About a month ago, THW’s Brian Joyce wrote a fantastic article about this off-season being Kyle Dubas’ first real test as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager.
After getting through two major contract negotiations, one including William Nylander, Dubas has hit another contract impasse with Mitch Marner and his camp. The debacle is still being sorted out, in hopes that an agreement will be reached. Aside from that, Dubas had a long to-do list that looked like it might take all summer. However, it only took him a week to exceed expectations by retooling a team that should take a major step forward in the 2019-20 season.
Shedding the Contracts
Dubas has been extremely busy since the second day of the NHL Entry Draft and there was no doubt that he went into the draft with a purpose.
He didn’t hesitate to adjust his roster, trading veteran Patrick Marleau to the Carolina Hurricanes along with a first-round pick. While giving up the pick seems like over-payment, it was necessary to avoid retaining any of Marleau’s salary, given the team’s cap issues to sign Marner.
With Marner still without a contract, Dubas shifted his focus to this other RFAs, giving Kaperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson new team-friendly deals. The terms were in place at the draft and the two officially signed on June 28t.
Essentially, Dubas ended up replacing the salary that Marleau had and split it up between Kapanen and Johnsson. Marleau wasn’t earning his cap hit and Dubas was able to reallocate his contract elsewhere. The 39-year-old earned $6.25 million, recording 37 points. That is not a good representation. Meanwhile, Johnsson and Kapanen have the potential to be 50-point players with a combined cap hit of $6.6 million.
Just before the free-agent period opened up, Dubas continued to shed salaries. He moved Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown ($4.5 and $2.1 million, respectively) and Michael Carcone to the Ottawa Senators for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk and a 2020 third-round pick.
Ceci gives the Leafs a right-shot defenseman and will be used prominently on a potential third or second pairing. He recently signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Even though they got the same player at the same price, Ceci is an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the year, which will allow him to explore his options if he commands more money. While it’s not ideal, it will all work out in the Leafs’ favour in the end. They still managed to create cap space this year and in the future.
His defense is still a question mark and there’s also the possibility that he could be moved for another defenseman. But maybe a change of scenery and a different role could help him turn the page.
Dubas’ Free Agent Frenzy
Dubas previously stated that the Maple Leafs would not be in the market for a major free-agent addition. And he was right. The Leafs tightened up their depth by signing Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Kevin Gravel and Kenny Agostino to league-minimum contracts.
THW’s Chris Faria wrote a detailed article on why the Leafs should sign Spezza, citing his shot, possession numbers and impact on the power play as key assets. There’s no doubt that he would benefit the team in the bottom half of the lineup. His experience in the face-off circle is an added strength. Spezza took just over 800 face-offs in 2018-19 and had a winning percentage of 58.2%, which was tops in the league. His even-strength percentage was just as high at 58.1%.
Spezza will also bring veteran leadership. Spezza told Adam Proteau of NHL.com, “Once I talked with (GM) Kyle (Dubas) and with (Leafs head coach Mike Babcock), I felt this was a good chance to work out, and I could be a good complementary piece to this team and hopefully get us to a point we can get over the edge and win a Cup, so it made sense on a lot of different levels for me.”
While the Maple Leafs managed to get depth down the middle, signing players to cheap contracts gave them the flexibility to make other moves. And that’s exactly what Dubas did.
The Deal that Shook Leafs Nation
As the first day of free agency was coming to an end, Dubas shocked Leafs Nation with his biggest move of the day. Long time Maple Leaf Nazem Kadri, defenseman Calle Rosen and a third-round pick in 2020 was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for right-handed defenseman Tyson Barrie, forward Alex Kerfoot and a sixth-round pick in 2020.
No one expected this move to happen. With all the signings that Dubas made earlier in the day, it seemed that he was retooling his fourth line. Then it became clear that those signings ultimately spelled the end of Kadri’s time with the Maple Leafs.
Barrie was an excellent puck-moving defenseman for the Avalanche. He finished seventh in scoring among defenseman in the league (59) and assists (45) last season. His possession numbers are strong as well. With a minimum of 500 minutes played, Barrie was third in Corsi For % (52.56) on the Avalanche and second in scoring chances with 636 behind only Nathan MacKinnon.
Barrie gives the Maple Leafs what they have been desperately searching for, a top-four (potentially top-two) right-shot defenseman. While losing Kadri is difficult considering his scoring touch and agitator style, the Leafs had an asset at their disposal they could use to address a weak point in the roster. Kadri’s contract is cheap and affordable for a third liner ($4.5 million over three more years) who can give you 20-30 goals a season. Barrie rounds up to solidify the top-four with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Ceci.
Kerfoot will most likely replace Kadri on the third line, while possibly playing on the wing at certain points. He has good possession numbers despite being a versatile defensive-minded forward (50.95 CF%). He has all the qualities that the Leafs value in a player. He doesn’t have the same edge as Kadri, but the ability to play hard every shift is there.
“The thing we like about him the most is just his competitiveness, his speed, his ability to transport the puck up the ice,” Dubas said of Kerfoot in a TSN article by Kristen Shilton. “We’re excited to get him. He’s a younger guy than Naz, so we’re hoping he’ll be a part of it here for a long time.”
It took Dubas just over a week to address the main areas of improvement for his team’s roster: He was able to shed two massive contracts without retaining any salary; he signed two key restricted free-agents to two team-friendly deals despite them not hitting their peaks; and he was able to trade a potential top-two centre for a top-four right-handed defenseman in Barrie, and an extremely versatile third-line centre in Kerfoot.
Lost in all this is the amount of cap space Dubas saved. In order to not retain salary in any of his deals, he had to sweeten the deals to benefit his team. He even managed to have the Avalanche retain 50 per cent of Barrie’s contract.
While his top priority (Mitch Marner) is still a work in progress, he now has the cap space and flexibility that many thought was impossible to get without retaining salary to continue to build the roster his way. With the increased cap room, talks between Marner and the Maple Leafs will continue, which is great news.