As the Toronto Maple Leafs opened up their training camp for the 2022-23 season, the biggest takeaway from opening day is that general manager Kyle Dubas is on the hot seat as this is a do or die season. If this season doesn’t go as planned, he won’t be extended for a new contract.
Dubas has made some great moves in the past, but others have come into question. As fans grow disgruntled with his work, this might be his last chance to make things right.
Stanley Cup contenders are constantly finding ways to be make deals and give up pieces that could lead to their success. The Maple Leafs have been in that boat for the last few seasons and continue to have nothing to show for. The Tampa Bay Lightning with their back-to-back titles and more recently the Colorado Avalanche are the teams to model making transactions and big-time moves to win now.
Dubas is going to have to make some big moves to throw their name into the fold. If Dubas wants to win the Stanley Cup, he’s going to have to make smart, tough and calculated moves to go all in to win it all.
Maple Leafs Shouldn’t Balk at Trading Prospects
Season and after season of first-round loses in the playoffs, the Maple Leafs coaching staff and management have still maintained faith in their current group. And why not? You have an elite level playmaker in Mitch Marner, a solid puck moving defenseman in Morgan Rielly and the reigning goal-scoring champion and league MVP in Auston Matthews.
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While it’s great to hope that your stars can get it done, sometimes that’s not enough. There still remains a hole on the second line LW, which will provide great competition for this season. But what if those options don’t work out? What if Jake Muzzin deals with injuries like he did last season? Would the depth they added be enough to replace his impact as a two-way, physical defender? He missed the start of camp due to back discomfort, though it does appear to be minor.
We can’t predict the future and injuries happen no matter what. Which is why when the Maple Leafs have an opportunity to bring in a player that can be an impact piece for the playoffs, they shouldn’t be afraid to start trading away some top prospects. While they’ve moved picks in the past, prospects remain key pieces in order to bring a strong return. Back in 2021, Dubas mentioned that he wouldn’t be afraid to trade prospects in order to win.
Since then, no prospect has been moved as the Maple Leafs’ prospect pool remains with their top names. At that time, Dubas mentioned that Rasmus Sandin is untouchable. Now with more games under his belt and no contract in sight, maybe the time to trade a key young player might be now. As Jakob Chychrun remains in play, the Maple Leafs shouldn’t be afraid to move a prospect or two for his services to bolster their defense. They shouldn’t be afraid to move Nick Robertson or Topi Niemela in order to bring in a top-six forward.
While you shouldn’t trade away a pick or prospect for the sake of it, you need to be smart about it and the Maple Leafs would be just fine if they need to make that decision. They shouldn’t have to pay a high price for a player like the Florida Panthers did with Ben Chiarot– which provided little value for them.
A better example would be the Arturri Lehkonen deal that the Avalanche made and it benefited them on their road to winning the Stanley Cup. They traded a top prospect in Justin Barron along with a second-round pick. In the playoffs, Lehkonen finished with 14 points in 20 games. His underlying numbers were great as he had a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 56.83 and a scoring chances for percentage of 59.93. Lehkonen was a major factor for them and the Avalanche didn’t second guess with that move as he earned a contract extension.
If the Maple Leafs were to land the right player at the right price, they shouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity. With their failures in the playoffs, taking a calculated risk could be what they need. Then again, we all saw how the Nick Foligno and Tyson Barrie deals– which we’re good moves at the time– played out. While they made one in goal with Matt Murray, they can look to be more formidable if they brought another key positional player.
Increased Salary Cap, Move Pieces Out
The salary cap remains a glaring issue for the Maple Leafs to make moves, but they’ve manoeuvred and worked their way around it. Whether it was getting salary retention or moving contracts out, they’ve shown that even the impossible can be done with assistant general manager Brandon Pridham working the books. With his ability to analyze and evaluate their situation, they remain in good hands.
There’s also the fact that the salary cap could be increasing over the foreseeable future. Which would be extremely beneficial to the Maple Leafs as they would have more room to make deals and potentially keep their top names in Matthews and Marner in the fold.
There’s also the injury situation that could play into their hands, now that Timothy Liljegren and Pierre Engvall on the shelf to start the season. Liljegren is expected to be out for six weeks and Engvall will be re-evaluated on Oct. 3, according to David Alter. While they will be back in a few months and they have internal options for the short term, getting that added flexibility is going to work in their favour for future moves. It did last season with Muzzin on the LTIR and they brought in Mark Giordano.
Then there’s also the talk of moving on from players like Justin Holl, Alex Kerfoot and even Muzzin given his health. If the Maple Leafs are able to move on from those contracts– a combined $11.125 million– you could move those contracts out to create space and even use your own prospect depth to try and bring more key contributors.
To get this to work is all easier said than done. There’s going to be a lot of movement and strategic planning for everything to fall into place. They’ve made things work in the past, they have the chance to do so now.
Money Ball Strategy
There’s also the possibility of using the Money Ball playbook. Find and replace current talent with the same level at affordable prices is something that has paid off with the signings of Michael Bunting and David Kampf. If the Maple Leafs are able to do that in the free agent market, they might be able to do the same through the trade route.
Finding underrated talent, like Lehkonen, could prove to be extremely valuable for success down the line. That one player you acquire could be the difference maker between raising the Cup or going home early. Sometimes you do need to change things up as those deadline deals could be critical.
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While some moves the Maple Leafs have made in the past haven’t panned out, that shouldn’t deter them from taking a cautious approach to make deals in trying to win. They shouldn’t be afraid of trading top assets in their system for a championship. After all, it’ll all be worth it in the end.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.