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Maple Leafs GM, coach's fate could be tied to playoff struggles ending

Toronto has lost first series past six seasons, hasn't advanced since 2004

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas met with team president Brendan Shanahan late in the summer to discuss possibly getting a contract beyond this season.

He was told not yet. The decision would come after this season, likely depending on whether the Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since 2004.

In having his future in Toronto tied to this season, Dubas might not be alone. Coach Sheldon Keefe and even some of the Maple Leafs' core players could be in the same situation.

Dubas said it's fine with him.

"I'm more than happy to go through the year, be evaluated on the year, and then have the decision made," Dubas said Wednesday, the first day of training camp. "I believe in our group and know what we're capable of.

"This organization preaches accountability. In my position, I'm not different. I fully expect to be judged on the five-year term of my contract. I've fully acknowledged that we haven't gotten it done at the end of the season.

"I would much rather be evaluated on the full term, anyway."

The Maple Leafs have been one of the best teams in the regular season since Dubas replaced Lou Lamoriello as GM on May 11, 2018. They are 171-88-31, the fifth-best record in the NHL in that span, and have made the playoffs in all four seasons but have not gotten out of the opening round, losing a winner-take-all game each time.

Last season, they finished with 54 wins and 115 points, both the most in their history, but went home early again when they lost Games 6 and 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Keefe, who replaced the fired Mike Babcock as coach on Nov. 20, 2019, is in the first of a two-year contract he agreed to Oct. 1, 2021. It runs through the 2023-24 season, but if Dubas doesn't survive, Keefe's future is tenuous at best; very rarely do teams retain a coach if there is a change of general managers.

"The key word is focus," Keefe said. "You just have to be focused on the end goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup. So that's his sole focus."

Dubas said, "Our goal is to win four series, not one."

The history of the Maple Leafs dictates that is much easier said than done, especially with the current group, which has kept coming up short in the postseason.

Forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and defenseman Morgan Rielly -- all Toronto draft picks -- have yet to win a series together in six tries with the Maple Leafs since 2017. Center John Tavares, who signed with the Maple Leafs as a free agent before the 2018-19 season, has been part of the past four series losses. Yet Dubas and Keefe continue to bank their own futures on the belief that this nucleus is on the verge of breaking through.

"They believe in us, we believe in them," Marner said. "Now it's up to us to show their belief is warranted. We have a great team and, for what it's worth, we believe in ourselves."

Aside from the potential fate of the GM and coach, there has been no shortage of speculation surrounding the future of Matthews.

The 25-year-old, who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player last season after scoring a Maple Leafs-record 60 goals, has two seasons remaining on the five-year, $58.17 million contract he agreed to Feb. 5, 2019. It has an average annual value of $11.634 million.

Marner (almost $10.9 million AAV) and Tavares ($11 million AAV) each has three seasons remaining on his contract. Nylander ($6.9 million AAV) has two seasons left on his deal.

"We've got a massive amount of (NHL salary) cap flexibility coming around that time [the contracts of] Auston, Mitch, William and John all expire," Dubas said. "It's on us to build an environment where high-end players want to stay and be here because they know they can be pushed to reach their potential and have a chance to win."

Matthews understands the intrigue surrounding his long-term plans but pointed out he cannot sign a new contract, even if he wanted to, for another 10 months. As such, he said he won't talk publicly about his contract for the remainder of the season, though he did profess to have a special relationship with the team and the city.

"I love playing in Toronto," he said. "It's a place I consider home for a while now."

There are no questions about how Matthews will fare on the ice. Last season he became the first United States-born player in NHL history to score 60 goals in a season, and the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft shows no signs of slowing down.

Scoring has not been an issue for Toronto, which was second in the NHL last season with an average of 3.80 goals per game, behind the Florida Panthers (4.11). The goaltending situation is a different story.

Jack Campbell was 51-14-9 with a 2.50 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and seven shutouts in 77 games (75 starts) with Toronto the past three seasons before signing a five-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers on July 13. The team's goaltending now rests with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, who each struggled last season.

Murray battled various injuries the past two seasons with the Ottawa Senators, going 15-25-3 with a 3.23 GAA, .899 save percentage and three shutouts in 47 games (45 starts). Samsonov was inconsistent with the Washington Capitals last season and finished 23-12-5 with a 3.02 GAA, .896 save percentage and three shutouts in 44 games (39 starts).

Murray, who played for Sault St. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League from 2012-14 when Dubas was the GM and Keefe the coach, passed his physical Wednesday and proclaimed himself ready to go. Keefe said each goalie will get plenty of action in the preseason.

"The relationship between goalie partners is pivotal," Murray said. "We need to push each other and have each other's backs as well."

For their part, the players understand a shake-up could be coming if the team fizzles in the spring yet again. To that end, Jake Muzzin was asked if it's time for the Maple Leafs organization to put up or shut up.

The defenseman needed three words to sum up what Toronto is facing this season:

"It is time."

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