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Kyle Dubas outlines Maple Leafs’ goals heading into free agency

TORONTO – Kyle Dubas knows he needs to make good on his word.

The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager has professed multiple times this week that he is on a mission to make his roster “harder to play against.”

And yet, his skill-at-will club has gradually, quietly taken a step backward in that department.

Fun fact: None of the 2019-20 Maple Leafs’ four most frequent body-checkers — Kyle Clifford, Dmytro Timashov, Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier — will be back.

Kasperi Kapanen, one of the rare top-nine forwards willing to engage physically, is gone too. Ditto Cody Ceci, the most physical regular defenceman not named Jake Muzzin.

We’re not saying these players should’ve been kept, and in some cases, it would make no financial sense.

We are saying that hitting still matters in winning hockey, especially winning playoff hockey — even as the sport grows faster and younger and lacrosse goals are all the rage.

Is it a coincidence that the Stanley Cup finalists, Dallas (42) and Tampa Bay (41), finished one-two in hits per 60 minutes? Or that conference finalists Vegas and New York ranked third and fourth in that same category?

Among all 24 clubs invited into the bubble, the Maple Leafs were the least likely to deliver a check, throwing just 19 hits every 60 minutes.

During the regular season, Toronto ranked in the bottom third leaguewide in blocks per game and 29th overall in hits per game (16.7).

So, yes, the Maple Leafs need to get harder to play against.

Part of that sandpaper must develop organically, from within, and coach Sheldon Keefe has already been holding individual discussions with his leadership group, challenging them to give more.

But a healthy measure of snarl must be imported over the next week through free agency and trades.

Dubas plans to run back his expensive, star-studded top end while seeking to overhaul a bottom six in disarray and a right side of an NHL blueline that essentially starts and ends with Justin Holl.

The best additions, be they stay-at-home defencemen or bottom-six forwards, should be able to improve a mediocre penalty kill, boost the club’s relatively low collective playoff experience, and not be afraid to give or take a hit.

“I know what we’re looking to accomplish,” Dubas said Wednesday night, following two days of stockpiling 12 more talent tickets through the draft.

“We want guys on our team who are really competitive, who make life hard on the opposition, with their speed, and their pressure, and their physicality. They have to be able to play as well. They may not be some of the typical names that everyone says: ‘Oh, this guy is tough.’ ”

The Leafs will hold roughly $5.4 million in cap space when free agency’s curtain opens Friday at noon, but clubs can spend up to 10 per cent over the $81.5-million cap over the off-season if they choose.

There is a keen eye targeted at bargain-hunting here, as Dubas opted not to qualify RFA forwards Gauthier and Evan Rodrigues because he sees an opportunity to upgrade by signing opponents’ castaways.

A true third-line centre to correct the Nazem Kadri trade mistake would be fantastic, and it’s believed middle-six forwards Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot, who both bring cost certainty, would be available in trade.

Dubas has broadcasted a willingness to trade his 2021 first- or second-round draft pick for immediate help. (He already spent his 2021 third-rounder to acquire Jack Campbell and Clifford from L.A.)

And there is acceptance in the organization (finally?) that bringing in more snarl does mean sacrificing a little from the talent department.

“That’s absolutely the case,” Keefe acknowledged. “You’re not going to get the desired skill level you want all through the lineup. But we don’t want to worsen our team. We have to be intelligent with all the moves we make. And let’s not lose sight of the fact the players we do have returning can be better.”

Let’s name some names, shall we?

Understanding Alex Pietrangelo, if available, is the big swing, there are plenty of other reasonable UFA targets to explore Friday.

On defence, Dubas has to be looking at Vancouver, with gritty Toronto native Chris Tanev and an unqualified Troy Stecher heading to market. Edmonton’s unqualified Matt Benning would be a fine buy-low, third-pairing candidate. UFA righties T.J. Brodie, Radko Gudas and Zach Bogosian would all upgrade the current situation.

Upfront, we’re intrigued by bargain buys like Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, Derek Grant, and particularly Soo Greyhounds alum Nick Cousins.

Yet a bid for a more known commodity like Wayne Simmonds, Craig Smith, Patrick Maroon, Joe Thornton, Corey Perry or Mikko Koivu would make for a better headline. This group would have to be willing to take a pay cut, short term, and accept a reduced role, the way Jason Spezza has the past two years.

Dubas warns that we may not see the frenzy of years past this Friday. The flat salary cap, stricter internal caps, and the elimination of the free-agent interview period have all made executives cautious this off-season.

“I really don’t know what it’s gonna look like,” Dubas said. “I know what we’re trying to accomplish, but it might take a few days.”

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