TORONTO – While rival Stanley Cup–chasing contenders in the Eastern Conference have already taken the bat off their shoulders and swung for the fences, Kyle Dubas hints he might play small ball if the selling prices don’t drop.
With the trade deadline looming in three weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs have watched a couple of marquee rentals fly into their conference — Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders; Vladimir Tarasenko to the New York Rangers — for a reasonably steep return and wondered if they really want a seat at the high-stakes table by March 3.
“Up front and on D, if there’s a way we can improve the team and give ourselves a chance to make a run at it, then we’ll do that,” general manager Dubas said Thursday, during his first availability with reporters since November.
“The larger focus is always on the bigger names, but we have to look at the people who may improve us overall and not just the big names per se.”
Big names — the Timo Meiers and Ryan O’Reillys and Patrick Kanes of the world — naturally come with big price tags.
The packages to move Horvat and Tarasenko to New York started with a 2023 first-round pick.
And with Dubas having already spent his 2023 second-rounder and Toronto’s prospect pool regarded as relatively shallow in league circles, all eyes are on the Maple Leafs’ first-rounder and their top prospect, the unsigned Matthew Knies, as key trade chips to made an addition of significance.
Although he won’t outright shut down trade proposals without hearing his callers out, Dubas says he would be “hard pressed” to cut ties with Knies or remove himself from Round 1 of the Connor Bedard draft — which scouts predict to be one of the deepest first rounds in years.
“In regards to rentals, I can’t see that happening,” Dubas said. “But with regards to other options, I don’t think you say no off the hop to anything. But those are very important pieces to us now and in the future.”
“Other options” means players with term. Jakub Chychrun certainly falls into that category. So, too, do quieter names on the rumour mill such as Jake McCabe out of Chicago and Max Comtois out of Anaheim.
There are 22 days to speculate.
What we do know is that Dubas has no interest in tinkering with his goaltending tandem of Ilya Samsonov (refreshed from a Miami beach holiday) and Matt Murray (who still needs “a couple weeks” to recover from a nagging ankle injury). In the meantime, AHL all-star Joseph Woll has been recalled and will see action in this weekend’s home-and-home series versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
We know that the Leafs are still in the experimentation stage with their bottom six and want to see how Marlies graduates like Thursday’s callup, Alex Steeves, fare before seeking outside help to boost their turnstile fourth line.
The message from up high to the bubble forwards: “Guys, this is your chance to take advantage and run with it.”
And we also know Toronto is hesitant to exert any unnecessary pressure on the University of Minnesota’s Knies, whom many fans hope will emerge as the top-six left wing the lineup has been craving for months.
“He decided last year he wanted to go back, and he wanted to win a national championship,” Dubas said.
“Our major focus is not so much trying to figure out what can he bring right away. I mean, it’s very rare that a college player leaves and right away jumps in and makes a huge impact. So, I want to temper that a little bit, but also keep the main focus on him helping the University of Minnesota, and then making his decision on what he wants to do as a pro.”
Which brings us to another unsigned principle in the Maple Leafs’ 2023 story: Dubas himself.
Back in 2015, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was in the final year of his deal in Toronto. He swung hard prior to his final trade deadline with the Jays, the additions boosting Toronto to an American League Championship but robbing the farm in the process.
While his own future beyond this postseason is uncertain, Dubas maintains he will act no differently at the trade table than if Leafs ownership had blessed him with security.
“I think anyone who knows me well enough, truly would know that I think everything I look at is what’s best in the short and long run for the organization and for the people that are there,” said Dubas, declining to answer if he has had any contract talks.
“So, as I said at the beginning of the year. It’s not about me and my status. It’s about what’s best for the team, and that’s what we’ll continue to look at. I’m not treating it any differently than any other day.”
Something to consider as we await Dubas’s next move: How he treats this trade deadline isn’t only reflective of how much he believes this is the group that can finally get over the hump. It’s also a signal to his future boss, be it Brendan Shanahan or someone in a different NHL city, that he’s in this for the long haul.
How badly does Dubas want to stay in his position beyond this spring?
“I mean, Toronto has been great. It’s great for my family, and I think more than anything, it’s the people here. I love coming in every day and working with the people,” Dubas said. “So, I never take for granted a day working in the league, in any role whatsoever. And Toronto has been great for our family.
“I don’t focus on the end of it. I just focus on every single day giving my best for everybody inside the facility.”
• Auston Matthews (knee) donned a red, non-contact sweater but participated in the full team practice and looked like a player nearing return. Pencil him in for Feb. 15’s home date against the Chicago Blackhawks.
• Conor Timmins was headed towards restricted free agency before inking a two-year, $2.2-million contract extension ($1.1 million AAV), a deal he says was two months in the making.
The right side of the Maple Leafs’ blueline in 2023-24 looks like this (for now): T.J. Brodie, Timothy Liljegren, and Timmins.
• Samsonov is Toronto’s No. 1 goalie for the foreseeable future and the most intriguing pending RFA on the roster.
“I don’t talk with Kyle. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe my agent talks with him. I didn’t listen about this. I’m focused on the next day,” Samsonov replied, when asked if extension talks are under way for him.
• Top-line wing Michael Bunting headlines a slew of Maple Leafs regulars skating out contract years. Alexander Kerfoot, Justin Holl, David Kämpf, and Pierre Engvall are in a similar boat.
Dubas says he’s not putting emphasis on getting those players locked up long-term while games are still being played.
“We want to see what the rest of the year brings before we commit to anything, necessarily,” Dubas said.
• Status quo for the injured Jake Muzzin (spine), who awaits a follow-up appointment with a specialist later this month. After that assessment, Dubas says, the club will know whether the defenceman can play again this season.