The next two weeks will define Kyle Dubas’ tenure as general manager of the Maple Leafs.
Yes, that’s right, whether the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 2021 or in any of the following three or four years will be determined between now and Thanksgiving Monday.
No, we’re not serious. But we’re not completely kidding either.
There’s no doubt that Dubas has to make some rather significant corrections to his lineup in order to get it in the proper shape to become a legitimate Cup contender. It’s not really close to that point right now, not in the wake of qualifying-round exit courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets in August and a string of first-round eliminations in the previous years.
What we can say for certainty is the challenges for Dubas haven’t decreased since the Leafs were discharged from the bubble by the Blue Jackets on Aug. 9.
While trades can happen at any time — Dubas has been quiet in that regard since dealing Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Aug. 25 — the Leafs will focus in the next week on putting final touches on preparation for the 2020 draft, with the first round being held virtually on Oct. 6 and the rest of the draft coming the following day.
If Dubas doesn’t get much done trade-wise, we might assume that that the groundwork will have been laid to get the wheels in motion for something to go down in the weeks that follow.
Yet there’s another factor to consider, especially for those in Leafs Nation who are hopeful that Dubas can free up money so he can sign stud defenceman Alex Pietrangelo once free agency begins on Oct. 9.
During his availability the day he traded Kapanen, Dubas was asked whether he felt his forward depth was strong enough that he could make another trade involving one of those players (we would think Andreas Johnsson or Alex Kerfoot, but to get Pietrangelo, someone with the salary-cap hit of, say, William Nylander and his $6.9 million US likely would have to go).
“It would really depend,” Dubas said. “Not knowing what the schedule is going to be like next year and how quickly the games are going to happen, I think depth is something we really have to be careful about.
“I’d be a little bit tentative without knowing what the schedule, what the season is really going to look like. If the games are in a compressed format or there is lots of travel still, I would worry about leaving Sheldon and the team in a bad spot if we depleted the depth further.”
We don’t think Dubas’ answer would change now, even with the idea that Pietrangelo and the St. Louis Blues appear headed for divorce. And no one can say with certainty how the 2020-21 season will unfold, never mind when it will start. Would Pietrangelo look rather nice in a Leafs sweater? Um, yes. But it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to bring in Pietrangelo if the clearest path to doing so results in punching holes in other areas.
This was Dubas later during that availability when asked about trading Kapanen: “What it came down to for us is we know we have William and Mitch (Marner) on the right side there.”
As for the draft, Dubas would be wise to pick the players his extensive scouting and development staff has deemed best available when the club arrives at each pick. A right-handed shooting, top-four defenceman is what the Leafs require most, and they need one or two on the ice whenever their next game will be. Anyone taken 15th overall won’t step into the lineup and make a desired positive impact in 2020-’21.
Next for Dubas would be qualifying offers to restricted free agents, due at 5 p.m. Eastern on Oct. 7. The Leafs have seven in that category — forwards Ilya Mikheyev, Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier, Evan Rodrigues, Jeremy Bracco and Max Veronneau, and defenceman Travis Dermott. Mikheyev, who has arbitration rights, and Dermott, who does not, are the keys in that group.
Though Kyle Clifford is going to test the free-agent waters, veteran Jason Spezza, unless there has been a recent change of mind, remains willing to stay in Toronto at the NHL minimum.
Dubas has his core forwards in place. He said in his first availability after the loss to Columbus that he still believed in his vision for the club.
That shouldn’t imply there is not the opportunity for improving his team in a fortnight. There will be chances for Dubas to improve the Leafs, whether it’s via another swap or two or with some movement in free agency.
We know that Dubas can’t really come away empty-handed before turkeys are carved across Canada.
The Leafs’ future, and perhaps that of their GM, depends on it.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020