By Luke Fox, SN
TORONTO – For the other Canadian teams — those arms-loading, playoff-chasing outfits who operate in the parity-party Pacific Division, and those two shrewdly realistic sell-what-we-can lottery clubs to the mecca’s east — 2020’s trade deadline day was about just that.
Not so for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the second straight manic Monday, Kyle Dubas didn’t make a trade. At least, not one that ripples up to the NHL level (all due respect to Nic Petan, Calle Rosen and Matt Lorito).
Toronto’s trade deadline conveniently fell after one of the most shameful hockey games in club history (anyone else catch David Ayres on The Today Show?), which itself was preceded by the Leafs’ most complete game in memory.
So instead of being about trades (or Jake Muzzin’s hard-earned and necessary contract extension), deadline day in Leafland morphed into a state of the union, an assessment of an on-ice crisis that has the city questioning everything from roster construction to character to the iTunes playlist coach Sheldon Keefe likes pumping during practices.
“I’m not gonna come up and bull(expletive) and tell you I have some magical solution,” said Dubas, letting 3 p.m. pass quietly. “It’s interesting. You can go back and look at different teams in different sports, and there are very few that right from the minute they acquire good talent through the draft just suddenly — boom — reach their potential and win championships and play at a consistent level every day.
“We’re clearly not there yet, but we also show signs of what we can be when we get there.”
The general manager did not allow his own impatience with his club’s “Jekyll and Hyde” performance to take hold and cut bait with impending free agent Tyson Barrie, or anyone else who’s underwhelmed in 2019-20 for that matter.
His players’ maddening inconsistency and a tricky (if self-induced) salary-cap puzzle, which gets further complicated by the presumed March returns of defencemen Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, left him handcuffed.
Losses to Zamboni drivers acknowledged, this is still a playoff team — one that feels meek compared to the all-in Bruins and Lightning, but one that should feel unthreatened by the moves of their closest pursuer, the suddenly salary-shedding Florida Panthers.
Dubas believes in his vision, his process, too ardently to subtract.
Yet a rash of “embarrassing” losses (his word, Keefe’s word, your word) and a general preference for future cost certainty took him out of the market for rental defencemen, even as affordable depth options like Dylan DeMelo, Erik Gustafsson, Mike Green and Zach Bogosian got scooped up elsewhere.
As for his white whale, a right-shot defender with term, Dubas will go shopping for that elusive commodity around draft time while hoping his young, under-control defencemen Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin and Travis Demott benefit from the upcoming playoff push.
“In a perfect world, your own guys keep developing and quell all the concerns that you have about the roster,” Dubas said.
The GM is unlikely to re-sign Barrie, who essentially has become a year-long rental.
Beloved by teammates, Barrie has been stressed out by the uncertainty around his future this week. Dubas made a point to call the defenceman after practice Monday before he hopped on the team charter to Tampa and talk it over.
“The reality is, because of the way that things have gone, we started to get some interest in him,” Dubas explained. “It was at least good practice to listen and start to envision what the return would look like from our end.
“We were totally fine with him running it out and continuing to grow as a part of our group.
“We’ll use the remaining time we have together to see if there’s a fit. As you know, with our cap situation it’s never so simple.”
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Absent of a splash and content to stay pat after fluffing the fringes of his lineup weeks in advance — smartly bringing in backup goalie Jack Campbell, plus role-playing wingers Kyle Clifford and Denis Malgin — Dubas’s silence on the phones Monday spoke volumes about how he evaluates his exhilarating/infuriating core today.
Frankly, they’re not good enough. Right now.
“We’ve put ourselves into a position that I don’t think we want to be in, which is battling for our lives,” Dubas said.
“Our group that we have here has to go through this. We have to develop the ability to weather the storm when it comes and to thrive going through. That’s the only way we’re going to be at our best.”
Step back. Look around at the conference’s serious buyers over the past two weeks: Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, Tampa, even Carolina. You see organizations firm in their identity and dressing rooms percolating with leadership and experience.
It’s no coincidence Dubas re-signed Stanley Cup winner Jake Muzzin on Monday for a front-loaded, four-year extension at a fair $5.625 million cap hit.
“Jake’s importance here, [as] a lot of people have seen especially as things haven’t gone well, is immense on the ice and off,” Dubas said. “It is very apparent when he was out of the lineup that we missed him deeply.”
In his brief tenure as chief shot-caller, Dubas has yet to add an NHL-calibre player to his playoff-positioned roster on deadline day.
He’s neither folding nor ready to shove all-in just yet.
You can paint it as patience. Or frame it as paralysation.
Like you, like me, the man in charge isn’t quite sure there is a quick way to fix this thing either.
“Let’s speak bluntly about it,” Dubas said. “There’s a lot of people that are writing the obituary for the team and putting the team into the ground right now — and that’s fine, that’s fair. When you play that way, that’s what you get, especially in a market as passionate as this.
“The group is in a challenging spot. With that, comes the opportunity to do something special and something great.”
Something that, on deadline day, feels like it got postponed for the future.