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When the Toronto Maple Leafs regressed last season, failing to advance beyond the play-in round on their own sheet of ice in the NHL's Eastern Conference bubble, the team appeared well without answers to the series of questions which would dictate whether it would one day achieve the meaningful success that has eluded the team, as well as several iterations of it previous.
Building blocks — tremendous ones — were still firmly in place, but the efforts made to support that core group proved fundamentally flawed. Expected to be firmly established by this point, instead the Maple Leafs had crashed, again, into the unforgiving opening-round ceiling. A rapid ascent stalled out, and a new coach to cater to in Sheldon Keefe, Toronto was facing its heaviest offseason lifting, which first and foremost included a significant overhaul of a failed defence corps.
General manager Kyle Dubas seemed fortunate that bad bets on Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci came with no strings attached. But what wasn't accounted for was, well, what none of us accounted for in 2020. With the salary cap remaining flat as the the pandemic rocked the NHL's internal finances, the money that was charted out for future seasons went poof. Any improvements in Leaf Land would have to be made under the parameters made extremely tight by the process of signing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner out of entry level following the free-agent deal brokered with John Tavares.
Dubas didn't just need to be active in order to tick off the boxes left unchecked. The situation demanded that he flirt with perfection.
And it's tough to say he didn't.
The first necessitated step was to decimate almost the entire middle class, or most of the reasonably high earners that had failed to prove that they can make a difference in the postseason. That meant Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and their combined $6.6 million salaries were tossed away in trades. So, between the outgoing Barrie, Ceci, and now Kapanen and Johnsson, the Leafs had in the neighbourhood of $14 million available to backfill about a third of their total roster, while still having to negotiate several restricted free agent contracts.
In reality, it left the Leafs with the ability to make one decent-sized splash, if the rest of the work was done thrift-style. Understanding how dire the situation was on the back end, Dubas identified the player that proved to be the fix, negotiating a crucial free-agent contract with T.J. Brodie.
Brodie has been everything Ceci and Barrie weren't. Hardly noticeable in the best way possible, the lowest of low-maintenance additions has been a rock of defence all season long. He's smoothed over many of the imperfections in Morgan Rielly's game, while bumping all the rest of the defenders down into a proper slotting.
Dubas had one shot on the back end, and he did not miss.
What was left for the management team was to scoop up all they could from the sale section. Prioritizing character and experience over the boom-or-bust, Dubas added Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, while retaining Jason Spezza for a combined $3 million. He also added Zach Bogosian for another $1 million to tackle third-pairing minutes and prevent Martin Marincin from seeing the ice in the postseason again. Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd were also brought in to fill the gaps, while two European imports in Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov were also added to compete for spots.
Each of these additions individually was below the threshold of what would be considered a home run — or at least to a level of success comparable to that of the Brodie add. But with Thornton cooking on the top line early, Simmonds delivering on the promise of functional physicality and toughness, and Bogosian settling in with Travis Dermott on the third pair, it was all adding up to something meaningful.
In fact, the worst move remained desirable enough for somebody, as the Vancouver Canucks claimed Vesey (and also later Boyd) on waivers — a loss that the Leafs might now consider a favour.
Under the tightest of parameters, Dubas built the Leafs into the class of the North Division with a superb offseason.
But it's what he's managed since that has fans thinking well beyond Canadian supremacy.
There wasn’t a single off day for the Leafs’ executive team, which was constantly working at an administrative level to maintain cap compliance, to improve the roster, and even to reward farmhands with days of NHL pay. The tireless tinkering has led to some precarious moments, including Spezza being placed on waivers and announcing his intention to retire if claimed. However, the Leafs have survived the worst of it, and with their constant work at the margins, they’ve built upon the upgrades made to the roster before the season.
What didn't work — Vesey, to a lesser extent Boyd, Lehtonen and Barabanov — were moved on from because opportunities to upgrade the team's active roster and depth presented themselves over the course of the season.
First in through trade was Alex Galchenyuk, who began as a minor-league project and soon found himself playing a top-six role for Keefe. The former third-overall selection appeared in nearly half the team’s games, carving out a role as more of a facilitator for Tavares and William Nylander on the team's second line.
However, it wasn’t until the LTIR seas parted did the Leafs truly take advantage of the loopholes built into the Collective Bargaining Agreement. With starting netminder Frederik Andersen on the shelf, Dubas had a few extra million to spend before the deadline as he looked to optimize his roster for the postseason.
His major swing was Nick Foligno, or the captain of the team that booted the Leafs from the bubble last summer. A forward with more natural utility qualities, and the physicality to go along with, Foligno is, in essence, what the Leafs were trying to build Galchenyuk into. A luxury given the cap situation entering the season, the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain is the final piece of a top six that already includes two dynamic pairs and an ancillary star in Zach Hyman.
Toronto’s top six is as strong as its ever been with Foligno in the fold.
However, as important as it was to find a winger for Tavares and Nylander, what Keefe had prioritized from jump this season is the formation of a potentially dominant shutdown line. Searching for the combination all season, it seems, the Leafs may have their fix in a player that has been with the organization for month and still hasn’t appeared in a game.
Two days before the Foligno acquisition, the Leafs acquired another past postseason nemesis from Columbus in the injured Riley Nash. Thought of as more of a low-risk, depth move for the coming months, it seems Nash will play a major role in the postseason as the pivot on Keefe’s shutdown line with Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev as soon as Game 1 versus the Montreal Canadiens.
Nash’s inclusion in line rushes last week provided the single, stop-you-in-your-tracks snapshot of Dubas’s grand designs— or a team so far removed from the one that failed last season it's scary.
With Brodie, Thornton, Simmonds, Foligno, Nash, and now Rasmus Sandin back in the mix with the salary cap essentially moot in the playoffs, the management team has accomplished something most fans probably didn’t view as possible as the dust settled last summer.
Despite the immense challenges, the Leafs are talented, bolstered, and now incredibly deep. It’s hard to pinpoint even a single weakness on this roster, with NHL-ready players like Galchenyuk, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Nick Robertson, and Ben Hutton waiting in the wings.
As it’s been proven time and time again, that may not be enough to achieve what’s expected this summer, as the Leafs embark on another postseason opportunity with rival Montreal as the first hurdle.
But if it all goes wrong, I’m not sure we can say that Dubas didn’t do his part, as many did last summer.
This is a collection of players unlike we have seen in some time in Toronto.
It's up to them, now, to show the same sort of ambition that Dubas has.
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