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As Leafs strengthen grip on the North, Dubas’ deadline mandate is clear

Kyle Dubas has been waiting for the acquisition cost and salary cap considerations to fall into place more than looking for a sign from the Toronto Maple Leafs that it’s time to make a trade.

But in completing a 4-0-0 road trip and strengthening its grip on the North Division with just days to go before the deadline, the team made it abundantly clear to the general manager how this needs to go.

Contrast it with where the Leafs were last season, skidding through the NHL’s trading period and losing to their Zamboni driver less than 48 before the final decisions had to be made. Dubas responded by swapping AHL players, sending a depth goaltender out of town and buying a fifth-round pick by retaining Robin Lehner’s salary as a go-between in the Chicago/Las Vegas deal.

He didn’t mince words that day when it came to explaining why he chose not to add any reinforcements himself: “Well I just think things change as a season progresses and the way that you operate on the deadline is a byproduct of a number of things: Cap space being one function, the performance of the team being another.”

The Leafs might be grinding out victories more than dominating opponents in the shadows of this deadline, but there’s growth to be found in games like their 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Monday night. They stuck with it through a slow start and survived Calgary’s third-period rally before Auston Matthews ended the team’s weeks-long power-play drought with the winning goal, his second of the game and NHL-best 27th on the season.

They found a way just as they had a night earlier against the Flames, and two nights before that in Winnipeg.

“I think that’s what you’re seeing is the difference in our team this year, is just the ability to stick with games and not get frustrated,” said veteran Jason Spezza.

You’ve established a high baseline when you’re sitting with a .705 points percentage at this stage of the season. That puts the Leafs squarely in the class of elite teams working towards the Stanley Cup — a notch below Colorado (.737), but in a group with surprising Florida (.718), Carolina (.716), Tampa (.711), Washington (.711) and Vegas (.703).

It’s why Dubas will be compelled to hold up his end of the bargain even with the considerable challenges brought on by the pandemic. This version of the team has shown itself worthy of spending future assets, whether they be to bring in the middle-six winger he covets, add depth elsewhere for insurance or to help balance the cap ramifications by using other teams to retain salary.

The Leafs have thrived since Frederik Andersen went down to injury last month, going 7-0-1 to pull out of a tailspin while riding the goaltending duo of Jack Campbell and Michael Hutchinson.

Campbell was Dubas’ most significant acquisition last season and he’s paying major dividends now. He matched Felix Potvin’s franchise record with his ninth-straight victory on Monday and hasn’t suffered a loss since March 6, 2020 — in those heady days before the pandemic arrived in North America.

“He’s battling his ass off out there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.

As much as Toronto’s high-end offensive talent is a separator, the top-six could use another weapon. Alex Galchenyuk has proven to be a useful reclamation project in his minutes alongside John Tavares and William Nylander, but Keefe is a noted line shuffler and the deck is shy on left-side options with Joe Thornton having settled into a depth role after starting with Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Were you only basing these decisions off Monday’s win, it would look like a luxury item since each unit scored at five-on-five against Jacob Markstrom. Spezza and Wayne Simmonds each struck for the bottom two lines, while Tavares and Matthews chipped in, too.

Step back and look across 39 games and the Leafs are a much-improved defensive team that no longer goes away easily. They’ve suffered just two losses by more than two goals all season. Even in their worst outings, they hang around with a chance.

“You’re not going to have it every night, but we play the right way, we find ways to go,” said Campbell. “Then other nights we’re just completely buzzing and our talent’s pretty impressive.”

Dubas said one other thing after standing pat at last year’s trade deadline that underlines why the situation calls for something different now. He expressed faith in the core he’d built while acknowledging that he couldn’t explain why they were such a “Jekyll and Hyde” outfit.

“Our group that we have here has to go through this,” Dubas said in February 2020, the David Ayres game still front-of-mind during that session with reporters. “We have to develop the ability to weather the storm when it comes and to thrive going through it. That’s the only way we’re going to be at our best.”

Fast forward 14 months and the entire operation has stabilized despite the unusual amount of instability we’re all dealing with in our lives right now.

The Leafs players have done their jobs.

In these final days before the deadline you can be sure their GM is going to follow suit.

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