Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Money Issues, Core Four Challenge & More

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at a report that the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment corporation is having money problems. I’ll share what I believe is Kyle Dubas’ direct challenge to his core of young stars to sacrifice for the team so the Maple Leafs can finally achieve success.

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Finally, I’ll look at how the changes the Maple Leafs organization has made this offseason bear a striking resemblance to changes the Tampa Bay Lightning made just prior to their team’s winning the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Item One: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) Struggling Financially

A report yesterday reminded all hockey fans how much the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt NHL hockey and all NHL teams. Most Maple Leafs hockey fans believe their team is more fortunate financially than other NHL teams because it’s a center of hockey in Canada and has revenue streams that never seem to quit. News yesterday is that these revenue streams might not have quit, but they sure have slowed down.

Andy Frost, MLSE, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, NHL, Hockey, Toronto FC, Toronto Raptors
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is hurting financially (Financial Post)

The pandemic has hurt. The huge Toronto-based entertainment and real estate Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) reported it will reduce salaries for 25 percent of its full-time staff. Then, starting on Jan. 1, it will make salary reductions for its senior staff. MLSE is the corporation that owns the Maple Leafs, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, and the MLS’s Toronto FC. 

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President and CEO Michael Friisdahl was clear about his corporation’s financial emergency: “These past nine months have been the most challenging we have ever experienced, and while we had hoped to see signs of a return to a more normal business operations by now, the effects of the second wave of the pandemic have forced us to brace for further uncertainty.”

Item Two: Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas Seeking On-Ice Player Sacrifices

While MLSE employees are sacrificing wages until business returns to normal in the wake of COVID-19, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is calling on his team to erase normal because it’s time for something completely different. Even before Maple Leafs training camp begins, he’s challenged his team by reminding them that their normal isn’t nearly enough.

Normal is that the Maple Leafs spend a great deal of money on players – paying its Core Four forwards huge money and not getting enough in return. While John Tavares (seven year under contract for a total of $77 million), Mitch Marner (six years on contract for $65.358 million), Auston Matthews (five-year contract worth $58.17 million), and William Nylander (six-year contract worth $41.77 million) fill their bank accounts, the team hasn’t won a playoff series in each of the past four seasons. In fact, the Maple Leafs haven’t got past the first playoff round since 2004.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitch Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Such normal is no longer good enough, and Dubas is challenging his team publicly and loudly. Dubas, for the first time in my memory covering the Maple Leafs, is asking his younger and hopefully maturing players to step up. He seems to clearly point at his Core Four to grow, embrace the opportunity, and carry the team (instead of themselves).

Specifically, Dubas noted, “If that level of competitiveness and grit and toughness is going to permeate through the locker room, it’s going to be through the maturity of the group that’s already there and our core group embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms as all young teams do with young superstars.”

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What Dubas is saying seems pretty clear to me.

As a hockey commentator covering the Maple Leafs, I’m getting a sense Dubas believes the organization has done its part strengthening the team with veterans Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, and T.J. Brodie during the offseason. Now, he’s calling on his team to make this the season for a long Stanley Cup run.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Interestingly, Dubas did say that “Players have to go through this. There’re so many examples from all over sports … Then we’ll really reach our full potential.”

I wonder whether he’s thinking specifically of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their own 2020 Stanley Cup victory. When the Lightning got swept during the 2019 playoffs by the same Columbus Blue Jackets who eliminated the Maple Leafs, the Lightning didn’t change the team’s philosophy. Instead, they held the faith and tweaked the periphery.

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Did the Maple Leafs’ offseason moves mirror the same kinds of changes the Lightning organization made before and during the 2019-20 regular season? Dubas made smart, fan-friendly (if not placating) moves to add grit and “hard-to-play-against” to the team and to fix the defensive problems at the same time. But the organization didn’t really modify the larger plan that’s built on a philosophy of puck possession and overwhelming offensive pressure.

Adding right-side defenseman T.J. Brodie was more than a tweak, and signing Wayne Simmonds adds the sandpaper most believed the Maple Leafs needed. But the Maple Leafs, in moves strikingly similar to what the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning pulled off, didn’t blow everything up.

TJ Brodie Calgary Flames
TJ Brodie, former Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A single season after experiencing the total embarrassment of being swept, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

Can the Maple Leafs find that same success? I’m thinking Dubas believes big things are in store for his Maple Leafs. And he challenging his players to make it happen.

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