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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Kyle Dubas knows he has work to do improving the Maple Leafs. What he doesn’t know just yet is whether that includes replacing Zach Hyman.

The Leafs’ general manager hadn’t heard from Hyman’s camp following reports Thursday of a meeting between the pending unrestricted free agent winger and the Edmonton Oilers. According to TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger, the Oilers and Hyman are discussing a seven-year deal worth as much as $5.5 million per season. 

There's also the possibility of a sign-and-trade, which would allow Edmonton (or another club) to negotiate an eight-year contract with Hyman.​

Dubas had given Hyman’s agent, Todd Reynolds, permission last week to explore the market ahead of free agency officially opening on July 28, but Dubas said he is in the dark on how those conversations were proceeding. 

“At this time, I've not heard from Todd regarding the reports this morning, so I can't comment too deeply on that,” Dubas told reporters on a noon-hour Zoom call Thursday.

“I really don't know. It was our intention going into [free agency] to retain Zach's services. But we have certain limits that we can go to [in terms of salary cap], and we've tried to extend ourselves as best we can, knowing that there would be a strong market for him.”

Hyman, 29, has spent the entirety of his career with the Leafs, compiling 86 goals and 185 points over 345 games. Over the life of his expiring four-year, $9-million contract, Hyman has emerged as both a top-line winger capable of producing back-to-back 20-plus goal seasons (from 2018-20) and an effective forechecker who excels on the penalty kill. 

Couple that with Hyman’s high-character reputation, and it’s a lot to potentially see walk out the door. No one knows that better than Dubas. But with a flat salary cap of $81.5 million and just about $9.4 million in space to address multiple needs for the coming season, the Leafs don’t have much wiggle room.

“Zach has shown night in and night out he’s going to give his very best to the Toronto Maple Leafs and that’s why we’ve tried to find a solution here,” Dubas said. “But Zach’s earned every dollar he’s going to get in free agency. We’re going to have to make difficult decisions and it’ll be on myself more than anyone else to begin to replace the different talents and intangibles that a player [like Zach] brings to the room. We also need to see growth from players already signed here in those areas.”

Thursday’s press conference was the first time Dubas has spoken publicly since June 2, after the Leafs blew a 3-1 first-round playoff series lead to Montreal and were eliminated from the playoffs.

That gave Dubas and his staff plenty of time to not only prepare for free agency but also for Wednesday’s expansion draft and the upcoming entry draft, happening Friday and Saturday.

Dubas orchestrated one trade ahead of submitting the Leafs' protected list to the Seattle Kraken, acquiring forward Jared McCann from Pittsburgh late last week in exchange for prospect Filip Hallander and a seventh-round pick in 2023.

Since Toronto had opted to protect defenceman Justin Holl and expose Alex Kerfoot to Seattle, McCann was meant to be insurance at the forward position in case Kerfoot was selected. But Kraken general manager Ron Francis plucked McCann from the Leafs instead, and Toronto retained both Holl and Kerfoot. 

Dubas explained the rationale behind those expansion draft decisions and more on Thursday’s call, including why he’s got unwavering faith in the Leafs’ core.

On why Dubas isn’t chasing big changes to Leafs’ roster

“I understand that some may look at it and say, 'This group hasn't gotten it done' and [ask] why there aren’t significant changes [being made]. But for better or worse, I believe in this group, and I believe that they are going to get it done and I believe that they're going to win. I understand that comes with certain doubt because of the fact that we have not broken through in the playoffs, but it's my belief that they will. I believe in them as players and I believe in them as people. I know that decision lies on me and what the risk is for me. I'm comfortable with it. I believe that we're going to see the best version of this group next season that we've seen yet and I'm willing to bet everything on that.”

On why he protected Holl over Kerfoot or McCann

“What do we have with Justin, and what do we have him for in the future? He’s signed for two more years [at $2 million per season]. He's taken major steps the last two seasons. I understand he's 29 years old, but he's extremely well-conditioned, [and there's] low mileage overall on him. We know what he's capable of, we know who he is as a person. We have a strong belief in him. If he's gone from our team, can we replace what he brings at the cap hit? And we went through it tons of different ways and looked at every iteration, knowing what the marketplace was saying about him, knowing what Seattle was likely to do, and then looking at the alternatives. We do have guys internally, but then you're back to the whole thing that we chased for years, which is sacrificing your defence depth and then trying to supplement that by signing someone that's inferior to him, probably around the same cap hit. We just did not think that he was replaceable.”

On what his focus is for the coming off-season 

“We've got a goaltending situation where we need to find a competent partner for Jack Campbell, and let them [compete]. Jack had a great season and we have a lot of faith in Jack and are looking forward to him taking steps next year, but we need to address that [second goalie]. We're going to have some sort of opportunity upfront, which I think appeals to a lot of the players that are there [already]. If free agency doesn't bear fruit on that for us, if we don't think there's value, then we'll look at the trade market. It's easy to look now and have question marks, but come September when camp opens, we'll be in a different position.​”

On where the Leafs stand with pending UFAs Frederik Andersen and Alex Galchenyuk

“I don't really like when the negotiations get public, but we've had communications with both camps. I don't mean to dodge the question but I'd just rather leave it at that. The door isn't closed on either player.” 

On players the Leafs are counting on to push for NHL jobs next season

“We had two guys that already challenge to play in Nick Robertson and Joey Anderson, and we expect them to continue to take steps in the right direction. I thought Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, while he needs to continue to work on his strength, had a really good season with Torpedo in the KHL. We signed Alex Steeves as a free agent from Notre Dame and he's been making great progress. 

On the backend, we're expecting Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to continue to push and challenge and take steps there. And then you've got Kristian Rubens and Mac Hollowell that both had good seasons. We feel that depth on both forward and D is an area that we need to address in free agency to give those young players some competition and make sure that, if they're not ready, that we've got the requisite depth to help out there.”

On balancing player development with those free-agent signings

“We would like to give both Sandin and Liljegren every opportunity. We have to begin converting some of these guys from prospects. Maybe we blocked them a little bit [in the past], but they have to earn it. So, I'm not saying it's a clear path but I think we will try to focus in on a defenceman that maybe perhaps brings a little bit more power presence in the way that [pending UFA Zach Bogosian] did. But we’ll stay in touch with [Bogosian] as well as we get into free agency.” 

On entering this year’s entry draft with only three picks, none in the first round

“Last year we had 12 draft picks, and this year with have three. So, from [the Entry Draft] in October 2020 to July 2021, we're going to add 15 new prospects to our system. That’s the way that we view it. Knowing what was coming with what we expected from our team and what was going to happen to our draft capital at the trade deadline [including the use of a 2021 first-round pick to acquire Nick Foligno], we tried to pick players [in 2020] that we thought we'd have a more complete view on. I think we still expect our scouting staff here to do a great job with the three picks we've got, and be able to return some players.”