TORONTO (Feb. 10) — The dawdling and indecision of the Toronto Raptors at the National Basketball Association trade deadline on Thursday oozed with corporate influence. A below–average team, the Raptors are nonetheless still in contention for the preliminary (or play in) round to determine the final two seeds in the Eastern Conference — a mere percentage point (.464 to .463) ahead of the Washington Wizards in the tenth, and final, qualifying spot. It seems clear the club will need to fall back and retool before regaining its posture as a contender.
Yet, rather than selling pieces of the farm for future crops, president and general manager Masai Ujiri kind of froze. He brought back center Jakob Poeltl in a trade with San Antonio to evidently try and stay ahead of Washington and Indiana at the bottom of the Eastern playoff pool; a move devoid of any long–term strategy.
The potential upside, however, is a minimum two lucrative playoff gates at Scotiabank Arena — providing (as per the standings, today) the Raptors can win a qualifying game at Chicago, then another on the road against the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks. Only then, would the actual tournament begin, with Toronto (as the No. 8 seed) hosting Games 3 and 4 against the No. 1 team in the Conference, likely either Boston or Milwaukee. No reasonable observer would accord the Raptors a chance of upending the Celtics or Bucks. Yet, the bank vault at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would swell with the minimum two post–season gates of 20,500 spectators.
What other reason abounds for Ujiri’s near–paralysis at Thursday’s deadline?
MASAI UJIRI TRADED FOR KAWHI LEONARD AND WON THE 2019 NBA TITLE FOR THE RAPTORS.
The company’s hockey wing has no–such concern. The Maple Leafs will again qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs and almost certainly match up against Tampa Bay in the opening round. Still to be determined is the site of the first two games. The focus, therefore, remains on administration of the hockey club — forever an interesting study.
At the moment, the Maple Leafs are run by a lame–duck general manager with no contract beyond the current season. Unlike Ujiri and the Raptors, the Leafs haven’t won a championship since Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were alive. Kyle Dubas continues to dine on on the three draft gems procured before his appointment: William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. None of which has proven capable of lifting the club beyond the first playoff series. As such, the fast–approaching trade deadline in the National Hockey League is masqueraded as a do–or–die moment for the GM, with objectives largely unclear. Given the Leafs have never been remotely impacted by deadline moves, the annual story line is merely a conversation topic. Yet, myopia has gripped the local media and fans; as if Dubas “swinging for the fence” prior to Mar. 3 can compensate for goaltending instability and the eternal lack of an elite defenseman. It could be largely an attempt at self–preservation.
Unless it isn’t.
Which brings us back to the business structure at MLSE. One can barely comprehend the boardroom chaos among the two combating forces that control the company: Bell Canada and Rogers Communications. Imagine, if you will, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky engaging in a corporate alliance. The company “good guy”, Larry Tanenbaum, likely bobs up and down involuntarily after eluding crossfire for the past nine years. Not that Tanenbaum has much left over in his work day as head honcho of the Raptors and chairman of the NBA board of governors. But, he is clearly the middle man and de facto peace–keeper within the tumultuous MLSE architecture.
Smack–dab between these curious bedfellows and the hockey club is Brendan Shanahan, who decidedly cleared the path, in May 2018, for Dubas to become GM by parting ways with Hall–of–Fame executive Lou Lamoriello. And, who apparently chose to keep his hand–picked prodigy without a contract beyond the current NHL season.
Unless he didn’t.
Such is the perplexity of antithetical ownership.
Bell and Rogers would love to annihilate one another. They’ve been in corporate cahoots since 2013 only to prevent the other from engorging on the entire buffet that is the Maple Leafs. The Raptors, by rising to the championship of the NBA in 2019, became an integral component of fiscal strategy, but it’s the hockey club that drives company revenue. No such doubt existed after Rogers blew the bank–roll for Canadian TV rights of the NHL, coughing up $5.2 billion for the 12–year privilege, beginning in 2014. Sportsnet has since controlled the national industry, with TSN (Bell) accepting leftovers on a regional basis. This is big, big business; it forever casts doubt on who is calling the shots, at any given time, on Bay St. And, how it influences management of the Maple Leafs.
To wit: Does Kyle Dubas have carte blanche to mortgage whatever remains of the hockey club’s future for a job–saving deadline acquisition? And, what is the criteria for a contract extension? Has Dubas been told that winning a playoff round for the first time will secure continued employment? Or, has MLSE told Shanahan that under no circumstance can Dubas manipulate the club or its top prospects in a meaningful way until a decision is made on the GM’s destiny? A functional conglomerate would insist on the latter, thereby restricting Dubas to tinkering at the fringe of the roster before Mar. 3. But, who really knows? The only predictability of MLSE is unpredictability.
KYLE DUBAS DISCUSSES TRADE DEADLINE STRATEGY WITH THE TORONTO MEDIA ON THURSDAY.
As a practical matter — and, as previously stated in this blog — the NHL trade deadline is nothing more than a conversation topic. At the moment (according to capfriendly.com), the Leafs have a grand total of $296,666 in projected cap space before the deadline. Or, enough to acquire the right ankle of a current player. Unless the roof comes off Scotiabank Arena and Dubas trades one of Nylander, Marner or Matthews, he cannot pointedly alter the club for the playoffs. And, the GM has shown that he’d rather bungee–jump off the CN Tower without a cord than fiddle with his precious nucleus. So, the blather amid Leafs Nation leading up to Mar. 3 will be just that.
Of far–greater import is the management structure that governs the long–term future of the Maple Leafs. Particularly with Matthews looking at July 1 as the date he can either sign a contract extension or take complete control of his next NHL destination. No–movement clauses come into effect that day for Matthews and Marner, even if the latter has another season remaining on his current pact. Nylander will be up for renewal, as well, in the summer of 2024. Will Kyle Dubas, dangling, at the moment, in purgatory, be administering these next contracts?
Or, another executive, devoid of loyalty to the club’s star performers?
The trade deadline, by comparison, is totally impertinent.