Breaking News

Kyle Dubas’s ‘aggressive’ three-trade frenzy shifts pressure to Maple Leafs stars

EDMONTON — The iconic image-slash-meme of Kyle Dubas holding two phones to one head was gloriously resurrected Tuesday.

While four new impact role players practised in Seattle, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was busy juggling and completing a trio of trades that reinforces his tireless mission to construct the best and most playoff-ready version of the hockey club in the salary-cap era.

Contract-year Dubas is on one.

He’s leaving it all out there, folks.

And the NHL’s most opinionated, most tortured and most populated fan base has every reason to tune into the drama that is about to unfold on the ice once the executive finally comes up for air off it.

If the players grind as hard in April as the front office has in February, the Tampa Bay Lightning — who hold the on-paper edge in goaltending and experience, but no longer in forwards or defencemen — could well be staring at their first Round 1 exit in four years.

Dubas’s aggressiveness and diligence, which had already yielded improvements to four roster spots, has taken yet another step.

For all the moving and shaking, cupboard stripping and draft-pick spending the GM had done to recruit Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty well in advance of Friday’s trade deadline, Dubas had stretched to great lengths to not touch his active roster.

Well, that changed Tuesday in Seattle, when Rasmus Sandin — not a mystery box — was pulled mid-practice and dealt to the suddenly retooling Washington Capitals.

Minutes later, pending UFA and bottom-six utility winger Pierre Engvall — who sipped from the same Calder Cup as Dubas in 2018 — was shipped to the wild-card-chasing New York Islanders for a 2024 third-rounder and some ever-valuable cap space.

“He’s done a great job of getting things done early,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters of his boss.

“Kyle has looked at our team and has been really honest about it. He’s tried to figure out ways we can get better, and he’s been aggressive with it. So, I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ve improved in our depth and our competitiveness at both forward and defence.”

In exchange for Sandin, Dubas’s Leafs received defenceman Erik Gustafsson and a 2023 first-round draft choice. (The pick was originally owned by the Boston Bruins and was flipped to Washington in the Dmitry Orlov-Garnet Hathaway trade.) No salary was retained.

Gustafsson, like Sandin, is a left shot. He is a 30-year-old impending UFA carrying a modest $800,000 cap hit.

Sandin, 22, carries a $1.4-million cap hit through 2023-24, at which point he will become a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.

Dubas and Sandin’s camp tussled over his current contract over the summer, to the point where the young defenceman missed out on the beginning of training camp.

Sandin was projected to be the Maple Leafs’ seventh defenceman come playoff time, just as he was last spring. He has battled through multiple minor injuries this season, putting up four goals and a career-best 20 points, largely in a sheltered third-pairing role.

“It’s never easy to see people leave,” Keefe said, “but we’re really excited about those joining.”

With Morgan Rielly running the Leafs’ top power-play unit and signed for seven more seasons beyond this one, and top-four D-man McCabe arriving with two years’ worth of term, the undersized Sandin — who doesn’t regularly kill penalties — was going to have a difficult time carving out a meaningful role.

McCabe most certainly understands his.

“Make life hard on the other team’s top players and do whatever it takes to win,” said McCabe, now finally looking at his first playoff game after a decade in the show.

“It’s everything, really.”

Gustafsson had been enjoying an offensive resurgence in Washington. With seven goals — including a hat trick against Toronto on Dec. 17 — and 38 points, he instantly becomes the highest-scoring defenceman on Toronto’s roster.

On the heels of those moves, Dubas used his 2023 third-round pick to rent Luke Schenn from the tanking Vancouver Canucks, the first team Toronto will face once playoff-bound rosters are frozen.

Schenn was drafted by Toronto fifth overall in 2008 and won a pair of Stanley Cups with Tampa as a superb depth option.

Schenn hits like a Mack truck. He is a fantastic leader and team guy who would be happy to slot in wherever Keefe wants him. In other words, he brings the strength and experience to better withstand Tampa’s and Boston’s aggressive forechecks than Sandin would at this stage in his development.

“He’s a guy that’s as competitive and physical as there is in the league. Great experience,” Keefe beamed. “Talking about character guys and team guys, he’s another great one.”

Set aside the futures for a second. Tomorrow can wait.

Instead, consider the NHL-level turnover in Toronto over the past dozen days.

In: Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty, Erik Gustafsson, Luke Schenn.

Out: Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Joey Anderson.

For the immediate task, Dubas’s Maple Leafs have improved by leaps and bounds.

“You see a need this time of year, and you want to elevate,” Auston Matthews said. “Some nice additions for us. It’s been a busy couple days.”

And with time to spare before Friday’s deadline, Dubas could still make another significant move — and is now equipped with Boston’s first-round pick to do so. (If he’s not sold on Matt Murray’s availability, why stop now?)

“Every year we’re in it, with where we’re at right now, we have to give the team the best chance to win,” Dubas said Monday.

“How do we situate ourselves to best compete? Because just being a fun matchup and being fun to watch isn’t good enough for us. It’s trying to win.

“It’s at the balance now where you kind of (ask): ‘Are you changing the group too much?’”

We don’t think so.

Change was necessary.

The general manager held up his portion of the bargain, performing under white-hot pressure in a potentially do-or-die season.

If this group fails, it’s on the star players Dubas has gone above and beyond to support with a serious supporting cast.

“We recognize the confidence and faith that he has in us,” Matthews said. “We want to back him up and prove him right.”

One-Timers: Keefe is starting with a pure shutdown pair, McCabe and T.J. Brodie, in Edmonton but will experiment with his pairs. … Ultimately, we don’t see the Rielly–Justin Holl duo sticking long. Rielly performs best with Brodie. Lefty McCabe is happy to skate on his weak side, so he’ll be worth a look alongside Rielly at some point, too. Keefe on McCabe: “He’ll probably make the rounds a little bit in terms of working with different defenders.” … Lafferty is tied for the NHL lead in shorthanded goals (four). Said Keefe: “He’s right up there with the fastest players in the league.”

Maple Leafs projected lines Wednesday vs. Edmonton Oilers

Bunting — Matthews — Marner

Tavares — O’Reilly — Nylander

Kerfoot — Kämpf — Järnkrok

Aston-Reese — Acciari — Lafferty

Rielly — Holl

McCabe — Brodie

Giordano — Liljegren




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *