The vibe many got from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ end-of-season media availability on Monday was that something was off. There was a blatant lack of accountability from anyone on the actual roster, and only Kyle Dubas took the blame for how and where this team fell short in 2023. The irony of the situation is that the GM deserves the least blame out of anyone associated with the Leafs. He did all he could, but once again, he was let down by those he, perhaps foolishly, put his faith in. From watching his press conference, it was obvious that Dubas struggled mightily with the pressures of being Leafs’ general manager, and this season might have been the tipping point. Dubas seemed close to tears when talking about his family and how much they struggled with the stress that emanated from the Leafs’ GM throughout the year. The entire press conference was just another example of why I greatly appreciate Kyle Dubas. He is honest, emotional, and cares about the people he employs. Most of the questions regarding Dubas’s future with the Leafs have been about whether the Leafs want to bring back Dubas, but it seems that we should be focusing on if Dubas even has it in him to keep going. However, Dubas made one thing clear: if he were to stay on as Leaf GM, nothing is off the table.
It is a big step for Dubas to admit that he is ready to make any seismic move involving one of the Leafs’ four best players. Previously, Dubas has scoffed at moving on from Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner or John Tavares. It is easy to understand why. NHL teams don’t usually win the Stanley Cup by blowing up their core of elite forwards. The Washington Capitals, Colorado Avalanche, and even to an extent, the Tampa Bay Lightning kept going making improvements around the edges of their core. Eventually, it worked out for them. But we’re at a point with the Leafs where it doesn’t feel like their path is the same as those before them.
I’ll go back to the fact that not one of the Leafs’ best players took accountability for their play against the Panthers. No one said, “I have to be better.” or “We didn’t play as well as we could have.” It is not because they don’t care that they didn’t take accountability but because they think things didn’t go their way. The Leafs didn’t get the luck, and they didn’t get the refereeing that would have been helpful for them to succeed. It’s true; Toronto probably deserved to win one or two more games than they did against the Panthers. But the game that I keep going back to as one that is defining of this core is game three. The game was, realistically, where the series was lost. Backs against the wall, adversity through the roof, a chance to overcome some bad luck, and the Leafs’ three highest-paid players had arguably the worst games of their careers. There was a noticeable lack of urgency, and the pushback was non-existent. They didn’t get unlucky in game three. They simply got outplayed. It was a sign to me that maybe this wasn’t working anymore. Perhaps the players are just too complacent. Maybe something needs to change. I think I wasn’t the only one that sensed that.
Is it wise to hang the future of your organization on one game? Probably not, but are we looking at game three as just one game or as a game representative of this Leaf team as a whole? There are two extremes regarding those who cheer for and analyze this team right now. One side of that extreme thinks this group will never win because there is something fundamentally wrong with how they play the sport, and their style does not work in playoff hockey. The other side believes that if the Leafs just keep doing what they are doing, and continue to have regular-season success, then one year, it will work out for them because hockey is random, and there is a lot of evidence in the past to prove this thinking. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. To expand on why, I want to answer some of your questions.
What are the logical next steps for the Leafs this offseason?
Despite much of what I just said, there is a legitimate argument that running it back once again with the same core is the safest and most intelligent thing to do. The Leafs will have more cap space than they have had in a long time to support their four key forwards, and winning a trade involving one of Marner, Matthews, or Nylander will not be easy, especially when teams know you’re looking to trade them. Of course, I understand the definition of insanity, and some fans might be turned entirely off by bringing back all four guys yet again. But there is a chance you ultimately close this team’s window of winning by trading one of those three guys for a return that doesn’t come close to replacing you’ve given up.
Furthermore, the series against the Panthers quickly could have gone a different way, or at the very least, could have gone farther than five games. If the Leafs don’t have an catastrophic few minutes at the start of the second period in game two, then they probably end up winning that game, and then everything is different. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Toronto lost a tightly-fought series in seven, where they were the better team overall.
However, that is not the reality in which we live, and whoever is the Leafs’ GM will have plenty of opportunities to shake up this team. In my opinion, if you are going to trade anyone, it is Mitch Marner. He has two years left on his contract compared to Nylander and Matthews having one, he doesn’t have a no-move clause coming into effect anytime soon, and he is coming off a 99-point season where he was also nominated for the Selke. I cannot see Matthews getting traded, and Tavares will not waive his no-move clause, so it’s between Marner and Nylander.
Trading Nylander is easiest because of his smaller salary and his value around the league isn’t as high as Marner’s. But I’m not sure that trading Nylander makes the same impact that trading Marner does. For one, you’re not going to get multiple pieces for Nylander that improve the balance of your roster the way you could if you dealt Marner. Secondly, Nylander has consistently been the whipping boy for Sheldon Keefe and has dealt with all the criticism his coach has had to offer. On the other hand, Marner ensured that Keefe walked back his comments the only time he was criticized by his coach in the media. Trading Marner, who was previously untouchable, would show the dressing room that complacency is unacceptable. This isn’t meant to be a personal attack on Marner, and I apologize if it has come off that way, but it’s clear he has struggled at times with the pressure of playing for his hometown team in such a frenzied market. There’s also the fact that Nylander has performed better in the playoffs than Marner has in the last three years, the most telling stat being Willy’s 14 goals to Marner’s 5 dating back to the 2020 playoffs.
Now what would a Marner trade look like? I’ll analyze that in due time. But some preliminary research leads me to the St. Louis Blues. https://twitter.com/hillzzzyy/status/1659037335990812675?s=20
Lastly, the Leafs cannot go into next season with Sheldon Keefe as head coach. His shelf life is expired, he has not been additive to this team’s chances to win, and he has shown a stunning inability to make adjustments. A new, young face behind the bench would be nice to align with this team’s core.
Do you think Dubas will stay with the Leafs?
If you had asked me this two weeks ago my answer would have empathically been yes. Now, I’m unsure, and I would honestly lean toward no. Everything I have read and been told points to the fact that the higher-ups in the Leafs’ org were surprised by Dubas’s comments on Monday. I’m not sure what rubbed them the wrong way with what Kyle said, but extension talks were supposedly heating up, and they’ve cooled off since Monday.
I certainly would like Dubas to stay with the Leafs. I have been a staunch defender of his ever since he was named Toronto’s GM, and I think he deserves credit for his versatility and open-mindedness. He has tried nearly everything possible to improve this team for playoff hockey and built a perennial top-five team in the league. The biggest issue with Dubas for some before this year was his lack of willingness to even discuss trading one of the big four. He has now made it clear he is willing to do that too.
It’s not the end of the world if Dubas isn’t the GM next year. Thankfully the Leafs have a very capable assistant GM in Brandon Pridham, who could step in, along with many other intelligent minds in the front office. Still, this is Dubas’s job to finish, and until it is clear that he has failed the players and not the other way around, he should keep his job. But does he want to? I really don’t know.
Of the pending free agents, who stays and who goes?
Those names include Justin Holl, Alex Kerfoot, Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, Erik Gustafson, Noel Acciari, David Kampf, and Michael Bunting. Bunting and O’Reilly seem 100% outta here. Bunting would be lovely to keep, but he’ll want to get paid, and it seems like this relationship is coming to a natural end. Bunting hasn’t been as good in the playoffs as he has been in the regular season, and his suspension rubbed many people the wrong way. O’Reilly is in a similar boat to Bunting. He will probably want one last big payday, and it is hard to blame him. The Leafs just cannot afford to give $5-$6 million to a middle-six player. A couple of names I think that stays are Noel Acciari and Luke Schenn. They both filled their role nicely and shouldn’t cost too much. Both have tons of playoff experience and are good at things that the Leafs don’t have an abundance of.
Erik Gustafson is gone, and I will never understand the Rasmus Sandin trade in which we acquired him. So short-sighted. The three most interesting names are Holl, Kerfoot and Kampf. I probably wouldn’t re-sign any of them if it was my decision. It’s hard to argue that any of them deserve a raise based on their most recent performances, and the Leafs can find cheaper, better options to replenish what they are losing in the aforementioned three players. Justin Holl shouldn’t come back under any circumstances. I’d like to keep Kampf if he accepts something around $1.5 million. I’m not sure how realistic that is. Kerfoot is weird because he is coming off a contract where he made $3.5 million a year, but he just had the worst year of his career statistically. He is a good puck transporter, and the Leafs need that in their bottom six and his shooting luck will bounce back next season. But will he price himself out? It’ll be interesting to see just how much the Leafs like him.