It’s still in early in the season, but based on the reactions from Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans on Sunday, you’d never know the organization has 76 games to pull their season around and get things back on track. No, after a 7-1 loss at the hands of a very depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team, Leafs Nation is freaking out over a terrible start and a lack of production from some key contributors on this Leafs’ roster.
Mitch Marner has one assist in six games. Auston Matthews has played three since returning from injury and has no points. John Tavares has three points in six but is clearly slowing down. Nick Ritchie hasn’t popped up on the scoresheet yet and Ondrej Kase has one goal and no helpers. The team leader in points is the player most fans often talk about trading and everyone on the roster not named Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Michael Amadio is either even or a minus player.
These six games are being seen as a microcosm of a much larger problem, one that has plagued this franchise for a few seasons now. The window to win is rapidly closing and the prospects for the roster being productive while together are dwindling. The exodus started this past offseason and it will only continue.
Dubas Hasn’t Come as Advertised
Two people are responsible for this and one more than the other. You can’t blame the GM without pointing a finger at the person who hired him, but the GM has been the one pulling the trigger on a series of poor decisions that have clearly caught up to this team.
When Brendan Shanahan hired Kyle Dubas to be his new general manager in July of 2014, the decision was seen as progressive and astute. Dubas was young, he had a strong handle on analytics and he was bringing in a fresh perspective. The thought was he’d crunch the numbers, look at this team in a different way and make changes accordingly.
While much of the number-crunching speculation turned out to be true, one of the first big moves Dubas made was signing John Tavares to a massive contract in free agency. Tavares was a player the Leafs didn’t need, but he wanted to come home to Toronto and Dubas wanted to make a splash. Both the GM and the player got what they wanted.
Immediately the team transitioned into salary cap crisis mode. Giving Tavares $11 million over the course of seven seasons meant the Leafs were inevitably going to run into issues re-signing Nylander, Matthews and Marner. All contracts got done, but all negotiations were a bit contentious with the exception of Matthews who was pretty much going to get whatever he wanted.
Dubas went to work trying to plug holes in goal and on the blue line and while he was successful in some regard, he had to make sacrifices when he came to a number of crossroads. Essentially, Dubas has been lauded for his ability to work the salary cap with his numbers guy Brandon Pridham. The reality is, the two men are being applauded for barely being able to keep the team above water based on their cap restrictions.
Series of Wrong Decisions
Starting with the Tavares signing — Tavares is a great player but he wasn’t a necessity for the Maple Leafs — Dubas fell down a rabbit hole of transactions that haven’t panned out for Toronto. He moved Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie (who left in free agency then led the NHL in points for a defenseman), he traded a number of players to create cap flexibility, he made trades and signed free agents that barely moved the needle, and he lost big names to free agency, simply because he couldn’t afford to keep them.
The latest losses might be among the team’s most painful. Zach Hyman reportedly left the Maple Leafs over a no-trade clause. While there was talk the money was a big issue, Elliotte Friedman has reported that Hyman simply wanted security. Dubas wasn’t in a position to give it to him and the Edmonton Oilers were. Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen left for the Carolina Hurricanes (for a reasonable $4.5 million over two seasons) leaving the Maple Leafs without a proven starter. Jack Campbell might be the real deal, but he’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep as he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Nick Foligno was a disaster of a trade. Joe Thornton didn’t pan out. The grit is essentially all but gone and the future isn’t looking as bright as it should for a GM who was going to find gems in the draft others couldn’t find.
What Has Dubas Left This Team With?
What’s perhaps more concerning than what Dubas has done with the roster is what he can do moving forward. As the prospect of going deep in the playoffs dwindle, some important pieces will likely be moving on.
Few expect Rielly to remain with the club after this season. He’s going to get paid on the open market and the Leafs simply can’t afford him. Meanwhile, even though he seems to love this team, Campbell could dart in free agency if the right offer comes along and Dubas can’t match. There’s always talk Auston Matthews might want to head home to Arizona and the best players on the team are taking all sorts of heat from the fan base as they band together in the face of unscrupulous critcism.
Right or wrong, Dubas has committed to his core four guys: Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. He seems unwilling to trade any of them, even though almost everyone knows that’s the one thing that can help him balance out his roster. His formula for winning hasn’t worked and Dubas seems relentless in his need to beat a dead horse.
What might be the most troubling is that if he makes a move, it will likely be the wrong one. The player with the most tradeable contract is Nylander, yet he leads the team in scoring and might be the most naturally skilled player of the four. Tavares isn’t going anywhere thanks to a full no-move clause and the fans seems to be chasing Marner out of town, which will inevitably bite the Maple Leafs in the a– if and when he’s traded.
As Corey Landberg accurately wrote on Twitter, “Imagine being Kyle Dubas and walking into Matthews, Marner, Nylander entering their prime, Rielly and Kadri on great contracts, a solid goalie, depth all over the roster and then you turn them into this crap 4 years later.”
Fans are losing their minds over the rough start to the 2021-22 season and many are blaming Dubas. What’s crazy is that this downward trend started a while ago. The 7-1 loss to the Penguins only shined a light on something most fans should have been aware of.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”