Toronto Maple Leafs: Lost Season Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Kyle Dubas of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Kyle Dubas of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

With the NHL season inching closer to a full cancellation, what would a lost season mean for Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs?

As the 2019-20 season creeps closer to a full cancellation than any attempt to salvage the year, the Toronto Maple Leafs could find themselves with more questions than answers once hockey returns.

The biggest question surrounding the Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 season was could the team produce a Stanley Cup contender with so much salary cap space attached to only four players.

With roughly half the team’s cap space attached to Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares, where was the financial wiggle room to fit in the depth needed to win 16 playoff games?

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Truth is, we may never know if this group could have made any impact in the postseason. The inconsistency displayed throughout the regular season suggested it’s unlikely the Maple Leafs were going to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades, but the uncertainty of that outcome could impact the club’s future.

General Manager Kyle Dubas entered the 2019-20 season with a patchwork defense. He flipped previous problems in Nikita Zaitsev, who didn’t like former coach Mike Babcock, and Nazem Kadri, who couldn’t stop getting suspended in the playoffs, for a pair of offensive-minded defensemen.

Tyson Barrie arrived as part of the return for Kadri along with Alex Kerfoot. Half of Barrie’s salary was retained as the pending unrestricted free agent spent the 2019-20 season showcasing his expert breakout passing while routinely looking lost in his own defensive zone. Kerfoot, who was thought to be a third-line center, looked far better as a winger as an attempt to fill one hole in the lineup on defense has created another hole with the third line center position.

The Zaitsev trade brought back Cody Ceci and the moment the trade was announced and Maple Leafs fans witnessed Ottawa Senators fans dancing in the streets at Ceci’s departure, they knew something was up. Ceci showed why Sens fans were eager to get rid of the defenseman as the deal has not looked for Dubas, who also had to throw in gritty winger Connor Brown in the deal.

Brown has played exceptionally well for the Senators and Dubas learned the hard lesson of if you’re going to fire the coach no one likes six weeks into the new season, maybe fire him after the previous year so trading away players who don’t get along with the coach doesn’t hurt the team on the ice.

With Barrie and Ceci set to become free agents its difficult to imagine either will return to the Maple Leafs, forcing Dubas to once again attempt to surround his expensive four forwards with a respectable defense. The emergence of Justin Holl this season along with the continued development of Rasmus Sandin will help but Dubas will once again need to get creative with the limited cap space he has to work with.

A pair of issues that seem to have finally been solved is the club’s backup goaltending and lack of grit problem. Dubas finally caved after what appeared to be stubborn stances on both issues after acquiring Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford just before the trade deadline.

Campbell has been fantastic between the pipes since putting on the blue and white and has two years remaining on his deal, meaning for the first time since Dubas took over as general manager he won’t have to worry about a backup goalie. Not that his history suggested he ever worried about it to begin with.

Clifford is a pending free agent but has a long history with Dubas. When Dubas first put his foot in the door of professional hockey he was a player agent and the first player he ever signed was Clifford. There have also been rumors both parties would like to work out a deal to keep Clifford with the Maple Leafs, who is from Ayr, Ontario which is roughly an hour outside of Toronto.

Clifford’s grit, size, and Stanley Cup experience is everything the Maple Leafs lack and need more of, which suggests Dubas could be coming around on how he chooses to build his roster. It’s no secret Dubas feels you can never have too many skilled forwards but has he finally clued in hardworking, heart-and-soul grinders are needed too?

If so, how Dubas chooses to re-tool the roster could make or break next season before it even begins. The team needs more gritty players like Clifford to round out the bottom-six forwards and help make the club harder to play against physically. However, the team also needs these type of players because they do the little things needed to win playoff games. Not everyone can dangle like Marner or shoot like Matthews.

What the general manager has going for him this time around is he won’t have to bunker down all summer trying to work out a massive contract with one of his most important players as the Maple Leafs have all their key pieces locked up for next season.

He won’t have to pre-plan for a massive cap-hit he may or may not have which would impact the roster one way or another. He’ll finally be free to simply add or subtract from his team for the first time during an offseason in charge.

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Dubas better enjoy that fact this summer as with Freddie Andersen and Zach Hyman scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after next season, lengthy re-negotiations may only take a year off.