Maple Leafs doubling down on Shanaplan
Brendan Shanahan and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas speak to the media on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP

This time around Kyle Dubas felt no need to passionately defend the decisions and players that will define his program.

While holding another season-ending media session much earlier than intended, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager drew a distinction between a seven-game series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the first-round defeats that came before it.

Most notably, he wasn’t on his back foot when asked about the $40-million tied up in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. The youngest three of those players delivered career-best seasons and each of them produced points and big moments in a playoff series where the team fell one goal short of knocking out the champs.

That allowed Dubas and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan to strike a different tone while effectively saying they’re planning to keep calm and carry on this summer. They sounded encouraged about the overall direction of things. 

If there’s a big change coming, they did a marvellous job of disguising intent.

Shanahan offered a vote of confidence to both Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe before even getting asked about their respective job security on Tuesday afternoon. Dubas indicated that any personnel changes would only be considered to the part of his core that extends beyond his four highest-paid forwards.

As for those players specifically?

“I think the contracts to those players that you’re referencing, I think they’re providing us great value for them in the way that they’re producing and the way that they continue to evolve as they go through their contracts,” he said. “I don’t regret those at all.”

This is effectively the Shanaplan in action.

That term doesn’t get thrown around like it once did, but remember the passionate season-ending speech from the Leafs president where it was coined hinged on one main idea back in 2015: “The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with the plan. The challenge in Toronto is to stick to it.”

Several years and several solid regular seasons down the line, they’re effectively sticking to it.

The continued quest towards a playoff breakthrough will be charted in a manner similar to what we saw last summer when the Leafs let Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen walk away in free agency while making a series of bets on affordable talent that largely paid off.

This time around it’s Jack Campbell and Ilya Mikheyev eligible to hit the open market. They’ll be given consideration to stay, but their demands may ultimately price them out of the team’s plans. There’s also contract decisions pending on depth pieces Colin Blackwell, Ilya Lyubushkin, Mark Giordano and Jason Spezza – the two greybeards are both eager to remain with their hometown team, if possible – and inevitably Dubas will enter the July 13 free-agent frenzy looking for added value anywhere he can find it.

"Whether that’s someone that’s coming off an injury, someone that hasn’t been given great opportunities or someone coming off a bad year that you think you see something in that’s a fit specifically with your team,” he said. “That’s really where we have to focus.”

All indications suggest that management views this past season as one that validated the process even without delivering the desired playoff result. The team established new franchise bests in wins and points, while seeing nearly half of the roster deliver career years.

In the series against the Lightning they didn’t go down easily.

They held leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 and were an overtime goal in Game 6 away from moving on to face Florida. Instead, they got another do-or-die Game 7 and this time the Leafs didn’t shrink in the moment – ultimately losing 2-1 on a night where they had the potential tying goal wiped away by a penalty call.

Those were all cited as positive signs after 72 hours of digesting the result. 

“I liked their starts. I liked their comebacks. I liked the fight that they showed and the embracing of those moments,” said Shanahan. “They just didn’t get the job done, but the process to me [was there]. It doesn’t take away my disappointment, but what makes me feel more encouraged was that it was a completely different approach.

“We’re still seeking that killer instinct, but we were doing a lot more of the things that you need to do in order to get that job done than I’ve seen in the past couple of elimination games, where I felt that we looked a little bit more on our heels.”

While seeking improvement around the margins they’ll also be banking on growth from the difference-makers. Dubas believes there’s room for Matthews and Marner to get better and they already hold a place among the NHL’s elite.

When the Leafs decided to tie up all of that money in the high-end forwards they did so believing their contracts would become easier to work around as time went along. Then a pandemic arrived unexpectedly and the NHL was transformed into a flat-cap league for the first time ever.

It was an objectively bad break.

But it hasn’t left the man in charge of the hockey department believing he needs to change course.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that it’s best to [subtract] some of your very best players to spread the dollars around the players who aren’t as good,” said Dubas.

“Different may gain some applause and some accolades because it’s different, but if it’s not better then we’re going to have a better chance of sitting here disappointed again.”

With only so many kicks at the can he’s sticking to the original plan.

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