In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll share information about what the team’s senior director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser said about prospect Nick Robertson. I’ll then report general manager Kyle Dubas’ thoughts about the team’s relationship with the Core Four. Finally, I’ll speculate what might happen if the team can’t get over the playoff hump during the 2021-22 season.
Item One: Nick Robertson Seen as Special by Maple Leafs’ Leadership
After the first day of the Maple Leafs’ player development camp, the team’s senior director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser was laudatory about Nick Robertson’s skill set and work ethic. Robertson was part of a group of 39 organizational prospects who were working to improve their games at the Maple Leafs’ development camp.
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Wickenheiser noted that Robertson was “special in the sense of his intensity and the willingness to want to be perfect and great in every aspect of his life…one of the secrets for him I think is to dial it back at times.”
Wickenheiser continued: “He has a full package of skill. For Nick, the next step is going to be being able to implement it in pressure situations and play within the game…I talked a lot with him about letting the game come to you [and] don’t force it.”
Although Robertson might be seen as the organization’s best prospect, he will likely still begin the 2021-22 regular season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. It depends upon how the offseason roster moves the Maple Leafs made pan out. However these moves work out, he’s likely to play his fair share with the big team during the season. Just when that might be is the question.
Item Two: Kyle Dubas Has Lost Any “Sentiment” about the Core Four
An interesting article by the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran reported that Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas considered breaking up his core four during the off-season but couldn’t find a trade that would make the team better. Dubas’ interview was part of a recent episode of “The Bob McCown Podcast.” (from “Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas admits he considered breaking up his core in the off-season,” Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 09/09/21).
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One thing I found interesting about the interview is that Dubas said he believed the time for any “sentiment” was over and that he had considered, although briefly, trading one of his core players over the summer. However, he couldn’t find the right deal.
Specifically, Dubas noted: “The time for sentiment has come and gone as the years have gone past, where we haven’t broken through to what many deem is our potential.”
A second thing I found interesting (although I suppose not surprising) was that there were obviously offers. As Dubas reported, “None of those opportunities that came along in the summer were going to tangibly improve our team. They could have and would have made us different, but they wouldn’t have necessarily made us better.”
Dubas also spoke specifically about the fan’s perceptions that he’s both stubborn and “in love with” this group of players. He noted, “We looked at everything. I know that there is a feeling that the core group is protected, and we have a strong belief in them. But I think we would look at anything that would improve our team overall, regardless.”
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Finally, Dubas spoke about the playoff loss. Obviously, on the negative side he knows it’s a postseason the team can never get back. On the positive side, Dubas was philosophical about the lessons the group might have (should have) learned.
In conclusion, Dubas noted: “I’m excited for (the players) to pick themselves back up and get back at it in a few weeks and get into the season. And if things come up along the way that can improve our team, that’s the job. And we’ll be aggressive in trying to do that.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Considering what Dubas said during his interview, perhaps it’s good that there seem to be fewer expectations this season than last. Many fans seem to have concluded already – before the season begins – that John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander can’t carry the team to the next step. Although Tavares escaped the wrath of the fans because he was injured in Game 1 of the playoffs, the other Core Four players certainly felt the weight of disappointment from Maple Leafs’ fans after the team lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first playoff round.
One has to believe that, if the group cannot take a next step this season, that Dubas will find a deal to make that moves one of these players away from the team. I’ve started to believe the player most likely to move is Matthews.
Matthews would likely fetch the most in return, especially if a perfect storm of Arizona Coyotes’ failure results in a draft-lottery win and other first-round picks emerge and the Coyotes come to envision Matthews as the potential saviour of hockey in the desert.
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If that happens, and it probably seems far-fetched to Maple Leafs’ fans that a franchise would trade away by far its best player, who would have thought we’d ever be talking about trading Matthews. He’s probably the best player in the NHL not named Connor McDavid.
Fortunately, all these thoughts could be avoided if the Maple Leafs’ go far during the playoffs. Unfortunately, most fans believe that’s unlikely to happen.