With a 19-9-2 record and hanging onto a marginal lead in the North Division, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas says he's looking to improve his team before the NHL trade deadline on Apr. 12.
"I think it's very clear that our team will explore every opportunity to improve," Dubas said in his opening remarks during his mid-season availability with the media.
The Maple Leafs are pressed right up against the $81.5 million salary cap this season. Toronto's situation is similar to many around the league with revenues falling amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Given difficulty of taking on more money, Dubas says the rental market, the act of acquiring a player whose contract expires at the end of the season, makes more sense this season.
"Knowing that (the salary cap) is very likely going to be at $81.5 (million) again, anything what we take from next year's allotment it impacts a number of different things as you can imagine," Dubas said. "It's a rare time where probably a rental is a better fit."
That's not to say that Toronto will not pull the trigger on a traditional hockey trade if there is one to be made.
Another barrier for Dubas when pulling off a deal is the 14-day quarantine period required for entry into Canada. Although there are reports of the league asking the Canadian government to waive the provision, it remains in place until it doesn't.
"We'll continue to abide by the current rules until they tell us they are different," Dubas said. "I'm hopeful, not just for hockey, but for everybody, that we can see some light at the end of the tunnel here."
As far as collateral, Dubas answered with a simple "yes" when asked if he'd move a top prospect to improve his team.
The Leafs general manager confirmed that most of the conversations his team has had have centered around the forward position.
"We had to move out some forwards that were good for us in order to add on the back end and thus we feel like that's an area we want to look at a bit more," Dubas said.
The Leafs placed forward Jimmy Vesey on waivers on Tuesday. Dubas confirmed the move was made for salary cap versatility.
When forward Wayne Simmonds, out with a fractured wrist, is activated to the main roster, the team will have to clear some space for his return.
"We're going to have to be creative, knowing the cap is going to be stagnant," Dubas said.
Vesey carries a $900k cap hit and his full salary could come off the books by being assigned to the team's taxi squad.
With just one win in their last six games, Toronto's goaltending situation has come into focus. Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen has posted an .877 save percentage in his six appearances since returning from a lower-body injury.
"I think if you go back through each season, anytime Fred has found himself in a bit of a rut per se, he's able to pull himself out of it and that's the expectation of what we'll see from him moving ahead," Dubas said.
Backup goaltender Jack Campbell has played in one game in seven weeks due to a nagging leg injury sustained in a game against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 24
"When healthy and everyone is up and rolling, it's a great tandem," Dubas said of his netminder duo. "I have a lot of belief in Fred and Campbell, and Hutch (Michael Hutchinson) when he's in."
The Maple Leafs acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk on Feb. 15 from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for forward Egor Korshkov and defenseman David Warsofsky. Galchenyuk, still in Ottawa after he was traded to Carolina, never travelled to the club and thus was able to join the Leafs quickly instead of undergoing the 14-day quarantine process.
The move was made after the Hurricanes placed the former 30-goal scorer on waivers, allowing the third-overall pick from the 2012 NHL Draft to work to join the taxi squad and Marlies thereafter.
"It was clear that we needed to get to a situation where we could reset Alex and start to build him back up," Dubas said. "We wanted to to stabilize him, get him working with our development staff and then get him rolling into games with the Marlies."
Galchenyuk has two goals and six assists in six games with he Marlies this season.
"In time, he'll get get his opportunity," Dubas added.
After much hype, the Maple Leafs traded defenseman Mikko Lehtonen to the Columbus Blue Jackets last week for prospect goaltender Veini Vehvilainen. Citing other defensemen in the pipeline (Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Calle Rosen), Dubas said working with Lehtonen to move him to a situation where he could fulfill his NHL dream was the catalyst for the move.
Lethonen signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Leafs on May 4. The 27-year-old had three assists in nine games with Toronto.
Pending free agents
Zach Hyman has arguably had his best season to date with the Maple Leafs. His ability to play on any of the team's top three lines and produce offensively has driven up his value.
In the final year of a four-year contract that carries a $2.25 million contract, Hyman will likely command a substantial raise.
"I'm not going to comment on here about any of the pending free agents, restricted or unrestricted, Dubas said. "I just don't think it's productive at this time to do so."
Like Hyman, Andersen is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Like 29 other clubs, the Maple Leafs will lose a player to the NHL Expansion Draft this summer. It's a different situation this time around than in 2017 with the Vegas Gold Knights, as much of Toronto's core (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, etc..) were exempt, given their age.
"We've tried to prepare ourselves as much as possible for the Expansion Draft," Dubas said. Brandon (assistant general manager Brandon Pridham) and I will go through it consistently and try to get a read from Seattle (Kraken), who they may be keying in on and how we can sort of mitigate the damage that's done with that."
The Golden Knights will not participate in the expansion draft on account that they will not receive a cut of the Seattle's $650 million expansion fee.
'All Or Nothing' doesn't necessarily apply to Leafs
The Maple Leafs have cameras following them around this season as part of Amazon's 'All Or Nothing' documentary series. Despite what the name suggests, the expectations aren't as such that Toronto will blow up their team to win it all this season at the expense of the future.
"I know there's a lot of talk about winning a playoff round or bust or winning the Stanley Cup or bust but I think those can be very day-to-day type endeavours," Dubas said. "Especially in this role, it has to be more long term and can't get caught up in how the short-run results impact that."