It seems I kicked a bees’ nest when I opened the discussion about Sheldon Keefe’s job security should the Toronto Maple Leafs lose in the play-in series. While the article was meant to address the outside possibility, it also pointed out, as did people who commented on it, that as long as general manager Kyle Dubas is there, Keefe will be too. How much longer will Toronto give Dubas if the worst-case scenario plays out, though, and the Columbus Blue Jackets win the best-of-five qualifying-round series?
Dubas is the 17th general manager in Maple Leafs history. He started with a splash by signing the biggest fish in the free-agent market: John Tavares. That was a surprise as he had already publicly stated he was going to sign Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. In 15 months, Dubas indeed had all four of them under contract, spending $240 million and committing nearly half of the Leafs’ cap space on four players. This kind of spending earned Dubas the Most Generous GM honours through a poll of agents. The spending also earned the Leafs an inability to keep a lot of good players and diminished the possibility to add more.
What Has Dubas Done?
Comparing the 2017-18 roster that Dubas inherited to the 2019-20 roster, you will notice there are considerably fewer players. 10 fewer, actually. That is a lot of players to be missing when you are playing an 82-game schedule and planning for an additional four rounds of playoff hockey. The Leafs could not afford a reliable back-up goalie until striking a deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
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However, this year, the team does not have to play 82 games. The modified 24-team playoff schedule may have played right into their hands as they don’t have to rely on as much depth down the stretch. Toronto was a fairly beat-up team when the season was paused in March, and their record showed it.
Dubas had to let some players go that simply were no longer affordable in the Leafs cap situation. The team waved good-bye to players like James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Patrick Marleau, and the list goes on. Outside of his fab four, Dubas has brought in a couple of Stanley Cup-winning Kings in Jake Muzzin and Kyle Clifford. He also got a reliable back-up goalie in Jack Campbell. He sent Leafs’ agitator, Nazem Kadri, to the Colorado Avalanche for Tyson Barrie and traded for Cody Ceci.
Like the moves or not, he has been an active general manager. But, the record shows the Maple Leafs are winning less, scoring less and giving up more goals since Dubas became the general manager. For him to survive another season or two, and more importantly for Toronto to win, Dubas will have to shed the Most Generous GM distinction.
Major Decisions Soon
Let’s start with the glaring concern: the net. I bet you thought I was going with the defence – we will get there. However, Fredrik Anderson’s contract is up at the end of the 2020-21 season. This could be a defining moment for Dubas. What do you do with a 31-year-old All-Star goalie whose contract is up? Not just any goalie, Freddie has been the workhorse for this team, he is best friends with the Matthews, and the fan base loves him. Does Dubas try to extend his contract, trade him, or let the contract run out and try to re-sign him?
Now to the backend. Toronto is unlikely to be able to afford the two defensemen who will soon be unrestricted free agents, Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie. Travis Dermott is a restricted free agent. The Leafs have Muzzin for four more years and Morgan Rielly for two. They will need to have Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren develop into a top-pairing soon. Justin Holl signed for three more seasons. Clearly, Dubas has some work to do on the blueline.
Up front is where the Leafs are solid, but that stock will have to be depleted to address other roster concerns. Clifford is a UFA. There’s a good chance he will get re-signed as Dubas was his agent a few years ago. Will Jason Spezza take another league-minimum deal to help Toronto? He is due to be a UFA, too. Fredrik Gauthier, Denis Malgin and Ilya Mikheyev will soon be restricted free agents.
Like many other teams, the Leafs were relying on the salary cap to go up next season. That is highly unlikely, given the COVID-19 situation. On a positive note, Nathan Horton and David Clarkson are off the books, and so is Robin Lehner (long story).
If Dubas is as good as Brenden Shanahan and the rest of the Leafs brass think he is, he will have plenty of opportunities to prove it. The players could make it easier for the Dubas/Keefe tandem and not only win the play-in series, but also a playoff series (or two, or three, or four). However, if the worst-case scenario does happen, it may be an easier decision for the front office.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.