Toronto Maple Leafs: Kyle Dubas Is Letting His Core Out of the Nest

Jun 22, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas announces the number twenty-nine overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 22, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas announces the number twenty-nine overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are betting they’ve got a core of players who can win the Stanley Cup.

In 2016-17, the Toronto Maple Leafs core players were young and impressive.  In 2017-18, they needed experience.  In 2018-19, they weren’t ready.  In 2019-20, they were a mess.  In 2020-21, they needed help.  Now, in 2021-22, the expectation is that they need to break through, and the reality is that they have to do it on their own.

Kyle Dubas has taken the training wheels off at a time when there is immense pressure on this group to succeed, and according to he latest media availability, he’s basically put his own neck on the guillotine if they fail.

Dubas has been patient and cost effective in adding Peter Mrazek, David Kampf, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and Nick Ritchie, all of which don’t really move the needle much on an individual basis, but collectively, there’s some talent there.  The rest of the names you see on capfriendly, well, they are AHL upgrades that shouldn’t really offer much to a competitive NHL team.

Toronto Maple Leafs Off-Season

Chris Johnston illustrates the point that Dubas is in gamble mode:

In this article, I’ll take a quick look at how the forward units may look and break down the new additions.  The defense is basically set, and the goalies will have to make saves, but it’s the forward group that offers the most insight into the mind of Kyle Dubas.

The lines as of today

Ritchie – Matthews – Marner

Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander

Mikheyev – Kampf – Kase

Bunting – Spezza – Simmonds

Extras:  Adam Brooks, Joey Anderson, Pierre Engvall, Nick Robertson, Kurtis Gabriel.

A quick explanation of how I view depth and usage before getting into the new forward additions.  It’s a reflection of where I think players are in their development and how I think Keefe wants to build his group according to what he values.

Anderson is underrated, and cheap, and I think he will surprise a lot of people by getting in some games and excelling in a defensive role.  Acquired last year in the deal that sent Andreas Johnsson to the Devils, he’s a competitive and tenacious player with good speed.

Brooks is the 5th center on the depth chart and will battle Engvall for the coveted 13th forward role.  Keefe always finds reasons to bench Engvall and I’m not sure he will be a Leaf for much longer.  Engvall’s cap hit of 1.25 million doesn’t do him any favors here.

Roberston probably starts the year in the AHL to build his confidence and his consistency.  He’s only played 21 AHL games with mixed results, and he’s missed some time with injuries.  Realistically, he’s still very young (he’s only 20), and just needs more development time.  He should get a chance with the Leafs later this season if he’s healthy and productive for the Marlies.

The new guys

David Kampf is a bottom six center that offers good defensive value on a relatively cheap contract.  He is going to take charge of what will be the Leafs new match-up line, a way for Keefe to get Matthews and Tavares out against weaker competition more often.  The duo of Mikheyev/Kampf has got great speed, can win faceoffs, and has enough size and competitiveness to get some minutes against elite competition.  Adding a player like Kase to that line will give them a play-driver that could improve their overall defensive impact.

Michael Bunting is a low-risk contract that has a lot of upside.  He’s shown the ability to score, but the sample size is small and the shooting percentage is abnormally high.  I’m not certain of anything with this player, but he is a spark-plug type with decent offensive skills.  He has good speed and will get in on the fore-check.  I think he starts with Spezza so that they can provide some offense together, and if he performs well, he may move up the line-up and get a chance in the top 6.  Definitely a player to watch, especially if a spot higher in the line-up opens up.

Kurtis Gabriel is a big body that plays hard.  He’s a local guy, and the fans will love him whether he’s on the Marlies or the Leafs.  He’ll be useful as a depth player on the 4th line, and I expect to see him get some NHL minutes if a player like Simmonds goes down with an injury.

Ondrej Kase, not tendered a contract by the Bruins, is a talented player that had a lot of upside offensively when he first broke into the league with Anaheim.  A competitor and a good play-driver, serious concussion issues derailed his season last year and he’s had trouble staying healthy.  This is a gamble, but the upside here is a top 6 talent on a cheap contract.  Worth the risk and his contract can be buried if need be.

Nick Ritchie, also not tendered a contract by the Bruins, is a big winger that brings physicality and some offensive tools.  He has some issues with penalties, and his speed is questionable, but he could be a good fit as a forechecker for the Matthews line.

Note:  The Ritchie acquisition is the one that I am the most unsure about.  At 2.5M, the Toronto Maple Leafs need him to be productive and I’m not sure he can fit that role.  This is why I think they will try him with Matthews to start the year.  I don’t know if he brings enough defensive utility to play anywhere else.

A lot of these forwards are interchangeable and will be moved around depending on performance and chemistry.  Keefe has a lot of work to do in training camp and the pre-season, but overall, I like the amount of low-risk depth that Dubas has brought in.  Some of these gambles won’t work out but Dubas has to take them.  It’s the only strategy that makes sense given the roster construction.

Fly little birdies, fly

This brings us back to the beginning of the article, the core 4 that Dubas believes so much in.  While last season saw Dubas surround his core with veteran leadership and support, this year seems to be a very different scenario.  Hyman, Thornton, Bogosian, Foligno, and Andersen, have been removed.  Mrazek, Kampf, Bunting, Kase, and Ritchie have been added.  The new group offers some hidden talent, but it also leaves some big shoes to fill in terms of leadership and team culture.

Those shoes are being tossed in the direction of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander.  Here guys, put these on, do they fit?  Put some extra socks on if they’re too big fellas, because those shoes are yours now.

I think that is the moral of the story to start the 2021-22 season.  The Toronto Maple Leafs have a very talented core group of forwards that are paid a lot of money.  However, until now, that core was not expected to actually lead, they were expected to produce and follow.  They are now in charge.  It’s their room.  It’s their show.  All the additions, the depth, the prospects, they will now follow them.

It’s a reversal of roles that comes at a time of desperation and immensely high expectation.  Dubas made it so he’s not the only one on the hot seat.  He’s pulled his core 4 into the fire with him.  They will succeed together…or…they will go down together.  After all that money, how much do these guys want to play for their GM?  He is THEIR GM.

Next. Is Michael Bunting the Next Zach Hyman. dark

We know where Dubas’ loyalty stands.  How about theirs?  Will these guys reward Dubas for all that dough?  Will they play hard and do whatever this team needs, in the name of their GM?  Or will they let him take the fall for believing in them.

We are about to find out.