At the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, a new NHL general manager had his first real big decision to make.
Kyle Dubas is mostly labeled as a “numbers guy”, but has always been quick to mention that there’s still a place for traditional thinking in hockey. Dubas just wanted to do the traditional better. He’s been cutting the fat since he took over the GM job, putting together a strong-skating, puck-moving, high-flying offensive team that could finally give the Leafs a real shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
However, the first step at success was at the draft. Dubas had been on the job as Leafs GM for barely a month and a lot was made going into the experience that he was also a “draft down” kind of guy. Dubas had pulled this move before when he and Mark Hunter ran the process in 2015, trading down twice in the first round to land blue-liner Travis Dermott and scoring picks in the second and third round. Kyle played coy saying that he didn’t get why that was the perception about him, but then went ahead and traded the 25th pick to St. Louis for the 29th and 76th picks. The Leafs surprised some with the selection of defenseman Rasmus Sandin, but if you look closer – that pick should have been obvious.
Rasmus Sandin had just played his last season in Canadian major junior with the Soo Greyhounds, the team that Kyle Dubas began his managerial career with. Dubas still has strong ties to the Greyhounds that gave the young GM information that few others had. Looking back, it’s pretty strange that a guy with an impressive scouting report like Sandin would go that late in the first round. Rasmus had been described as possessing good skating, a high hockey IQ (offensively and defensively), great passing and shooting abilities as well the ability to play an efficient physical game. Without top draft picks, the Leafs would need to hit on their late first-rounders, especially since they were cheap coming in from their rookie deals. Sandin having top-end potential became the Leaf’s diamond in the rough.
Of course, Kyle Dubas’ next major move was to sign John Tavares to a 7-year, $77 million deal. This signing would shore the Leafs up down the middle, giving the team two bona fide lines that would give any opponent nightmares. Dubas would also make some low-cost, low-risk signings including Tyler Ennis, which would be a necessity for teams up the salary cap looking to score. William Nylander would miss half the season without a contract, but eventually signed a six-year deal on the December 1st restricted free-agent deadline. Nylander struggled his first 19 games, scoring only four points, but would finish the season strong with 24 points in 35 games despite playing most of it on the third line and second power-play unit. Dubas would make a trade during the season, landing defenseman Jake Muzzin from Los Angeles for the Leafs’ 2019 first round pick and two prospects. Muzzin plays a complete game in a large frame, backed-up by strong numbers that filled a legitimate hole on the noticeably thin Leafs blue-line. Still, these changes wouldn’t be enough for the 2018-19 campaign and the Leafs would lose in the first round in seven games to Boston…again.
Kyle Dubas was now at a crossroads. The Maple Leafs had lost in the first round for *three* consecutive years. During that trifecta of futility, the Leafs roster had much of the same core of players. One of those players was Auston Matthews, who was consequently locked into a five-year extension last February, making him the third highest paid player in the league by cap-hit. Certain players weren’t working in their roles, and it was becoming obvious that more changes were needed. And boy, were changes coming. Patrick Marleau became the first casualty when his $6.25 million cap-hit was sent to Carolina alongside a first and seventh round pick for a sixth round pick. Marleau looked fine in his first season with the Leafs but had trouble keeping up with his teammates, scoring only 16 goals in his last campaign, and Dubas had to pay up the prospect piper to get rid of his unappealing contract. However, that ushered in two bombshell trades that were completed by Dubas on July 1st.
The first bombshell was the Maple Leafs shipping Nikita Zaitsev (including the $19 million he was owed) alongside Connor Brown and a minor leaguer to Ottawa for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, a minor leaguer and a 2020 third round pick. Zaitsev had a promising rookie season in 2016-17, playing on the second power-play enroute to 36 points. However, the next two seasons saw him floundering in a top-four role as he failed to re-create his rookie success. Hometown boy Connor Brown was another player with rookie success in 16-17, and even played some time on the top line finishing the year with 20 goals and 36 points. The next two seasons would be more of a struggle for ice time, mostly playing in the Leafs bottom-six, and his offensive production had clearly plateaued on this team. Ceci would be a challenging reclamation project for coach Mike Babcock, giving them a much-needed right-handed D. But the real explosive trade occurred when Nazem Kadri was traded alongside Calle Rosen and a third round pick to Colorado for Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot and a 6th round pick. Kadri had genuinely thrived in his four seasons under Babcock, including multiple 30-goal seasons, but back-to-back suspensions during the first round of the playoffs sealed his fate and hastened his departure. The trade was a massive win for Dubas; Tyson Barrie would give the Leafs their best RHD since Tim Horton (yes, really), and fit the mold of a good-skating, puck-moving team that Dubas envisioned.
Kyle Dubas wasn’t done there yet, though. More low-risk signings followed, including bringing in veteran Jason Spezza for $700K (just $50K more than the minimum salary) to be the team’s fourth line centre. Mitch Marner’s contract negotiations were still ongoing and valuable cap space was needed to keep him on the team for the high salary he was commanding. The Leafs would ship struggling goaltender Garret Sparks to Vegas for a fourth round pick and David Clarkson (!). At first this looked like a joke and didn’t make much sense, but never underestimate the Leafs eagerness for exploiting loopholes in the collective bargaining agreement. And wouldn’t you know it, Assistant GM Brandon Pridham was one of those credited with writing the key rules for the salary cap. The strategy here was that Clarkson’s contract could be put on long-term injured reserve immediately and somehow the Leafs would be able to squeeze out just a bit more cap space. Six-and-a-half weeks later, Marner finally signed a six-year extension worth over $65 million, in no small part thanks to the Clarkson trade. The Leafs forward core was now locked in place.
On the other hand, the Maple Leafs defense core was a much different story. Going into camp, it looked like only one defenseman on the roster was signed beyond the 2019-20 season (Morgan Rielly, $5 million cap hit until 2022). It was expected that Rasmus Sandin would spend the beginning of the season, if not the entire season, developing with the Marlies. But lo and behold, he would prove everyone wrong when he cracked the team lineup on opening night, and if he sticks, his cap hit would be only $894K for the next three seasons. And if he develops into anything close to his ceiling, this will be a massive win for Dubas and the Leafs. After that, things get a little complicated on the blue-line as it looks difficult for the team to hang on to all four of Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott and Cody Ceci, who all expire on July 1st 2020. Prospect Timothy Liljegren would help massage this pain when he eventually gets into the lineup, but it doesn’t look like his ceiling was nearly as high as most pundits projected when drafted two years ago. Much of this will be decided based on how these players perform this season so this may be much ado about nothing.
Goaltending is locked down for the time being, with Freddie Andersen locked-in for 2 years and $10 million remaining on his contract. The organization has a couple of decent prospects cooking in the minors, Joseph Woll and Ian Scott, for the time being. But they won’t be ready for awhile – even so, it’s important to have good players developing at all positions.
That brings us to a summation of the Maple Leafs roster as a whole. Only nine current active players (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Hyman, Kapanen, Rielly, Dermott, Marincin and Andersen) were on the roster when Dubas inherited the GM duties during the spring of 2018. That’s a turnover of over half the roster in just under a year-and-a-half. Dubas’ first pick as GM is finally ready to play and make his mark with the team, and a new era of Maple Leafs hockey is on the horizon. If the Leafs are again unable to find the ultimate prize in the spring, you better believe that more changes are coming.