By Jonas Siegel Apr 30, 2020
A day after he made the first coaching change of his NHL managerial career, Kyle Dubas appeared on TSN’s Overdrive and detailed why he believed the Leafs could “exert ourselves a different way.”
“And in the end, and I think rightfully so, the fans and the media will be able to judge whether we were right or wrong,” Dubas said a day after firing Mike Babcock and replacing him with Sheldon Keefe. “But if we hide from it and we never put ourselves out there, and we change on the fly to acquiesce to what convention (is) or what people want, we’ll never find out if it can be truly successful or not. And I have full belief that it will be. I’m willing to bet, I guess, my job and my career on it, and time will be the judge of whether we’re right or wrong.”
Whether the 2019-20 NHL season resumes or not will go a long way toward determining whether one of the earliest conceptions of that vision is a success.
Should hockey return and the Leafs go out again in Round 1, or perhaps even miss the playoffs in some as-yet-undetermined format, Dubas’ vision will take a hit.
An evaluation of Dubas’ second season running the club is only lacking a conclusion, one that may or may not come with more games, but will carry an asterisk regardless given how dramatically the ground underneath the world — and the league — has shifted.
But we’ve got plenty to assess over a trying previous 12 months for Dubas.
May 6, 2019: Confirms Mike Babcock will return for 2019-20 season
Did this set the stage in some ways for what was to come in November? Was there a better way to handle questions about Babcock’s future?
To recap, two days after the Leafs lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins, Dubas was vague when asked whether Babcock would be back behind the Leafs bench.
“The way that I look at that is that Shanny has to decide on me first and do an evaluation of me, which I think any organization would be best to do. And then once that’s done we evaluate everybody,” Dubas said.
In other words: How could he say Babcock would return without going through a thorough review of his own performance, first?
Unfortunately, that approach, while perhaps honest, undermined Babcock’s position, as did leaving the question of his return unanswered for another 11 days. It took until May 6 for Dubas to inform TSN’s Bob McKenzie that the Leafs were “all in” on Babcock.
Was it preferable, regardless, to put a stubborn coach on notice? To let Babcock — and everyone else — know that more of the same wouldn’t be OK?
Or, knowing what we know now, would the Leafs have been better served parting ways with Babcock last summer? Why keep a coach you didn’t hire if you’re not totally certain he’s the right man for the job?
Did Dubas have enough justification to fire him at that point? The Leafs had registered back-to-back 100-point seasons for the first time in franchise history. Their young core was making strides, and Babcock, who started from the bottom with the Leafs back in 2015-16, had been at the forefront of it all.
The Leafs had also lost in the first round in three straight seasons (albeit each time as underdogs). Babcock could be reluctant to change, and it was evident that he and Dubas saw many things differently.
Given how disruptive it was to eventually swap coaches mid-season, it’s hard not to conclude that this could have been handled better — either by parting ways immediately with Babcock last summer or by zapping questions about his security long before May 6.
May 6, 2019: Signs Ilya Mikheyev to one-year, $925,000 contract
Signed on the very day of the Babcock declaration, Mikheyev proved to be a shrewd find for Dubas’ — a product of capable player procurement outside the draft.
June 21-22, 2019: NHL Draft
Evaluating draft performance less than a year after is probably unwise.
But there are signs that the Leafs, even without a first-round pick, may have found a future impact player in Nick Robertson. The Leafs took the American forward in the second round (53rd overall). If the draft were held again today, is Robertson — a 55-goal scorer this past season with Peterborough in the OHL — a sure-fire first-rounder?
In Round 4, the Leafs selected Mikhail Abramov (115th overall pick). Scott Wheeler has more here on how the centre redefined his game in 2019-20.
June 22, 2019: Trades Patrick Marleau to Carolina Hurricanes
Dubas had no choice but to get out from under a deal not of his own making. The cost — a first-round pick in 2020 — was steep, but the Leafs couldn’t carry Marleau’s large $6.25 million cap hit on the books for another year, not with the new contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner set to kick in, and not with Marleau, entering his age-40 season, looking like a fourth-liner.
June 28, 2019: Re-signs forwards Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen
In 2019-20, neither Johnsson nor Kapanen have made the leap the Leafs were probably hoping for.
Still, the contracts the Toronto front office awarded them still look fine today: three more years for Johnsson at $3.4 million cap hit; two more years for Kapanen at a $3.2 million cap hit, and crucially, team control as an RFA upon expiration.
The Leafs could deal either player with ease tomorrow, particularly Kapanen, who turns 24 in July and still has the sheen of upside.
The contracts speak to Dubas’ ever-present eye on the future. Could the Leafs have squeezed both into shorter deals? Certainly. Particularly, Johnsson, who had one season’s worth of NHL experience. But if those contracts had been only for one year would the Leafs have further leverage to squeeze again this summer. That wouldn’t hurt at a time like this.
But in locking both of them up long-term, albeit with a higher price-tag, has provided the organization with some certainty and depth upfront alongside The Big 4. Just as importantly, Johnsson and Kapanen provide extra value and flexibility as potential trade chips thanks to the term on their deals.
June 29, 2019: Re-signs Michael Hutchinson to one-year, $700,000 deal
It was only $700,000, and the Leafs front office would later add Michal Neuvirth on a professional tryout as extra security. But betting on one of Hutchinson or Neuvirth as backup material seemed risky even at the time.
The worst-case scenario ultimately played out: Neuvirth got hurt at camp, Hutchinson failed to stop the puck consistently, which all led, finally, to a mid-season trade for Jack Campbell.
Not securing the backup position earlier may still cost the Leafs a playoff spot should the season resume. Hutchinson’s stumbles cost them that many points.
The Leafs were in a difficult position when they brought Hutchinson back in late June, what with the Marner negotiations still worryingly unfinished. Could they have spent a few extra shekels on someone better? Curtis McElhinney, notably, got a two-year deal from Tampa with a $1.3 million cap hit.
Was there a trade route he could have pursued?
July 1: Trades Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown to Ottawa Senators
Nevermind Marleau, imagine if the Dubas hadn’t found a taker for Zaitsev, whose contract runs until the summer of 2024? Where the Leafs’ salary cap picture be today with Zaitsev’s $4.5 million contract still on the books?
In trouble, that’s where.
Freeing themselves from the strain of another Lou Lamoriello-signing was a huge win. Not retaining even a dollar was the masterstroke, though it did cost the team a useful winger in Connor Brown. The Leafs also acquired Cody Ceci in the trade as a means of replacing (or trying to anyway) Zaitsev’s minutes on the right side.
Again: one eye on today, one on tomorrow.
July 1, 2019: Acquires Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot from Colorado Avalance
To this point, this trade — which sent Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen to Colorado — hasn’t worked out for Toronto.
Barrie wasn’t the stabilizing force the Leafs needed on their right side, and Kerfoot, though a helpful, versatile forward, hasn’t yet been the replacement third-line centre for Kadri the team hoped he would be.
It begs the question: Would the Leafs have been better off simply holding onto Kadri for another year, and giving arguably the best 1-2-3 punch down the middle in hockey more than a single season together? Maybe. Though without Barrie, and with Justin Holl not yet a legitimate NHLer, who would have been playing the right side besides Ceci? The Dubas front office could have perhaps strayed into the free-agent waters, potentially re-signing Ron Hainsey.
Other right-side options last summer such as Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman would have been costly reaches.
Dubas could have also moved another forward instead of Kadri. Does Kapanen, though younger and still intriguing, net the Leafs something better?
Kadri had just been suspended for the second time in as many playoff series and was hinting at decline with age 30 around the corner. He was also, more crucially for value purposes, a centre on a bargain contract (three more seasons, $4.5 million cap hit).
There were real reasons to deal him in the right trade. And this swap had the potential to be that.
Not only is Kerfoot almost four years younger than Kadri, but the Leafs quickly got him under contract for an extra year at a million less on the cap (four years at $3.5 million per). There’s value to be had there if he pops in Toronto as a capable two-way centre.
(One thing you can say for certain about the Leafs under Dubas: They don’t possess any inherently bad long-term contracts.)
Barrie also came at half-price ($2.75 million), which was a bargain for someone coming off a 59-point season.
But the 28-year-old was also signed for only the one year, meaning for the trade to work optimally, Barrie had to be the answer this season. He could still spice things up in those as-yet undetermined playoffs, but through 70 games, his fit has been imperfect. He’s proven unreliable defensively.
Underlying numbers may point to decline from Kadri (though he was still producing at an 82-game pace of 31 goals and 58 points), but it’s hard to think the Leafs wouldn’t be better off with him this season and even the one after that. It’s a moot point if Barrie solidifies the defence, and Kerfoot blossoms (which might still happen), but for now, this Canada Day blockbuster hasn’t achieved its purpose.
July 1, 2019: Signs Jason Spezza to one-year, $700,000 contract
A home run.
Luring Spezza to chase a Cup and mentor a young team for minimum money has worked out as well as it possibly could. Spezza has probably provided an even bigger boost on the ice than the Leafs could have anticipated.
It does seem worth wondering how the Spezza experience would have played out had Babcock remained the coach. (Not as well, certainly.)
July 23, 2019: Trades Garret Sparks to Vegas
After the way things went down at the end of the 2018-19 season, with Sparks banished for the playoffs, it would have been awkward to have the one-time AHL goalie of the year return for another go.
Sparks just never proved he could capably back up Frederik Andersen.
This trade, which brought back David Clarkson’s contract (LTI!) home to Toronto, was also about creating extra cap room with the final number on Mitch Marner’s new contract still undetermined.
Summer 2019: Signs depth free agents
In late July, the Leafs secured some depth with most of it destined for the Marlies.
Nick Shore cracked Babcock’s opening night lineup, but he was eventually placed on waivers and claimed by Winnipeg. Pontus Aberg got a cup of coffee with the big club, but didn’t appear worthy of much more. Same with Kevin Gravel. Kenny Agostino came in on a two-year deal and ultimately led the Marlies in scoring (49 points in 53), but, oddly, garnered no call-up.
No real hits here.
Sept. 13, 2019: Signs Mitch Marner to six-year, $65 million extension
Man, what a summer of 2019 it was for Dubas! Only now are we getting to Marner.
You can imagine what the Leafs GM was feeling when training camp opened last fall, and for the second time in as many years, one of his team’s young stars was nowhere to be found. It was right about then that Dubas and Marner talked and finally found a resolution. The result: A six-year pact with a $10.893 million cap hit.
Marner arrived in St. John’s on the second day of on-ice workouts, and said it was imperative that he doesn’t miss any games.
Knowing that, could the Leafs have pushed for a cap hit that was closer to $10 million instead of $11? Sure. Though the risks of that strategy were laid bare a year earlier when William Nylander sat and waited — for months — until he got the contract he wanted. Would Marner, the hometown kid, have been as committed to the cause? Maybe not.
But if you’re Dubas, are you willing to take that chance again?
The Leafs have Marner locked up through ages 22-27. For his entire prime, in other words. He’ll become a UFA in 2025.
Referring to the Nylander talks, Dubas said he, “screwed some things up and made some mistakes and tried to learn from them.”
“I mean, I wish everything was done with all them” — Nylander, Matthews, Marner — “in one day,” he said of those mistakes.
In the first year of his deal, Marner showed that while he may not come in under value, he probably won’t be overpaid all that much either. He was on a 93-point pace for 82 games.
Salary cap-related issues stemming from the pandemic will burn the Leafs, though. When Marner signed, his cap hit was worth 13.4 percent of the cap — and will likely remain around there for the foreseeable future.
Alex Ovechkin 19.0
Connor McDavid 16.7
Patrick Kane 15.2
Jonathan Toews 15.2
Evgeni Malkin 14.8
Auston Matthews 14.6
Sidney Crosby 14.5
Artemi Panarin 14.3
Anze Kopitar 14.0
John Tavares 13.8
Mitch Marner 13.4
Jack Eichel 13.3
Jamie Benn 13.0
Claude Giroux 12.9
Ryan Getzlaf 12.8
That number would have gone down as the cap theoretically rose. But now that the cap is likely to stall, perhaps for a couple of seasons, the Leafs won’t get the value they anticipated.
Sidney Crosby’s $8.7 million cap hit, for instance, was worth 14.5 percent of the cap when the Penguins signed it in 2012. Today: It’s just under 10.7 percent.
That means the challenge of building a roster around the pricey foursome of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander will remain high — higher than it would have been otherwise. It may even force Dubas deal a core piece — perhaps even Marner given how much he’d attract in a trade.
And that’s one thing with the Marner contract that’s often overlooked: As much as it’s been maligned, and as much as it could have been played differently: the Leafs could still trade it in a second if they wanted to.
A few things from the fall seem worthy of mention here:
I still wonder if the Leafs should have ridden out the storm around Matthews (following his offseason disorderly conduct charge), and named him captain anyway. It wouldn’t have been popular in the moment, but he was arguably the right choice in the biggest possible picture. Tavares was certainly a safe choice.
Nov. 20, 2019: Fires Mike Babcock, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe
It was “the level of our ups and downs” and, “just reading off the players … how they were reacting to different things,” that spurred the change behind the bench, as Dubas explained it on Nov. 21.
The Leafs GM noted that “discussions about the way the team is playing,” and, “what’s the best path ahead,” began as early as Nov. 9, the night his team rallied from 2-0 down only to lose to the Flyers in a shootout. A five-game losing streak that included a 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh, sealed that path.
Maybe Dubas didn’t see the evolution in Babcock he desired going back to the spring. Scratched 71 times a year earlier, Holl, most notably, remained an afterthought at training camp, while Shore got the early nod over Spezza.
“I think it was just an accumulation of watching the group continue to play and evolve on and off the ice that led us to that point yesterday,” Dubas explained in Arizona, a day after the firing.
I’ve always wondered, though, what would have happened had the Leafs done nothing — had Babcock remained despite the early-season woes.
For one thing, the season was only 23 games old. The Leafs were also integrating a lot of new players — from Barrie to Kerfoot to Ceci and Spezza — and dealing with injuries to key pieces such as Zach Hyman, Tavares, and Marner. Would things have turned around as health improved and those first-year Leafs grew more comfortable?
We’ve seen underachieving teams in similar positions, with coaches on the hot seat, grind through those rough patches and find success. The Washington Capitals were a disappointing 11-10-1 on Nov. 20, 2017 and with Barry Trotz on a red-hot seat. They stuck with him and won the Cup.
(The Leafs were 9-10-4 when they replaced Babcock.)
I wonder if Babcock, after building the program up from nothing four years earlier, had at least earned an opportunity to turn things around. Of course, Dubas didn’t hire Babcock, and perhaps the philosophical differences between the two were vast enough that long-term coexistence wasn’t possible. Maybe it’s not the worst thing, though, to have a powerful voice within the organization pushing in the opposite direction — if only to balance things out.
The Leafs looked immediately different with Keefe running the bench. The offence perked up. Special teams improved. The Leafs blitzed foes in December.
And then some of the same challenges Babcock faced — defensive leaks, inconsistent effort — re-surfaced. In other words, the Leafs early instability clearly wasn’t only about Babcock.
Firing the coach with the Stanley Cup win and two Olympic gold medals on his resume barely halfway through an eight-year contract was a bold move.
Time will tell if fortune will favour that boldness.
Dec. 1, 2019: Hires Greg Moore as new Marlies head coach
A move that seems small in the context of some of the bigger decisions here. But finding the right coach to replace Keefe with the Marlies matters. It’s too soon to say if Greg Moore is that guy.
Dec. 31, 2019: Signs Justin Holl to three-year, $6-million extension
Dubas likes these bets.
If Holl continues his ascent on the right side of the team’s top four, the Leafs will get real value from his contract. Even if he’s just a third pairing defender, he’s probably still fairly paid.
Feb. 6, 2020: Acquires Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford from Los Angeles Kings
Leaf brass, including Dubas, were walking out of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan after another rough Hutchinson outing when they plucked Campbell and Clifford away from the Kings.
Campbell was an immediate relief, winning three of his first four starts while ingratiating himself quickly in the Leafs dressing room. That he’s signed for the next two seasons ($1.65 million cap hit) is the real potential bonus, as the Leafs get a shot at security beside Andersen — a UFA after next season — that they really haven’t had. That’s assuming, of course, that Campbell continues to perform.
It remains possible that Campbell arrived with the Leafs too late, at least for this season.
Meanwhile, Clifford’s heavy, plodding style hasn’t totally meshed with the Leafs get-up-and-go brand of hockey (45 percent expected goals). He becomes a UFA after the season.
Feb. 12, 2020: Signs Pierre Engvall to two-year, $2.5 million extension
Another hopeful strike at value.
Engvall was signed while he was still taking his first spins around the league. If he takes off eventually as a versatile forward who can slide from wing to centre between the third and fourth lines, kill penalties and deposit the odd goal, the Leafs will receive value. Under the worst-case scenario, the soon-to-be 24-year-old is easily buried in the minors.
Feb. 24: Signs Jake Muzzin to four-year, $22.5 million extension
There’s some risk with this deal — it carries a $5.625 million cap hit — but Muzzin has grown into such a valuable part of the Leafs defence and leadership group that the investment in him, even at 31, feels worthwhile. That, and the fact that Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott don’t appear ready yet for more serious roles on a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.
Feb. 25, 2019: NHL trade deadline
After acquiring Campbell and Clifford from the Kings in early February and then Denis Malgin and Rosen from the Panthers and Avalanche respectively in separate deals a couple weeks later, the Leafs were quiet on deadline day, transaction-wise. But Dubas used his podium that day to express his disappointment with the team’s “Jekyll and Hyde” performance, admitting he didn’t know what was behind it.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “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. And we’re clearly not there yet, but we also show signs of what we can be when we get there.”
On April 7, Dubas signed Russian forward Alexander Barabanov to a one-year, $925,000 deal. And should the season resume, a decisions awaits around whether to give 18-year-old Robertson an opportunity.
New contracts are needed for Dermott and Mikheyev, and perhaps Spezza, Clifford and Frederik Gauthier. He’ll also need to acquire more help on defence and create some space under what will be a static salary cap for the foreseeable future.
It was a trying year for Dubas, no doubt. There was one challenge or fire to put out after another. Some he handled well. Some he could have done better. All told, it feels like the kind of season the 34-year-old will look back on later in his career and glean a lot from. How to better handle a difficult contract negotiation. How to better navigate roster construction questions. When to act in certain situations. When not to. The Leafs GM has done a lot right and he has brought some newfound ingenuity and perspective to the position.
In light of the pause and its aftermath, we may not get a definitive answer this season on whether his vision is a success. But with Dubas and this Leafs front office, it’s never just about one season, but instead, a much bigger picture.