Toronto Maple Leafs: Emergency State of the Union Address

If there is one thing that hockey fans have learned, its that Kyle Dubas thinks he is the smartest guy in the room. Whether you love him, or hate him, we all know this much is true. One of Leafs fans’ favourite hobbies on Twitter is surfing thru the young GM’s “likes”. If you don’t think he knows that, then I have a marvellous bridge I’d love to sell you. I’ve never had a Twitter account of his size, but I have had one that had 5 figures of followers. One thing that anybody with a large account will tell you is that they read every single notification. Every one. Dubas knows 100% what you are creeping of his, and I’d bet my biscuits he has read every mention you’ve ever tagged him in. He loves to “like” stuff on Twitter as if to almost advocate on his own behalf, because he knows that we are all whack jobs who will eat it up. This is one of my personal favourites:

There is one general rule to Twitter: If Carlo ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. You’ve done it now, Kyle. But this “message” sent to us by Dubas is basically his plea for Leafs fans to be patient. He probably has a sign on his office door that says “Genius at Work”. If you think I’m crazy, go surf through his likes. Its akin to watching someone try an be rescued by using morse code. I die laughing every time one of these blows up on social media. But it really does give us insight into the problems the Leafs can anticipate to face.

Problem 1: Kyle Dubas Thinks Kyle Dubas is Doing a Great Job

Heres the thing: he’s not. I think he has an amazing eye for identifying talent and value in the draft. Almost unmatched, in fact. But often times, we misinterpret patience in hockey as a virtue. In this case, it most certainly isn’t. The clock is ticking for the Maple Leafs, yet Leafs brass are sitting on their hands. Handcuffed by the volume of overpaid contracts given out, Toronto is up against the cap. In fact, Toronto is extremely fortunate that they have important pieces such as team MVP Frederik Andersen and defenceman Morgan Rielly on such team friendly deals. Those are not going to last. Andersen is up at the end of next year, and Rielly the year following. This becomes problematic because the Maple Leafs are losing 3 of their starting defencemen to free agency next year, in Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci (thank god). When you take into account the retooling the Leafs will have to make in the offseason, their window is looking very small. In fact, this year may be the best chance that they have left to win a Cup. How scary (and sad) is that?

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Dubas is sticking to his guns that this team is a champion. A sleeping giant, if you will. Its like that scene from Moneyball, where the now analytic driven A’s should be winning, but are still surprisingly losing. I think thats how Dubas views this team. He thinks that if he weathers the storm, the real results will show up like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But the problem is, if you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, how on earth will you ever correct it? And its important to note that his philosophy is not entirely without merit. Yes, this is now a league based on both possession and speed. Yes, the NHL is geared towards scoring. If you have guys who score, you should win games. If you win games, you can win the Cup. Its not that alleged imbeciles like me don’t understand this. Its that we simply don’t agree with it entirely.

Problem 2: The Leafs are soft, so Injuries are Inevitable

If there is anything you should take away from the Leafs most recent losses, to Philadelphia and Colorado respectively, is that there were more cheap shots thrown at their star players. The first night had the Flyers absolutely rocking John Tavares beside the net, and the following night had the Avs fearlessly boarding Matthews. Predictably, no one answered the bell. The problem with regularly allowing this to happen is that it inevitably produces injuries. And the more times the Leafs are injured, the more excuses they get to make for themselves. Leafs fans need to become acutely aware that this team will continue to be hit with reckless abandon, so it will continue to be injured. Opposing players know if they hit Matthews from behind, nothing is going to happen. In fact, if there is even a power-play awarded, the Leafs are unlikely to score. This is a recipe for disaster! One that could easily be rectified if Dubas simply called up one face puncher from the Marlies, or traded for someone with some jam, as the kids say. At least when the now departed Patrick Marleau got nailed in the playoffs against Boston last year, Nazem Kadri had the common decency to crosscheck the culprit in the goddamn head. So naturally, we trade him. Mark my words, the Leafs need someone to protect them.

Problem 3: The Backup Goalie, or Lack Thereof

Is this really that difficult? Really? The Leafs have been bouncing around from backup to backup ever since they put Curtis McElhinney (The perfect backup) on waivers. Now I’m not going to fault Dubas for this. Had Sparks panned out, and we let him go, Dubas would have been crucified. I find a lot of faults in how he has managed the team, but this was an understandable mistake. However, still having Michael Hutchinson as your backup isn’t only not understandable, it is downright ridiculous.

Hutch has shown he just doesn’t have it to make a go of it with the Leafs. The porous defence and lazy forwards routinely hang him out to dry, but c’mon guy. You gotta make a save, don’t you? Ever? Kyle Dubas is hellbent on keeping Hutch until the team pitches a shutout on his behalf. Can’t wait to see how that one works out for you, Kyle.

With goaltender being such a key position, and the Leafs having such a gluttony of depth at forward, a trade seems like the obvious answer. But more importantly, a trade about 3 weeks ago. Pay attention to this theme. We know we need to do something, yet we do not do it. Its a very important trend in the Leafs organization (see Babcock, Mike) , and the thesis of this piece.

Conclusion: The True Fork in the Road

I propose that the Maple Leafs have only two options: They need to either load up immediately and go for it right now, or tear down this roster and do a 1 year tanking. One place you never, ever want to be caught in the NHL is the middle of the pack. Ever. That is a fireable offence in my eyes. I will finish this piece by briefly making a case for both options:

Option A: The Mini Tank

The draft this year is extremely deep. The Leafs currently are in 22nd in the NHL, 13 points out of the last place Red Wings. If they were to trade off their pieces for draft picks, you would see the following valuable players leaving town:

-UFA Justin Holl
– UFA Jake Muzzin
– UFA Tyson Barrie
– UFA Jason Spezza

If you take away half the Leafs defence, and replace them with players such as Martin Marincin and Kevin Gravel, I think its safe to say they would drop even further down from the already bottom third of the NHL ledge that they currently occupy. The 1st round pick that the Leafs owe the Hurricanes this year is top 10 lottery protected, which means if they do not make the playoffs it is absolutely necessary to finish in the bottom.

Toronto would get amazing returns on both Muzzin and Barrie. They could enter the draft this year and absolutely stock the cupboards full for the remaining years of the Matthews/Tavares/Marner/Nylander contracts. It would also make future draft picks more expendable for adding talent when they need it for future Cup runs. The salary cap will continue to rise, and their star players cap hit% will continue to drop. It would be a very bold, and calculated move to take this disaster of a season and turn it into a necessary sacrifice for future success.

But as progressive as they claim to be, they won’t do that.

Option B: Load Up and Go for Broke

Considering you are already halfway all-in with the acquisitions of UFAs Barrie, and Muzzin, why not go for it? I would propose taking a player like Ceci, and packaging him up with picks for a true number 1 defenceman and a backup. In addition, the expendable Andreas Johnsson has to go. Some muscle needs to come in. If you acquire a Seth Jones from the Blue Jackets, who desperately need draft picks, you could have a defence that resembles something like this:

Barrie – Jones
Rielly – Muzzin

Looks good to me. Until the Leafs add a bigger body, capable of eating minutes and clearing the net, they will not be a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. I have a hard time envisioning them protecting a one goal lead in yet another game 7 against Boston, and having Rielly and/or Barrie on the ice. In short, you pick up a stud RHD. You pick up a banger forward. You get yourself a backup goalie, then you cross your fingers and get ready for the fireworks. But make no mistake, friends. This route is going to cost the Leafs. Its going to cost them bigtime, baby. To pull off any trades like this, you aren’t simply packaging up Bracco and a second. We are talking future first round picks. But if you pay the price, you get a full team for one season. That is the cost of doing business. And even if the Leafs do this, there are no guarantees we win.

So which is better? Option A? Option B? Who knows. The only thing Kyle Dubas can not afford to do is do nothing at all. Being patient or “bullish about your D” does not make you wise in the salary cap era of the NHL. For a lack of better words, its time for the idling Maple Leafs management to either shit, or get off the pot.

Nicky Pizazz

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