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Maple Leafs Mailbag: How long is Kyle Dubas’s leash?

Christmas must be nigh, because the mailman is busy.

The only thing more exciting than opening my front door and seeing a box at my feet is opening my Twitter mentions and seeing some insightful fan questions for the Toronto Maple Leafs ol’ mailbag.

Jimmy Vesey or Alexander Barabanov? Ads on sweaters? Nick Robertson to Europe? Pinning down the Leafs’ bottom pairing? The length of coach Sheldon Keefe’s leash? Freddie Gibbs’ best album track? Which forwards will kill penalties? My own Leafs doppelganger?

We’ve packed nearly as many goodies as an advent calendar for this edition of the Maple Leafs Mailbag.

I have both wingers making the opening night roster — but, perhaps, not the opening-night lineup.

Barabanov, 26, flew from Russia to Toronto in early September and is preparing for his first North American campaign on this side of the pond.

Much like Ilya Mikheyev before him, Barabanov has his sight set on the NHL, not the AHL. And they share the same agent, Dan Milstein.

“I feel good about (Barabanov’s) prospects. He’s a world-class player,” said Milstein. “I’m not a coach. I’m not going to make any predictions. But I feel good about it. You can quote me on that. I feel good about it. Barabanov is an Olympic champion.

“He is a phenomenal player, and I expect him to do well here in North America.”

That said, between these two left shots on prove-it contracts, we’re giving an edge to Vesey.

Not only is Vesey bigger and more experienced at the NHL level (304 games to zero), he has three seasons of 16- or 17-goal production.

In a cap world, a tie goes to Vesey, the $900,000 guy you could lose on the waiver wire. Barabanov is a $925,000 cap hit who can pass freely back and forth from the farm.

Based on their past experience and current contracts, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie are the only defencemen we feel comfortable writing into the Maple Leafs’ top four in ink.

Right-shot Justin Holl — deployed as a shutdown guy in the post-season and, for our money, the Leafs’ most improved defender in 2019-20 — should now feel pressure from Cup champion and trusted penalty-killer Zach Bogosian for some of his minutes.

Meanwhile, young blue-liners Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will arrive with much to prove.

To your point about KHL recruits, we’d be shocked if Mikko Lehtonen, 26, doesn’t fill a spot on the opening-night bottom pair and quarterback the second power-play unit. The reigning KHL Defenceman of the Year put up 17 points in 17 games for Jokerit this fall before flying to Toronto. Like Igor Ozhiganov, Lehtonen will have to play his way out of an NHL job.

Let’s roll with a bottom pair of Lehtonen-Bogosian, with Dermott and Sandin nibbling at their heels and ready to rip in case of injury or the moment coach Keefe wants to dress seven D.

Papi.

Injuries and a pandemic have thwarted Auston Matthews’ dogged pursuit of the 50-goal plateau, and last season the super sniper (47 goals) came one red lamp away from tying co-winners David Pastrnak and Alexander Ovechkin for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

Ovechkin is still awesome, but he is also 35. Pastrnak underwent off-season hip surgery and will miss the start of the season. (Also, the Bruins’ power play will take a step backwards without Torey Krug quarterbacking things.)

This is Matthews’ year, and he’s gearing up for it by sharpening his blade alongside Connor McDavid.

Only one Canadian club ranked among the NHL’s top 14 in fewest goals against in 2019-20 (the Winnipeg Jets, 10th, at 2.83). An all-Canadian division should be a boon for offence, and Matthews is speeding into his prime.

The fan in me says, “Yes, absolutely. I love a good spectacle as much as the next guy.”

But if you’re a San Jose Sharks stakeholder? No way you allow a $49-million investment and your top goal-getter hop in the ring. NHL teams don’t like their players skiing in their free time, let alone volunteering for non-hockey headshots.

The P.R. reward doesn’t outweigh the health risk.

Here’s a question: Would Kane take the fight if it meant temporarily waving the insurance of his guaranteed contract?

Why you gotta do me like this, Sam? The whole album knocks.

Forced to pick one, I’ll go with “Frank Lucas,” featuring Benny the Butcher. Vintage Alchemist eerie beat. Extra vivid verses with some super-slick lines from both emcees.

Freddie Gibbs and Benny dropped two of my favourite records of 2020, and they took turns stealing the show when cameoing on the other’s LP.

Check Gibbs’ appearance on Benny’s “One Way Flight.” You gonna cry in that Toyota or this Maybach?

Ha. Does Carlton the Bear count?

If we’re trying to find a comparable on the actual Leafs roster, we’d be looking at Joe Thornton’s age group, Zach Hyman’s style of play, with less than an eighth of the skill or speed of either.

I’m a winger who’s hard on the forecheck, drives to the blue paint, knocks home the odd rebound, tries to think pass first but, ultimately, is not afraid to muffin a wrister directly into the goalie’s logo.

If being honest, I’m also prone to taking a tripping penalty when a younger, faster opponent darts past me in the neutral zone. Later, sitting in the box, I’ll tell myself I committed the infraction only because I care so much about defence.

Sure. Give the people what they want…

Nah.

If Robertson planned on going overseas this winter, would he not have already left to get sharp for camp? Instead, the American teenager has remained in Toronto all this time, training alongside the established Maple Leafs he is hopeful to join on ice in 2021. While Robertson’s age and waiver-exempt status will give him an uphill climb into the Leafs top-12 forward group, he is a perfect candidate to become a taxi squad member, ready for action when a more experienced winger falters or falls hurt.

With the border closed and the fate of the CHL campaign unknown, allowing clubs to carry bloated rosters appears more and more like a reasonable concession this season. General manager Kyle Dubas’s injection of depth should make the Leafs poised to take advantage if that is the case.

Everyone is a potential trade piece.

That said, the Maple Leafs have crunched the numbers and believe they can skirt under the cap with the group as is, although that might entail pushing some NHL-type talent to the Marlies.

Injuries to the blue line are inevitable in any season but particularly in the type of compacted schedule we anticipate in 2021. Toronto has finally realized the importance of depth on D — Muzzin’s injury in the Columbus series shone a spotlight on that — so if any Leaf does get traded before puck drop (doubtful), we’ll bet he’s a forward.

Another thing: With UFA defencemen like Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene, Travis Hamonic, Brandon Manning, Ben Hutton and Slater Koekkoek still available on the open market, how many teams are lining up to trade tangible assets to commit $6 million to Holl?

If Nate Schmidt only yielded a third-rounder, Dubas would be practically giving Holl away in this climate. He’s much more valuable on the roster.

Great question, although I happen to like Marner on the penalty kill.

If anything, I believe the Leafs should try another offensive superstar — Matthews or John Tavares, who formerly killed penalties with the Islanders — during some 4-on-5 play.

Studs like Mika Zibanejad, Ryan O’Reilly, Anze Kopitar and Patrice Bergeron have no issue piling up points while also helping out on the PK.

Look, for the third consecutive season, Toronto’s penalty killing worsened in 2019-20, settling in at disappointing 21st overall (77.7 per cent).

It’s a problem, one partly due to the absence of a reliable face-off man on the PK unit.

Consider this glaring discrepancy from last season: Toronto ranked third overall in faceoff wins (52.5 per cent) but 25th in short-handed faceoff wins (43.1 per cent). If you don’t start with the puck, you can’t clear the puck.

I’d love to see Tavares and/or Matthews — smart minds, good sticks, positive face-off results — deployed here, even if it’s just for the D-zone draws.

The turnover in Keefe’s support staff and the absence of Kasperi Kapanen will result in tweaks to the special teams. Hyman is a fixture on the top PK unit. Bank on Mikheyev being used regularly, too.

Marner, Vesey and/or Barabanov could see time. But, again, those are all wingers.

Get a centreman in there.

No.

Toronto has a growing leadership group whose letters are invisible. Thornton and Wayne Simmonds should join Jason Spezza, Muzzin, Hyman and Frederik Andersen in this group.

Stitching an “A” on Thornton’s sweater would mean taking one away from Matthews, Marner or Rielly. And I’m sure you could imagine the reaction to that move.

The veterans don’t require an extra bit of felt to speak up or act like leaders. They’ll carry respect regardless.

Maybe he didn’t draft Rielly (Brian Burke did) or trade and sign Andersen (Lou Lamoriello did), but this is most definitely Dubas’s team now. His fingerprints are all over this thing, from the coaching staff to the players to the front office. It is his vision that will soar or sour.

While fans are understandably frustrated with four straight postseason losses, we’re only beginning the first full attempt in the Dubas-Keefe era. How they’re operating, I certainly don’t sense this is the regime’s last gasp.

Regardless what happens in 2020-21, we’re giving the GM and the coach another shot in 2021-22.

Another early ouster, however, and the leash tightens fast. The 2022 post-season becomes make or break.

Way back in 2015, when cash was flush and the salary cap was only escalating, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this: “I’m in no rush to put advertising on our sweaters. I think we’ve got the best jerseys in all of sports. I like the history, the tradition. I like the way they look, and I’ve repeatedly said we wouldn’t be the first (in North America) and you’d probably have to bring me kicking and screaming.”

Around the same time, Jets captain Blake Wheeler tweeted this:

I conducted a poll on this website. Ninety-four per cent of readers in 2015 voted they would not want to see ads on NHL jerseys.

Times change. Corporations invade.

Bettman has held true to his word. Remember, he’s a lawyer. He selects his words carefully.

The NHL was not the first; the NBA decorated/desecrated their jerseys with an additional corporate logo above the heart (the GE Boston Celtics!).

I’m a romantic. I prefer the days of blank boards, when arenas and stadiums were named after people or gardens, not publicly traded entities. I shudder to think of a Montreal Canadiens sweater where the CH is drowning in logo soup.

That said, efforts to grow the shrinking NHL/NHLPA pie in the face of a pandemic could well bring NBA-style ads to sweaters.

There was a day Bettman was reluctant to gambling. Now the NHL is embracing the bettors. I’m willing to bet we will see sponsors stitched onto NHL sweaters this decade. Like it or not.

I’m sure the coaches agree with you, Bonesy.

Keefe & Co. are preaching attacking and defending as a five-man unit, to always provide puck support in effort to maximize possession. That means, when given open ice, every defenceman is encouraged to make a play and start driving transition.

The flip side of that is the necessity for forwards to fight harder for 50/50 pucks, to make smart, safe plays in their own zone and try as hard to prevent goals as they do to score them.

A 48-game NHL season will start Jan. 30 — on the quiet weekend between the NFL’s conference championships and Super Bowl LV — and will wrap when the Stanley Cup is hoisted on June 28, leaving U.S. broadcast partner enough runway to pump up the Summer Games.

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