When John Tavares scored the game-winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning to advance the Toronto Maple Leafs to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2004, jubilation and a feeling of a weight being lifted from the shoulders of the Leafs organization and Toronto fans was felt everywhere. They had finally done what felt to be impossible in advancing deeper into the playoffs in the hopes of bringing Lord Stanley back to Toronto for the first time since 1967.
Then all of that positivity and hope vanished in 13 days, as the Florida Panthers smothered the Leafs in five games in the second-round.
While Florida advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1996, once again, the Leafs ventured into yet another off-season with massive questions on the direction of the franchise with no easy answers.
Except this time, after so many years of failure in the playoffs with the best result being one second-round appearance, there were going to be structural changes to every position. Seemingly no job is safe.
The first domino of firings to fall came on Friday. Maple Leafs President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan announced that the club would “part ways” with Dubas, and the Leafs would not ink a new deal after his contract expires June 30 as General Manager.
The ensuing press conference with Shanahan speaking after the announcement was one that showed that contract extension talks were mired by poor communication and a lack of clarity on whether or not Dubas wanted to work out a new contract and stay as General Manager of the Leafs organization per Shanahan, and ultimately, Shanahan made the decision to not offer him a new deal and let him walk.
Dubas, who was the assistant general manager under former GM Lou Lamoriello until being promoted in May 2018, will best be known for assembling and signing long-term the “Core Four” of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The plan was to build a competitive roster around these four, as well as two-way defenseman Morgan Rielly, that would compete for a Cup.
Banking on the NHL’s salary cap to rise when he signed those contracts, the Covid-19 pandemic froze the cap to rise, meaning the five combined make up a cap hit of $48,005,616 – more than half of the NHL’s salary cap of roughly $83-million. Dubas was forced to sign players and build a Cup-contending team around those contracts with no salary cap rise in the foreseeable future at the time.
To support that core, Dubas made some home-run signings and trades at the deadline and in the off-season with the tight salary cap he had. This trade deadline, Dubas worked the phones heavily and brought in St. Louis Blues’ captain Ryan O’Reilly as well as Noel Acciari for a 2023 first-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick, a 2024 second-round pick, forward Adam Gaudette and forward Mikhail Abramov. The Blues retained 50% of O’Reilly’s $7.5-million salary cap hit, and the Minnesota Wild retained 25% in exchange for Toronto’s 2024 fourth-round pick.
O’Reilly ended up with nine points – three goals, six assists – in the postseason and was everything the Leafs had wanted from him in anchoring the third line. Luke Schenn, also acquired at the deadline from the Canucks, was a solid blue-line addition to play on the first-line with Morgan Reilly.
In the past, Dubas made some magic at the deadline by acquiring veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin from the Kings and Mark Giordano from the Kraken. He put faith in rookies such as Ilya Mikheyev (now on the Canucks) and Michael Bunting, who is set to receive a hefty pay-raise this off-season.
Dubas also managed goaltending on a shoestring-budget. Accounting for letting Frederik Andersen go in 2021, he acquired Jack Campbell from the Kings in 2020, who dueled Petr Mrazek in 2021 for the starting spot on a cheap $1.65-million AAV he’d signed with Los Angeles.
Then, once Campbell left for Edmonton in the offseason, he acquired Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators and Ilya Samsonov from free agency for a $1.8-million, one-year “prove-it” deal, which worked out great for the Leafs. The Russian posted a career-high .919 save percentage and career-low 2.33 GAA in 42 games in the regular season, and while he was shaky at times in the playoffs before getting injured in the third game versus Florida, provided Toronto with a confident presence in net.
But not every batter hits it out of the ballpark when they step up to the plate, and Dubas has made some dubious trades, too. The Matt Murray trade with Ottawa ultimately didn’t pan out after Murray suffered a head injury in early April. Other questionable decisions include when Nazem Kadri was traded away to Colorado in 2019 for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot after Kadri was squeezed out due to cap space, acquiring Nick Foligno from Columbus, and this deadline, when young and budding defenseman Rasmus Sandin was sent to Washington.
No matter the trades, with such firepower in the Core Four, production is expected from them in the postseason to make up for a lack of depth. And this year, it seemed like all cylinders were firing after the first round, as Matthews posted nine points, Marner 11, and Nylander and Tavares seven each.
But against the Panthers, the production vanished. Matthews only had two assists. Marner had a goal and two assists. Tavares only one assist. Nylander had two goals and one assist. Combined, the four’s nine points was a far-cry from the 34 they posted against the Lightning.
So where does the team go from here with how they handle the Core Four? Two have the potential to be traded, while the other two will be a lot harder to move, should the Leafs look to.
Starting with Matthews and Nylander, the two are unrestricted free agents after the 2023-24 season and are the most likely to potentially be traded. However, former Hart Trophy winner Matthews has stated he wants to iron-out a contract this summer and stay a Leaf, leaving Nylander as the more plausible case to be moved due to his lack of leverage. Nylander’s contract is trade-friendly, as his $6.9-million AAV is manageable for other teams looking for a top-six forward. Should the Leafs decide to shake up the core, Nylander would be the easiest to move and get a solid top-six player(s) and/or prospects and picks in return.
Marner and Tavares are not as easy to move. The two carry mighty $10.9 and $11-million AAV contracts that expire after the 2024-25 season, and Tavares has a full on no-trade-clause. Marner also has a NTC which starts in his final two-years of his contract, which is the 23-24 season, so it’s now or never to trade him.
Should the Leafs choose to trade Marner this summer, they would most likely have to retain a chunk of his contract due to the sheer size of it. It’s also unlikely that other teams would provide in return the haul that’s deemed suitable for a player like Marner, who’s posted back-to-back near 100-point seasons with 97 and 99, respectively.
Outside of the Core Four, other depth players are set to be UFAs that the Leafs will need to decide on what to do with. Ryan O’Reilly is the perfect player a team would want come the playoffs, and will certainly be offered good money by other contending teams to sign with. Michael Bunting’s worth much more than the $950,000-AAV he made on his old contract. The same goes for Luke Schenn, who made $100,000 less than Bunting, as his career seems to be revitalized after spending the second-half of the season alongside Morgan Reilly.
No matter what, the Kyle Dubas era is over in Toronto starting Friday. And no matter who the Maple Leafs hire as their new General Manager, their plate will be full with making decisions that will have long-term ramifications on how the team will look come this fall and in the future.