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Maple Leafs stakeholders make big bet on current regime

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Run it back, then.

From the top of the food chain on down to the bottom, the Toronto Maple Leafs renewed their hockey vows Tuesday, reaffirming commitments to one another after conducting a sixth straight series of exit interviews with the sting of a first-round loss in the Stanley Cup Playoffs still fresh.

Material, top-of-the-funnel change, it seems, will have to wait for a franchise still banging its head on the same wall.

President Brendan Shanahan killed the intrigue immediately, beginning his media session by standing by the work of general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe.

"Kyle built a very good hockey team. I think he made excellent adjustments along the way. And I think Sheldon is an excellent coach," Shanahan said. "The work for next year begins right now, and I look forward to getting to work with Kyle and Sheldon next season."

The Maple Leafs suffered another disappointing defeat in the first round. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Maple Leafs suffered another disappointing defeat in the first round. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The same was presumably said of Shanahan by his bosses, perhaps with less extravagance. In fact, the conversations were, in all likelihood, far more intense and even indecisive for decision makers in the privacy of their own boardrooms over the last 48 hours. As the franchise took an extra day to present its united front, it's possible that a change at one or more levels of management was truly considered while working to digest the complicated nature of a first-round loss to the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Even so, the franchise found its equilibrium again.

There was residue from the crushing and shocking loss, especially among the players for sure, but clean-out day served up, on balance, and once again, a very measured and connected response from the entire organization.

That's because in all likelihood, it had to be.

While it’s possible that there will be survivors if the major sports-record of futility, and this run of very specific, very devastating failure continues after next season, it's unfathomable to think there won't be significant change.

And while that was the belief among some when the Maple Leafs lost in far more embarrassing fashion last season to the Montreal Canadiens, and even for others after the bubble burst versus the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to that, there are some key differences this time around.

One is that the Leafs were objectively better in 2021-22, setting franchise records in the regular season despite encountering the same fate.

The other is the timeline shaping up for the organization.

As far as we know, Dubas's contract is up for renewal at the end of next season. This means that the executive who established this inextricable link between the three major figureheads, and who might hold the key to everyone's employment, will work on the final season of his deal and without assurances that he will be back in the future.

Often a situation resembling this one can be untenable, and one that could set up a franchise for failure. It's worth considering if this will fundamentally impact Dubas's performance. But in reality, for the Leafs, and after these hockey men chose each other with their respective moves and entered the foxhole as one, it's possible that they don't exist without each other.

If one goes down, it may be that the entire regime falls.

Fortunately for them, there's risk with that, too.

From the standpoint of ownership and the key stakeholders, a step back, much less a collapse, simply isn't an option. Because while some may concern themselves with Dubas's hourglass emptying its sand, Auston Matthews is suddenly two seasons away from unrestricted free agency and can start negotiating terms on a new contract next summer.

Whichever way the board leans, the decision could equate to monumental consequence.

Even if Dubas doesn't see it that way.

"We're fortunate to have one of the best players in hockey," Dubas said, scoffing at the suggestion that Matthews' time may be limited. "We have him under contract for two more years. Beyond that, he's a great player that we would like to see play his whole career in Toronto.

"And he wants to win more than anybody."

(Hence the importance of winning, I suppose).

Trying to shoehorn in an entirely new management structure on a whim at such a key time for the franchise would carry incredible risk, but so, too, does leaning on the same failed ideas from the current executives and coach despite them piecing together the most successful regular season ever.

However if all things are equal, and understanding that there are no assurances with either change or the status quo, things like familiarity and trust land in the favour of the current regime.

Especially with a superstar negotiation on deck.

Just because the same executives and their baggage from previous promises will return, however, doesn't mean that there won't be a serious move this offseason.

Dubas said they won't make changes "to say (they) made changes," but didn't necessary close the door on the suggestion that a move could involve the core group.

He will have to work hard again at the margins, as he alluded to, and did not necessarily rule out something that shakes up the existing dynamic if the situation is right.

"I look at the core group as a whole and try to determine the best way to move ahead with trying to accomplish our goal and achieve our potential," Dubas said when asked about moving ahead as is. "If there's a way we can improve our team, and become a better team, then we'll do that.

He did couch it with: "In these moments, when you have not reached the potential you know you have, that's when true belief is measured."

There was no promise of blood-letting, clearly, but the stance has softened since the days of "We can and we will."

If there is a big move, it likely won't involve John Tavares — for a variety of reasons. However it maybe should be aimed at making life easier on the captain, who's entering the potentially problematic portion of his tenure with the organization after four seasons, if he hasn't already.

In his presser, Keefe lauded No. 91 for his flexibility and for making a variety of lineup combinations work over the course of the season, but the fact of the matter is the coach was searching for the right mix for his second line all year long, and even into the postseason.

He noted at one point after Game 6 that splitting up Tavares and Nylander was more about spreading his middle class of forwards evenly across two lines. It's obvious that something is missing after the likes of Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, Alexander Kerfoot, and Ondrej Kase combined for one goal versus Tampa, and none at even strength.

If it isn't Nylander, finding someone to propel the second line forward feels like a must.

"I view my job as, whether it's (Tavares) or anybody else, to be giving Sheldon and the players the pieces around them so that their primes will be extended as long as possible," Dubas said, addressing the Tavares question.

"As players age, we have the resources here to help them as much as possible, in every regard, on and off the ice, and we need to continue to do that.

"But also with regards to roster construction, players are going to change as they age, inevitably, and we need to, as a management team, be always supporting them with pieces that will best allow them to maintain their primes as long as possible."

The likeliest impactful change and the most buzzy item of the day involved the situation in goal and the fact that Jack Campbell needs a new contract.

Campbell unsurprisingly professed his love for the organization and the market, calling it a "hockey player's dream," but wouldn't go as far as promise that he will take a haircut to stay.

"As far as me loving the city, and doing everything I can to stay here, that's up to [my agent] and [Dubas]," Campbell said.

With $3.8 million for the next two seasons owed to Petr Mrazek after arguably Dubas's worst move of his entire tenure, the Leafs have to not only rid themselves of last year's mistake, but must avoid making the same one again.

Campbell was brilliant in the early months and strong in the playoffs as well, but his first season as an unquestioned starter did feature a weeks-long stretch on the shelf and only 47 starts. Poring through the data on Campbell, and that of potential replacements, while importantly deciding for certain if he can be a reliable No. 1 starter, is as important a determination the Leafs will make, and a bugaboo of the past.

Considering Dubas's history with Campbell, his affinity in the market and the room, and the fact that this is the netminder's one true opportunity to cash in, the decision will not be easy.

And it's one Dubas might already be distancing himself from, based on a bit of a callous response to the question of Campbell's priority:

"I put Jack in the same grouping as Ilya Mikheyev, Mark Giordano, Ondrej Kase, and our unrestricted free agents — Ilya Lyubushkin. We'll sit down as a group in the coming days and weeks, and Brandon (Pridham) will get to work on speaking to representatives, get an idea of what expectations are. We'll look at the marketplace and make our decisions from there."

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, but Shanahan did what he could for Dubas over the weekend, offering him the two things he'll need to right the ship in Toronto: the job, and a clear head.

How he responds is now the most important thing.

Because it's likely his future, the foxhole, and the success of the franchise hinges on it.

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