BUFFALO, N.Y. — Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas joked with reporters, touched on his options heading into the upcoming NHL draft and weighed in on the value of the league’s scouting combine.
The conversation then inevitably pivoted to the imaginary elephant — at least from a Toronto perspective — residing inside the cavernous lobby of KeyBank Center.
Where do contract negotiations stand between the team and Mitch Marner?
Good, Dubas offered. And the same goes for fellow pending restricted free agent wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
But is he confident the Leafs can get a deal done with Marner, who the GM dubbed “priority No. 1” a month ago, before July 1 when another team could potentially throw an offer sheet the star’s way?
“I’m a very optimistic person,” Dubas said Thursday at the NHL’s scouting combine. “That’s what’s has been expressed on everybody’s end. If everyone is in it on that way, we should be able to get there.”
The Leafs, however, are facing a salary cap crunch this summer, and Marner’s impending pay day isn’t making things easy. Auston Matthews and John Tavares will chew up more than US$22.5 million next season and beyond, while William Nylander’s hit is close to $7 million.
Dubas has said in the past Toronto would be able to keep all of its young stars — Matthews, Nylander and Marner — but it will get extremely tight if the latter’s contract falls in the neighbourhood of $10 or $11 million annually.
In fact, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Leafs aren’t paying their top-4 forwards a combined $40 million next season. Around $68 million of what’s expected to be roughly $83 million in cap space is already committed to the current roster, and with three RFAs and two pending unrestricted free agents (defencemen Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey), there just isn’t enough pie to go around.
But getting Marner — who led the Leafs with career-bests in points (94) and assists (68), and also set a new personal high-water mark in goals (26) — signed on the dotted line remains the primary focus.
Despite there being just over a month left to get the 22-year-old’s deal done before more variables enter the equation, Dubas said there’s no added pressure with July 1 creeping closer.
“The system is what it is,” he said. “The market has kind of beared out where everyone fits in and it’s just trying to work around the edge of that to come to conclusions.”
Dubas said he and Marner’s camp are much further along in the process than they were with Nylander a year ago.
Also an RFA, Nylander wound up missing the first two months of the 2018-19 schedule because of a contract stalemate, eventually signing a new deal on Dec. 1.
Dubas said after the Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins for a second consecutive spring that he learned lessons from the Nylander negotiation — including not setting the player up for success because of how long the process dragged on — and wouldn’t go down the same path with Marner.
Nylander also took heat from sections of Toronto’s fan base, something Dubas hopes doesn’t get repeated in Marner’s contract talks.
“Mitch is a wonderful person and a player, great energy and enthusiasm,” the GM said. “He’s the type of player — him, Auston, Morgan (Rielly) — they’re the types of guys that should play their whole career here and roll on. William would be in that same bucket. That’s what the dream is when you’re with a franchise, you want the players to play their whole careers, especially when they’re core parts of it.
“And then the rest is history.”
ZAITSEV WANTS OUT
Dubas confirmed a report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and agent Dan Milstein have asked for a trade. Zaitsev signed a seven-year, $31.5-million contract with Toronto in 2017 after a successful rookie season, but the 27-year-old has struggled pretty much ever since pen was put to paper. Now all the Leafs have to do is find a suitor willing to take on the final five years of a deal that carries an annual average value of $4.5 million.
DUBAS ON DRAFT
The Leafs don’t pick until No. 53 at the upcoming draft in Vancouver after sending their first-round selection to Los Angeles in the trade for defenceman Jake Muzzin. Dubas hinted Toronto could try to get back into the top-31 spots, but conceded it’s probably a long shot. “We have talented players, so if we really wanted to get one, we could probably make it happen,” he said. “We’re focused right now on the 53rd pick and rolling from there.”
OUT OF THIS WORLD
There have been a lot of “what ifs?” among Toronto fans with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final. The Leafs had the Bruins on the ropes, up 3-2 on home ice, but lost that one before falling in Game 7. But Dubas doesn’t believe it’s right to draw a direct line, especially after the Bruins subsequently beat Columbus and Carolina to set up the meeting with St. Louis. “It takes a real manipulation of the space-time continuum to forecast that.”
DUBAS ON BABCOCK DYNAMIC
Dubas didn’t immediately give Mike Babcock a vote of confidence after the season, leading to speculation Toronto’s head coach could be shown the door. But the GM said he and Babcock are on the same page and looking ahead to the fall. “We communicate with each other very clearly about where we feel the team needs to improve. We’ve found and continue to find a common ground we want to drive towards.”
Dubas said the Leafs can learn a lot from the Toronto Raptors and their run to the NBA Finals, but the main takeaway is patience. “They made major moves when they’ve been right, but only after going through the number of years with the core group. They gave (them) a lot of chances. … Patience and, I think, being committed to what our vision is, will help us to get there.”