Toronto Maple Leafs: Pressure mounting on Kyle Dubas to improve blue line

Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs handle the draft table during the 2018 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs handle the draft table during the 2018 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs still have a lot of work to do to make improvements on defence but will they be able to afford it?

It has been an off-season with many questions, debates and some concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs but general manager Kyle Dubas silenced some of them by signing Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to new deals.

Getting the official cap hits for Johnsson and Kapanen provides some clarity for the Leafs salary cap situation with Mitch Marner‘s contract negotiations still a hot topic. Now, people are wondering what Dubas’ plan will be to improve the team’s blueline.

There were rumours suggesting the team was interested in acquiring PK Subban before he was traded to the New Jersey Devils mainly because the Devils were willing to take on Subban’s entire cap hit.

More from Tip of the Tower

It would have been wishful thinking for the Leafs to get a player with an expensive contract like that and make it work in their salary structure. Sure they cleared $6.25 million by trading away Patrick Marleau but that was clearly meant to make room for Kapanen and Johnsson.

One of those players probably would have been included in a potential deal for Subban but now Dubas will have to look at other avenues to acquire a defenceman. That brings us to the trade their QEW rivals the Buffalo Sabres made with the Vegas Golden Knights.

It has been no secret the Leafs are looking to improve the right side of their blueline and Nikita Zaitsev‘s trade request makes it a more pressing issue. Unfortunately seeing Colin Miller being moved for a second- and fifth-round pick didn’t go over well with Leafs Nation.

Here is a 26-year-old defenceman who is right-handed, who was known to be available by various insiders because the Golden Knights were looking to move his $3.875M cap hit to get under the cap.

So why didn’t the Leafs jump at the opportunity to get a deal done?

Miller’s puck-moving abilities make him worth playing in a top-four role after putting up a 55.6 CF% and a 55.7 FF% the past two seasons in Sin City. Considering the Leafs would need a replacement for Jake Gardiner, this would have been the easiest and cost-effective way to do it.

What this probably comes down to is the lack of progress on a potential Zaitsev trade because if the Leafs cannot move that contract, then they won’t be able to make the salary work.

It’s no secret the expensive contracts for John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and at some point, Mitch Marner has put the team in a situation to find bargains elsewhere. What it also shows is how that Dubas is delaying any big trades until Marner gets signed, but why?

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston quoted the Leafs GM saying they needed to save room for Marner and won’t be big players in free agency even though nobody expected them to be. Johnston also brought up the fact the team will continue to use the Leafs ability to hand out big signing bonuses as a way to get players to come to Toronto but that doesn’t mean the blueline will get solved by using that method.

Sure, the team would like to see a prospect like Timothy Liljegren take a spot to start the season but you get the sense the organization doesn’t want to force that on him. That means the team will probably look to trim some of the fat they have upfront in order to make some room.

One name that comes to mind is Connor Brown who looks like a luxury the team cannot afford even though he makes only $2.1 million. While many want to see the local player stick around, this is where sacrifices have to be made.

Instead of spending Brown’s cap hit on a bottom six forward, why not do that for a defenceman with similar value. Unfortunately, those options are not easy to find because they will need to find a team willing to do a forward for defenceman swap or who wants to give up something tangible for Zaitsev.

You look at players who have already moved this summer like Subban, Miller, Justin Braun, Radko Gudas, and Matt Niskanen, some of those players would have been worthwhile options but seemed to have slipped through the cracks because of the salaries involved.

This also means Mike Babcock will have to get used to the idea of not having veterans like Ron Hainsey, and Gardiner around. Instead, he will have to rely on players like Calle Rosen, Justin Holl, Liljegren, Andreas Borgman or hope that their European free agent signings like Teemu Kivihalme, and Ilya Mikheyev can step in and play a role.

All those player from the Toronto Marlies who have been given high praise will also need to take the next steps especially with Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman expected to miss at least the first month of the season.

It is hard to be patient during this time, but considering how challenging the salary cap is to navigate for contending teams, Dubas can’t be reckless with his approach. It might not be the popular or exciting path but it is the one that he has to follow unless he is willing to make a big move.

dark. Next. Leafs sign Kapanen and Johnsson to multi-year extensions

Dubas put the pressure on him when he took the blame for how the season ended and now the pressure has fallen on his shoulders and he will have to show he can handle it especially with fans craving fora different storyline to follow heading into this season.