Put your pitchforks and torches away. As much as the angry mob wants to burn down the Toronto Maple Leafs, it won’t happen; it can’t happen. When the puck drops on the 2021-22 season, the blue and white will look the same. Kyle Dubas will still be looking on from the general manager’s perch. Sheldon Keefe will be behind the bench. The core four, that equal half of the cap space for the entire team, will be there. Even Phil Kessel, who left in 2015, will still be cashing his $1.2 million paycheque from Toronto.
According to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Well, Toronto will have to prove Einstein wrong. The franchise went all-in on four forwards leading the team to the Stanley Cup or beyond the first round of playoffs. They’ve made their bed. For that reason, the general manager has to stay put. No one could come into the Maple Leafs’ situation and make changes that would provide better results. That is also why Sheldon Keefe is not going anywhere. He is Dubas’ guy. Playoff disappointment aside, Keefe has put together a solid 103 games as the Leafs’ head coach with an impressive .660, 65 wins, 29 losses and seven overtime losses.
Hands Are Tied, Budget is Set
However, insane Einstein thinks Toronto has no choice but to repeat the roster formula repeatedly. This team is the squad for the foreseeable future. Not only next season but until at least 2023-24. That’s how long half of the core four is under contract. Auston Matthews and William Nylander have three more seasons under contract. Both have no-movement clauses in the final year of their deals. The other half of the formula has their contracts run out the following season. John Tavares has a full no-movement clause, while Mitch Marner has a no-movement clause on the final two years of his deal.
The money committed to those players has handcuffed the team. Still, there is no way they could part with the franchise’s first Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner in Matthews. This means you can’t part with his sidekick Marner either. Tavares isn’t going anywhere, leaving Nylander as the odd man out, but it’s tough to gauge interest in moving him. That leaves Toronto putting together the rest of the roster with the $40 million remaining in cap space. They just need two goalies, six defensemen and eight more forwards, and maybe a few extras in case of injury.
Dubas Found a Way Once
As difficult of a task as that sounds, Toronto’s front office gave it a shot. It filled the roster with several short-term deals that cost under $2 million. Dubas grabbed some veterans for league minimums and found a few rebuilding projects along the way. He will have to do it all over again this offseason again. But there are a few more challenges. Twelve players on the active roster (that lost Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens) are unrestricted free agents. Including Zach Hyman, who will require a hefty pay raise from his current $2.25 million. The defence drastically improved, and the top four defencemen are coming back. However, Morgan Rielly has one season left under his current contract. Jack Campbell may have saved the season coming out of nowhere to become a top goalie. But he is entering the final year of his bargain $1.65 million deal.
Some unrestricted free agents who hit the market this summer could help the team get to the elusive second round. Nevertheless, they are nearly impossible to afford, given Toronto’s budget. The Maple Leafs will try to find bargain players who will outperform their pay and players who will give them a hometown discount. But they are all interchangeable pieces to play nothing more than supporting roles to the core four. Luckily, Dubas was the hardest working general manager at the trade deadline because that was just a warm-up for what he is facing now.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.