Monday’s trade deadline came and went without the Maple Leafs adding to – or subtracting from – their NHL roster. For weeks, rumors had swirled that Toronto was looking to acquire an upgrade on the right side of their blue line with names like Kasperi Kapanen, Alex Kerfoot, and Andreas Johnsson before he was injured, tossed around as potential trade bait. In recent days, speculation that the team would move Tyson Barrie and perhaps acquire a replacement for him grew rampant.
In the end Kyle Dubas made his moves prior to deadline day, save for a couple of minor league trades and spending some cap space to acquire a late round draft pick. Dealing with several key injuries and limited cap space while fighting for a playoff spot put the Leafs’ GM in a tricky spot. Under tremendous outside pressure from the media and fans alike, Dubas refrained from over-paying for assets and resisted the temptation of making a trade just to make a trade. When all was said and done on Monday, he put it upon the current group of players to right the ship.
Despite their recent struggles and some downright ugly moments this season, Dubas is right to believe in this group. Say what you will about the makeup or salary structure, but not many would argue that this team is short on talent. There’s Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Kasperi Kapanen up front. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and a pair of emerging youngsters in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the back end. They’ve got Frederik Andersen in net, who despite his down season has shown he can be a high end goalie in the league. That’s a formidable core. And Dubas has supplemented it with solid depth players like Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, Jason Spezza, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Kyle Clifford, and even Jack Campbell. The young GM is far from the only one who believes this roster is better than what they’ve shown to this point. And why shouldn’t a team with that level of talent be believed in?
Watching this team struggle through shoddy defensive play, a lack of secondary scoring, and poor goaltending while catching bad break after bad break has been incredibly frustrating for us fans, but I’m willing to bet that none of us are nearly as frustrated as Kyle Dubas has been with this season. Luckily for us, he’s not a reactionary general manager who will abandon his plan or philosophies at the first sign of trouble. He believes in this plan, he believes in building his team a certain way, and most importantly he believes in these players. He also believes that these are things that teams have to learn how to get through, even when there isn’t an easy answer.
You might recall the 2016-2017 Tampa Bay Lightning team that failed to qualify for the playoffs. A talented young squad who were beset by injuries and inconsistent play, much like this year’s Maple Leafs. Then general manager, Steve Yzerman, didn’t panic and change course. He didn’t trade away Kucherov, Stamkos, or Hedman just to change the look of his team. He didn’t mortgage the future by cashing in a 20 year old Brayden Point to fill a pressing need. Can you imagine if he had? Just two seasons later, those players helped lead the team to one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. Then they got swept in the first round by a team that had just barely squeaked into the playoffs. And guess what… They still didn’t panic or shake up their core. Even this season when they played poorly for the first two months and found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture, there were still no knee jerk reactions from the Tampa Bay front office. Now, they’re once again the class of the league having pulled themselves back near the top of the standings with an absolutely torrid stretch of play.
February 22nd, 2020
Things can change quickly in this league and progression isn’t always as linear as we’d like it to be. The highs are high and the lows feel bottomless at times. We fans live and die with the teams we love every night, but we need to trust that the people shaping the teams we cheer for won’t be so fickle.
Seeing other GMs pull the trigger on deals throughout the day probably made it awfully tempting for Kyle Dubas to make an addition of his own, and it was surely a frustrating day for fans that were anxious for a move. But would you feel better had Dubas traded a 1st and 2nd round pick for Jean-Gabriel Pageau and then given him $30 million? How about a 1st rounder for Barclay Goodrow, he of 8 goals and 16 assists this season? A conditional pick for an aging Mike Green? Maybe two 2nd rounders for Alec Martinez last week? No? Me neither.
The reality is that none of those players or trades of that nature were going to solve the Maple Leafs problems, and they would have likely been damaging for the future. It’s on the players to salvage their season and selling off assets wouldn’t inspire much confidence in the locker room either. Tyson Barrie hasn’t been a perfect fit on the Leafs blue line but this team wasn’t going to get better by trading him for futures without being able to bring in a more suitable replacement. Dubas listened, as any good GM would, but the potential returns didn’t warrant subtracting from this current roster.
“There was nothing on the front burner. The reality is because of the way that things have gone, we started to get some interest in him, and because of the way that things had gone I felt it was good practice at least to listen and start to envision what the return would look like from our end.”
– Kyle Dubas
With all the turmoil surrounding them this past while, it’s easy to forget that the Leafs are still sitting in a playoff spot. They’re two points up on the Florida Panthers – who arguably got worse yesterday by trading away Vincent Trocheck – for the third and final divisional playoff berth. Buffalo and Montreal are behind Florida, both six points back of Toronto. Even after their recent skid, the Leafs still possess the 8th highest points percentage in the NHL since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench. Trading away a key, albeit maligned by the fan base, member of the team in Tyson Barrie for prospects and draft picks didn’t make sense. Not with a playoff spot there for the taking.
They do have reinforcements coming eventually, too. Ilya Mikheyev has begun skating and handling pucks again after a gruesome wrist injury derailed his strong rookie campaign. Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci are also due back in mid to late March, and while they’ll be welcome returns to a patchwork defensive group fighting for a playoff spot, that also limited how Kyle Dubas and his management team could utilize the extra LTIR salary cap space they currently have at hand.
Rather than make a desperation move, Dubas elected to stay the course. After adding depth wingers Denis Malgin and Miikka Salomaki to the organization last week, he worked to shore up the depth of the Marlies who are also in the middle of a playoff race and wisely put some cap space to use by getting involved in a three team trade, retaining a portion of Robin Lehner’s salary in exchange for Vegas’ 5th round pick this year. With no last minute additions to the NHL roster the team also finalized Jake Muzzin’s long rumored contract extension, ensuring a core piece of their defense would remain on board in the coming seasons.
February 24, 2020
The Muzzin contract extension being the biggest piece of Maple Leafs news on this trade deadline day seems somewhat fitting for Kyle Dubas. He believes in the players he has here and feels a loyalty to not only them, but the plan he has in place. It’s been a difficult season where a whole lot has gone wrong and very little has gone their way. This will be a telling stretch for this group as they continue to battle adversity on the road to the playoffs but even if it doesn’t all work out for them this time around, history has shown us that sticking with your talented core of players is probably a safe bet. The general manager has shown that he has faith in this group. Now, more than ever, it’s up to them to reward that faith.
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