David Poile has been a GM in the NHL for longer than Kyle Dubas has been alive. Lou Lamoriello started his career with the New Jersey Devils when Dubas was still in diapers. But Dubas, who turns 34 in late-November, is proving to be every bit as canny as his peers when it comes to shaping his hockey club.
And that work is almost done for the off-season of 2019. By signing new acquisitions Alex Kerfoot (four years with a $3.5 million AAV) and Cody Ceci (one year at $4.5 million), Dubas is almost finished an off-season in which he has substantially altered the complexion of his roster and, more importantly, buffered himself against the pressure of an offer sheet for Mitch Marner, the only player he still has to get under contract.
Without Marner in the fold, the Leafs have 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies under contract. Assuming Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott start the season on long-term injury reserve, that leaves them with 12 and seven under contract. With a total cap hit of 77.7 million, the Leafs have about $3.8 million remaining, but when you factor in the fact that they’ll be able to replace Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million, that gives them a little more than $9 million with which to operate.
With some creative thinking, that should be enough to sign Marner, who, after all the speculation probably won’t be receiving an offer sheet this off-season. If he was going to get one, the time to do it would have been early in the process and we’re already four days into free agency and most teams have done the bulk of their work for the summer. Actually, $9 million might be more than enough, thanks to the futile work of Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. On the first day of free agency, Bergevin tendered five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet to Sebastien Aho, one the Carolina Hurricanes have promised to match. Not only did the gambit ultimately fall flat, really flat, Bergevin helped establish a point of negotiation for Marner. Aho was statistically comparable to Marner last season and is one year younger and will be making $8.45 million for each of the next five seasons. There was probably nobody happier in the hockey world to hear of the Aho offer sheet than Dubas.
So it’s pretty clear now that one way or another, the Leafs will likely get Marner under contract. So are they a better team than the one that skated off the ice after a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs? Almost certainly. They’ve shored up their left-right disparity on defense, which should keep coach Mike Babcock happy and they managed to keep their core together and ensure they’ll be at least in the conversation as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.
Are they actually good enough to win it? Well, that’s the question. One very real concern remains with this team, particularly in its decision to trade away Nazem Kadri. He was a luxury they could not afford in terms of giving them offense, they have more than enough of that already, but he was one of the few players the Leafs had who would go into the trenches when the opponent dragged them there. Then again, he wasn’t available for his team when it needed him most because he was suspended, but his presence will be missed.
You could actually argue the Leafs were the more physical team in the first round against Boston. There are a lot of optimists out there who believe that if the Leafs had managed to get past the Bruins, they could very well have found themselves in the Stanley Cup final. That’s a stretch. As the playoffs progressed, “big-boy hockey” became more of a factor and the Leafs didn’t, and probably still don’t, do that particularly well.
But give Dubas credit. He refuses to believe that teams are successful by being copycats. And he’s right. If you chase trends instead of establishing them, you’re constantly behind the curve and by the time you reach it, the league may very well have shifted. Dubas is doubling down on his notion that speed and skill can ultimately win in this league and he’s prepared to build his roster to reflect that. We’ll see if he’s right, next June and in a couple more Junes to come.
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