Toronto Maple Leafs: Stuff Better Start Happening Very Soon

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: (L-R) Dale Tallon and Kyle Dubas attend the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: (L-R) Dale Tallon and Kyle Dubas attend the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs have more than a few balls in the air at the moment.

Between last night’s reported trade agreement to send Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa in exchange for Zaitsev’s younger and arguably worse clone in Cody Ceci, Mitch Marner‘s ongoing contract negotiations and the bevvy of spaces left open on Toronto’s roster, this summer will not be a quiet one for Kyle Dubas.

At least, it shouldn’t be. The Maple Leafs need to improve. They need to evolve.

Even when deciding not to account for the fact that Justin Holl is their top RHD at the time of publication, the Maple Leafs were an undoubtedly flawed team dating back to last season, when they suffered a third game seven defeat by the Boston Bruins in the first round. Their blueline was uneven, forcing already ineffective players to play their offside. Their forward corps was thin, necessitating Frederik Gauthier to play regular minutes in playoff situations. Their goaltending was weak, causing Frederik Andersen to break the 60-start barrier for the third straight year with Garret Sparks all but unplayable.

Those are unacceptable problems to have for a team that boasts both Auston Matthews and John Tavares. For the Maple Leafs to truly break into the NHL’s upper echelon of contenders, improvements must be made.

Those will hopefully come when free agency opens on July 1st. A day of inaction simply cannot be the blueprint.

Sure, Zaitsev for Ceci is a fine amuse bouche for the Canada Day festivities, but swapping one player out for the other is, at best, a lateral move. Many have speculated that the Maple Leafs will play the role of middle man when they inevitably acquire Ceci after Zaitsev’s $3 million signing bonus is paid at noon tomorrow, flipping the former Senator to another unsuspecting team – Edmonton, maybe? They did just buy out a defenceman earlier today in order to clear cap space – soon after the trade call is made official.

And when it comes to Toronto’s cap situation, that almost has to be the case. As an RFA, Ceci will head to arbitration this summer and, according to Darren Dreger (of course), be in line to command a one-year deal in the vicinity of $5 million.

That is obviously way too much for the Maple Leafs to pay any new defender, let alone one who may, in fact, be even worse than the one they jettisoned to bring him in. If the decision to trade Zaitsev was done through the perspective of a cap dump, why would Dubas facilitate a deal that sees him take on more salary than he’s moving out? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Nevertheless, the Maple Leafs sit with exactly $5,540,301 in cap space at the moment, per CapFriendly. Marner’s new deal (if he actually reigns his agent in and decides to play ball like an adult) will count for around $10 million, leaving then two RHD vacancies to fill on the blueline and, if promoting Marlies is not the preferred move, at least one bottom-six spot on the wing.

Case in point; Kyle Dubas must spend his summer finding at least three new players to fit in his roster under a cap ceiling of –  assuming that Zaitsev and Connor Brown‘s salaries are off the books – roughly $11 million. It’s going to be tight. Excruciatingly, so. In fact, for the Maple Leafs to even have a hope at achieving that, Zaitsev must be the first of many dominos to fall.

Dubas has sat idly by in recent weeks as the NHL’s trade market has exploded around him. Perhaps he’s waiting for the perfect time to strike. Perhaps he already has something up his sleeve. Perhaps he’s tried to join in on the fun, only to find no willing suitors.

Regardless of which reason, if any, happen to be true, no hurdle should be too big to contain Dubas when the clock strikes 12:01 PM on July 1st. The future of the Maple Leafs depends on it.

From the very moment free agency opens tomorrow afternoon, stuff better start happening. Frankly, it needs to.

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