Jake Muzzin, adding another left-hand shot to their blue line.

The Maple Leafs are in a little rough patch having gone 8-7-2 in their last 17 games as they prepare for an inevitable Round 1 matchup against the Boston Bruins again. So when a team with such high-end talent and sky-high expectations falters, especially at this point in the season, the vultures are going to circle.

“Whatever people speculate or think, I don’t believe that’s the case,” said Babcock. “I know Dubie and I talk all the time, we’ve talked about this since this happened. If any of my comments in any way… I don’t read it [as others did], but if any of my comments in anyway hurt anybody… if anyone’s wife is reading it the next day, and they feel hurt, then you’ve done the wrong thing. That’s not my intent.

“One of the comments was about depth. Depth in the organization, we’ve got keep improving our depth, everybody knows it. … [W]e’re all trying to do it so that we can get to be like these teams. Tampa, to me, is just a model of what depth is. It doesn’t matter if you get guys hurt, not hurt… so if there was any slap at anyone, it sure wasn’t intended, that’s not what I meant to say.

“I go to the media, what, twice a day. Sometimes three times a day it seems like. There’s gonna be a s—-storm once in a while. There just is. You’d like to say everything perfect, and sometimes maybe you don’t.”

Babcock added that his relationship isn’t as good with Dubas “as it’s going to be four years from now,” noting that it was the same with Murray and in Detroit with Ken Holland and with Lou Lamoriello when he was hired by the Maple Leafs. This is the first season for the two in the GM/head coach relationship, so it’s going to be bumpy, especially in Toronto and especially where the team is in regards to Stanley Cup contender status.

The Maple Leafs have eight games remaining to try and catch the Bruins for home ice in Round 1. They have a relatively soft schedule over the next week and building off of Wednesday’s win over Buffalo will go a long way in pushing the distractions aside.

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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.

‘A master troll job’: Leafs GM enjoyed Marchand’s Tweet on Marner’s next contract

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Brad Marchand‘s elite pest skills don’t work just on the ice, and with a likely first-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs coming up next month, the Boston Bruins tried to stir the pot on Twitter Tuesday.

Responding to an NHL PR account Tweet about Mitch Marner reaching 80 points, Marchand put on his free agency speculation cap as the Leafs forward could be a restricted free agent on July 1.

The Leafs face an interesting off-season in trying to not only re-sign Marner, but also RFA Kasperi Kapanen, if they choose to do so, as general manager Kyle Dubas navigates a tight salary cap picture. But Marchand says he was just showing some respect to a great player.

“Some people really took that the wrong way,” Marchand said after Tuesday night’s win against Carolina. “You gotta give the kid credit. He’s a great player that’s all I was trying to get at. He’s having a great year. It’s a big milestone for him. Just giving some credit where credit’s due that’s all.”

Dubas was appreciative that the Leafs were on Marchand’s mind one month before the start of the playoffs, and he also respected the attempt.

“I think it was a master troll job, to say the least. You have to respect that element of it,” Dubas said from the NHL GMs Meetings. “From my end, I think the part that I liked about it was that there’s over a 90 percent chance we’re going to play them in the playoffs if you just take the probabilities of it, so that he woke up the morning of a game day and was thinking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. I thought was a positive thing for us.”

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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.

Marner’s agent tries to put out fire from Maple Leafs ‘lowball’ comments

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might be able to make the salary cap situation work enough to keep their biggest names together, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll sign Mitch Marner without headaches.

The ink on Auston Matthewsdaunting five-year extension barely dried before Marner’s agent Darren Ferris ratcheted up the drama.

In a Tuesday column for the Toronto Star, Dave Feschuk reported that Ferris claimed the Maple Leafs have been “trying to lowball” Marner, and described Matthews’ contract as not being a “team-friendly discount.”

Things blew up to such a point that Ferris went on two Toronto morning radio shows (TSN’s First Up 1050 and “The Jeff Blair Show” on Sportsnet 590) to try to put out the fires related to those comments.

In the process, Ferris then made a clarification on his clarification to Feschuk, ultimately stating that while Ferris made comments about the Maple Leafs lowballing Marner on Tuesday, those comments were related to alleged lowball offers from the summer.

*Phew*

After making eyebrow-raising comments, Ferris tried to spin things with the normal boilerplate comments you’d usually expect.

” …the discussions have been going in the right direction, and Mitch will be a Leaf for a long time, and I’m sure that everything will work out,” Ferris said on “The Jeff Blair Show.”

Of course, to many, the damage has been done — at least in terms of acting as if this is “business as usual.”

And, again, Ferris is doing his best to provide damage control after a day’s worth of frightening quotes about Marner wanting to get as close to Matthews’ $11.63 million cap hit as possible. Chris Nicholls transcribed radio interviews where TSN’s Darren Dreger stated that Marner’s camp reportedly believes he shouldn’t get “a penny” less than Matthews, and TSN’s Bob McKenzie seemed to make similar comments.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the people around Marner keep making things a little awkward, if not worse.

Back in December, Marner’s father Paul vented to The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel (sub required) about a perceived lack of interest in the winger possibly becoming the Maple Leafs’ next captain.

“I’ll just be honest with you,” Paul Marner said. “It drives our family nuts when we hear you guys all talk about who should be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Mitch never hardly gets any consideration. It’s because he’s like this happy-go-lucky little kid. But he championed the London Knights to the Memorial Cup with that same happy (personality). I watched a guy like Doug Gilmour who had a lot of joy on and off the ice but was a real competitor.

“And that’s Mitch.”

It’s enough to make your head spin, but Marner and the Maple Leafs did their best not to pour extra gas on the fire when asked about the process on Wednesday.

“That’s why you hire an agent, let him talk to Kyle (Dubas),” Marner said, according to Jonas Siegel.

“ … A deal’s going to get done eventually.”

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock echoed those thoughts. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Babcock said “Mitch is gonna be … Mitch is a lifetime Leaf.” So the messages seem to be aligned on-the-record, at least one day after things spiraled out of control.

(Or at least until Marner demanded that Ferris clean things up? We may or may not find that out once the smoke clears.)

Either way, if the goal of pushing contract extension negotiations to after the season was to “not be a distraction,” then Marner’s reps have failed in a big way.

However, if the true objective is to get as much money as possible — well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

And grab some popcorn.

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.

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs agree to five-year, $58.17M extension

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One big name down for Kyle Dubas, one more to go.

Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs have agreed on a five-year, $58.17M extension ($11.634M cap hit), which will go a long way in the general manager keeping his young core together for multiple runs at the Stanley Cup. Per Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, 93 percent of money coming the forward’s way will be paid in signing bonuses.

The 21-year-old Matthews, who was set to become a restricted free agent on July 1, could have signed a contract for eight years, the maximum term allowed for teams signing their own players, but a shorter deal allows for cap flexibility going forward.

It’s an extension that buys one unrestricted free agent year and will make him a UFA in the summer of 2024.

In 182 games with the Maple Leafs Matthews has scored 97 times and recorded 178 points. He’s sixth in goals scored and second in even strength goals scored (76) since his rookie year of 2016-17

Now that Matthews is taken care of, next on Dubas’ plate is Mitch Marner, who can also hit the restricted free agent market in the summer. One contract done means the GM has a better view into how to piece things together financially that makes the most sense for the organization and to help keep them a strong Cup contender going forward.

[RELATED: Stop worrying about Maple Leafs’ salary cap situation]

Marner’s agent stated in September that they were fine waiting until the off-season if an extension couldn’t be hammered out by the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. Nothing got done, and the 21-year-old forward has done his part to increase his price with a great season. Through 52 games he’s going to set career highs in goals, assists and points with a stat line of 20 goals and 63 points this season, and an average of 1.21 points per game.

But he’s also a winger and not a primary goalscoring center, which means his next deal won’t be nearly as rich as Matthews’. Could the Maple Leafs try a bridge deal to ensure cap flexibility going forward and allow Marner to still cash in but with a shorter term?

While his agent wants his client to focus on the season, the agent’s job is to do the negotiating for Marner, allowing him to concentrate on playing for the Maple Leafs. Matthews is done and you know Dubas will want to get Marner tied down before the summer.

Will Marner and his agent change their minds if the team puts out an offer now that’s feasible for both sides?

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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.

Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

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Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

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The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

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Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

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Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.