Kyle Dubas had two messages on Monday, one for his fellow NHL general managers should they be tempted to steal Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and one for his defencemen – get better at moving the puck or else.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager held court in his team’s dressing room after practice. When Dubas was asked about all the talk that more than one NHL team could drop an offer sheet on Matthews or Marner or both when they become restricted free agents on July 1, he had a blunt response: Just try me.
“I understand why it’s a topic, because there are a lot of restricted free agents coming up this year that are highly talented,” Dubas said. “We’re certainly not alone in that. But what I would say as it relates to our team is that our salary-cap situation is set up so we can defend any of those threats with no worry at all.
“I know they’ve become a huge topic of late, but I spend zero per cent of my time having any worry about that. If a team wants to go down that path with us, that’s the way it goes.”
Offer sheets are rarely used, particularly for star players such as Matthews and Marner, for two reasons. One, the team in question always matches any offer sheet in order to keep its player. Two, the cost in draft picks for any team making the offer is prohibitive.
The number of draft picks increases with the value of the offer. Both Matthews and Marner would attract offers in excess of US$10.2-million a year, which means any team getting either player would owe the Leafs four first-round entry draft picks.
For the 2019-20 season, the Leafs have about US$56-million committed against a projected salary cap of US$83-million. However, they also have 11 players who will be restricted or unrestricted free agents next season.
But Dubas said his goal is to have both Matthews and Marner signed before July 1, and talks are continuing with the agents for both players.
“We want to avoid the situation we were just in,” Dubas said, referring to the contract talks with Leafs forward William Nylander that went to minutes before the Dec. 1 deadline for signing restricted free agents.
Given that Matthews and Marner are certain to add a minimum of US$22-million to the Leafs payroll next season, Dubas could not guarantee defenceman Jake Gardiner will be around after he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Gardiner would likely draw the most interest of the Leafs’ pending free agents. Dubas said he wants to keep him, but nothing is certain.
“We would like him to be here [but] it’s not as simple as it sounds,” Dubas said. “You only have a certain amount you can divvy up and it’s trying to make all that work and keep our team on the right path.”
Dubas said he told Gardiner and his agent they will begin negotiating as soon as he takes care of “some other matters we have to attend to.” Translation: Once we get the Matthews and Marner contracts done, we’ll talk.
The Leafs, who will try to shake a four-losses-in-five-games funk in New Jersey on Tuesday night against the Devils, need to get better at moving the puck out of their own zone, according to Dubas. He did say they could use some help from the forwards, but he also made it clear fixing this could be done through a deal before the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 25.
“If that isn’t something that is happening as we get close to the end of February, I think we’ll certainly look to improve,” Dubas said in referring to a move at or before the trade deadline.
The GM also hinted the Leafs might give 19-year-old prospect Timothy Liljegren a shot at showing how he can move the puck with the big team. It will not be for a while, as Liljegren sustained a high ankle sprain while playing for the Toronto Marlies farm team, which means his planned loan to Sweden for the world junior championship is likely off.
“It’s disappointing for us, because he’s a right-shot defenceman and he moves the puck very well,” Dubas said. “We were looking at him to continue to move and challenge here this season. Unfortunately, this is going to set him back quite a few weeks.”