The Hidden Urgency For The Leafs

TORONTO (Feb. 28) — Never in the modern history of the National Hockey League trade deadline has a general manager gone quite as berserk as Kyle Dubas. Time will tell whether his stunning, 24–hour makeover of the blue line can help lift the Maple Leafs into Stanley Cup contention. But, it’s crystal clear this was not the result of a carefully planned, long–term approach. Rather, it screamed of desperation and panic. In my view, for two reasons.

The most obvious, of course: a madcap attempt at preserving employment. Maybe this is what Brendan Shanahan was hoping for when he refused to lengthen the GM’s tenure beyond the current season. As for the criteria, we can only guess. It is that elusive one playoff round? Or, might there be some concealed urgency here… such as Auston Matthews having indicated to management that he will not rush into signing a long–term contract extension when immediately eligible — on July 1, the same day his no–movement clause kicks in? If I were Matthews, granted unrestricted free agency in my mid–20’s, I would most–surely avail myself of the open market next summer. Not to avoid remaining with the club that drafted me first overall in 2016, but to explore the innumerable options that are certain to be presented. Almost never is a player up for grabs merely two seasons after winning the Hart Trophy, and still approaching his biological prime. What could possibly compel No. 34 to forego such a rare opportunity? No matter where he chooses to play, the money and term will be astronomical; likely in the $13–$15 million range over eight seasons. So, why not position himself for the most–appealing circumstance?

I maintain that the Leafs can win without Matthews, simply because there’s no evidence the club can prevail with him when it matters. Not in two or three tries, but half–a–dozen. Problem is, I don’t think Dubas concurs in even the slightest way. I believe the GM is so emotionally and strategically addicted to his forward nucleus that the mere notion of Matthews fleeing after next year has sent him into such a wild flurry of short–term, mostly past–their–prime acquisitions (save for Jake McCabe). All evidence points to Kyle planning for this spring, and nothing beyond — to save his own backside and to win the Stanley Cup while Matthews remains in blue and white.


AUSTON MATTHEWS SCORED TWICE IN A 5–1 LEAFS VICTORY AT SEATTLE ON SUNDAY NIGHT. GETTY IMAGES/NHL

That said, however, I’m sticking to my guns. Though the Maple Leafs, undeniably, are deeper and more experienced on the back end, any number times zero equals zero. The club still does not possess the elite blueliner that is irrefutably essential for a championship. Defense by committee will never match the contending group that is led by a kingpin, Norris Trophy candidate. Or, a club with three very good defenders (Boston: Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Dmitry Orlov) that is stocked with players long proven to elevate performance in the spring (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci). More than 90 percent of Cup winners since 1970 have possessed the franchise component on defense. If you prefer to look more recently — in the past decade — there is Cale Makar (Colorado), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), John Carlson (Washington), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Duncan Keith (Chicago) and Drew Doughty (Los Angeles).

The Penguins of 2017 (with Letang injured) were an aberration, yet beatified by arguably the two best players in the NHL at the time, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Rather exquisite compensation.

Stanley Cup–caliber goaltending is also a must, and this is where the Leafs are a mystery.

It’s easy to suggest that Ilya Samsonov will not match up favorably against Andrei Vasilevskiy, Linus Ullmark or Igor Shesterkin. But, who really knows? Samsonov has, for the most part, performed exceptionally well this season and is a virtually unknown playoff factor, having appeared in only eight games with Washington. True, the Capitals gave up on him, but the New York Rangers once gave up on Gordie Howe and Johnny Bower. If the Leafs do have al wild card, it is Samsonov… just as Montreal prevailed with “unknowns” Ken Dryden (1971) and Patrick Roy (1986); St. Louis (2019) with Jordan Binnington. I’m quite intrigued by Samsonov’s potential.

Otherwise, the Leafs remain reliant on the three forwards they have dined on in the regular season: Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. None of whom has approached Bergeron or Marchand in playoff savvy. If that doesn’t change rather drastically this spring, the crazed remodeling of the blue line by Dubas will lead to nowhere.

And, a new GM will guide the club starting next season.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

10 comments on “The Hidden Urgency For The Leafs

  1. I am not a Dubas fan but I dont understand why it is a crime for Dubas to try to save his job. I would do the same. Cleaning out the draft pick cupboard hurts but if he did basically nothing he would be roasted. And while I agree with Howard re adding Karlsson I can’t imagine the firestorm Dubas would get from the fan base if he had to give up, say Matthews, to get him. Not that I believe for a second SJ would want the Matthews contract albatross.

  2. So many changes so late in the season hardly inspires confidence in whatever ‘process’ guides Dubas’ decision-making. On the bright side, if Matthews heads south, it creates a job opening for a pretty good center from the Toronto area currently toiling in Edmonton. Don’t bet against it.

  3. If Matthews pressured Dubas yesterday, then he better elevate his game for this playoff, if not then they could or should move him in the summer

  4. On paper the Leaf’s are better today. The worry is can they gel in time and did they throw off the comradery in the room or improve it? Only time will tell. That’s a lot of moving parts for the trade deadline, and there biggest achilleas heal come playoff time – their goaltending has not been touched. I hope Joseph Wohl is ready to play, or Matt Murray is ready to make his Kurt Gibson like appearance. Samsonov has been the best goalie but he is also injury prone.

  5. You are right Howard, Dubas knows he is gone with another first round exit and he is trying to save his job. The reality is the Leafs have not won because they have incompetent management. Too bad Shanahan gave the GM job to Dubas instead of Hunter. I think Hunter would have made the right picks and trades to build a winner the way other teams that hit the bottom and eventually win the Cup. Not the Leafs, they had Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Kadri, Hyman, Kapanen, Brown at forward and only Rielly on defense. So instead of defense Dubas gets another forward Tavares and then has no cap room. As a life long Leaf fan it really is painful when it looked so good just a few years ago. I have a Future Watch Hockey News 2018 with a cover picture of Marner, Matthews and Nylandeer saying PLAN THE PARADE. TORONTO WILL WIN THE STANLEY CUP. IT”S ONLY A MATTER OF WHEN. AND HOW MANY.

    Maybe the Leafs will beat Tampa and upset the Bruins. Then the Bruin pick would be #28 but I wouldn’t count on it so the Leafs will have to start a new rebuild but with no picks which they wasted on Muzzin, Foligno, Giodano, O’Rielly. It looks to me like the Sens are where the Leafs were four years ago so and I’ll bet Dorion results will be better than Dubas. We’ll see.

  6. That second point is exactly what I was discussing with someone yesterday. I believe that Matthews has informed them already behind closed doors. Dubas is doing everything possible to keep him here in the big smoke, at least to show him how serious he is in doing so. Employment, well, Dubas should have been gone already, so credibility in the ownership has long sailed in my book. I still think Tampa has them but it is interesting to see how Tampa is wavering right now, including tonight losing to Florida. Either home ice is not as big a deal for them, or they may be getting tired having played so much hockey over the past successful championship seasons and finals therein? April will be interesting, but the Rangers look scary good, Carolina turns it on when needed, and New Jersey has come up this year.

  7. It’s no use to try to explain any of this to Leaf fans. They’ve been gas lit by the local sports media who serve as a propaganda machine for MLSE. Just like in North America where the main stream media serves as a propaganda arm for the liberal government (in Canada, the media are virtually OWNED by the government), every sports fan in the GTA is gas lit to believe that “this is the year” the Leafs win. Any writer or reporter who has dissented from that narrative or gone off script has been axed by the corporate overlords at MALE (Rogers, Bell et al).

    1. Ooooh… sounds extreme but this guy gets it. Howie, only you so far in our glorious and deeply conflicted Toronto media, addresses these issues. So… 1. who hired Shanahan, as a lap dog to the owners, when Burke wouldn’t suck up to them? 2. How much does Shanahan get paid? 3. What city does he actually live in? 4. What has he accomplished apart from setting up Dubas as the fall guy? Dig deeper.

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