SIMMONS SAYS: Kyle Dubas left the Maple Leafs in an impossible spot

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Kyle Dubas left a reasonable hockey club behind when he essentially fired himself as general manager of the Maple Leafs last June.

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He also left behind a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing, which coincided with a salary-cap conundrum that seems to forever haunt this hockey club.

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picture, the troubles began for Dubas when he signed free agent John Tavares for $11 million in July of 2018. Not that Tavares hasn’t performed — he has. He just hasn’t dominated the way an $11-million player is supposed to.

Seven months after the Tavares signing, Auston Matthews signed the largest Leafs contract in history — $11.6 million a season, for not enough years.

And then at training camp in 2019, Dubas signed Mitch Marner for almost $11 million a year, again for not enough term.

Three players for $32.5 million. And when you add in the one great contract Dubas signed — the deal that broke the self-imposed holdout of William Nylander — that was four players at just a touch under $40 million a season.

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Vegas won the Stanley Cup last season with its top four players making $34.2 million. Colorado won the year before, with its top four totalling $31.5 million. Tampa Bay won twice at less than $35 million. St. Louis won at less than $30 million for its top four.

Dubas left for GM Brad Treliving to inherit — and Brendan Shanahan had to be party to all the spending — was a hockey team facing financial challenges for the ages.

The Leafs are trying to win the Stanley Cup in a way in which no one has ever succeeded before.

Now Nylander is about to get a large raise — here or somewhere else. Matthews has already secured his new deal at $13.5 million. If the Core Four stays together next season, that number will reasonably begin at $46 million.

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By signing Tavares for too much, then Matthews for too much, then Marner for too much, Dubas put the Leafs in an impossible situation, COVID or no COVID. Most of the best NHL teams have found a way to be competitive with their best players and not putting the team at risk by signing them to expensive extensions. Dubas believed in his star players, just as he believes in them now in Pittsburgh. It didn’t work here and, with his stars so old with the Penguins, it may not work there.

THIS AND THAT

Is it time for coach Sheldon Keefe to move Nylander alongside Matthews and move Marner to a line with Tavares? The Matthews-Marner combination isn’t working the way it has in the past. Next year, Matthews will be the highest-paid player in the NHL. As of Saturday afternoon, he was 26th in league scoring. Marner, normally among the top right wingers in hockey, is playing nowhere near the levels of Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak, Nylander or Mikko Rantanen this year …Salaries of the best scorers in the NHL today: Kucherov, four more years at $9.5 million; Quinn Hughes, three more years at $7.8 million; Pastrnak, $11.2 million for the next seven years; J.T. Miller. $8 million a year for six more years; Cale Makar at $9 million for three more years. Those are mostly value deals. The Leafs historically overpay … One thing the Leafs have to do better on a nightly basis: Manage the puck. This must drive coach Keefe and his assistants a little nuts … My advanced scouting report on Ilya Samsonov. Shoot. Shoot from anywhere. Shoot from any angle. Samsonov’s save percentage is .878, barely ahead of Stuart Skinner in Edmonton, who has the better goals against average. And in Edmonton, they’re screaming for better goaltending … A lot of hockey people believed Jonathan Quick was finished as an NHL goaltender the past few seasons. This year in six starts with the New York Rangers — almost out of nowhere — he hasn’t lost in regulation time and owns a 1.68 goals against average and a .940 save percentage … You think the Tampa Bay Lightning was a little excited by the return of all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on Friday? They scored eight goals on the road in Carolina against a Hurricanes team that normally gives up that many goals in about three games.

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HEAR AND THERE

So much strange talk around the Blue Jays these days. They didn’t hit much last season and now word around is they’re looking to trade their best hitter, Bo Bichette — the player they should be building around for now and for the future. The only way you ever consider trading Bichette is in some monster deal that improves the offence significantly … Bichette should be named Blue Jays player of the year this week, and Kevin Gausman should walk away with pitcher-of-the-year honours. Easy votes for both of them … Meanwhile, the baseball rumours have the Jays shopping Alek Manoah, which tells me they don’t see him turning it around in Toronto. He was an all-star in 2022, lost in 2023. If the Jays truly believe in Manoah, they would be hanging on to him tightly, not creating more uncertainty around him … Josh Donaldson wants to return to Toronto, where he played his best baseball. Unfortunately, his best baseball was played at least seven years ago … So happy for John Gibbons to be back in baseball as bench coach for the New York Mets. There are many good people in baseball. There aren’t any better than Gibbons, who owns a World Series ring he rarely wears from his time as a backup catcher with the Mets … The two best players on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year are Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, both of whom violated baseball’s performance-enhancing drug regulations on several of occasions. That means, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds before them, they won’t be elected to the Hall. I look forward to the day when the ballot will have no druggies on it, and voters can just select the best players without thoughts of conscience, character or dignity. The one sure thing on the ballot this year: Long-time third baseman Adrian Beltre, whose offensive numbers are significantly better than Scott Rolen, the brilliant fielder, who was elected last year to the Hall … And so happy for Rick Bowness, one of the best people in the hockey business, now back behind the bench of the Winnipeg Jets after his wife, Judy, suffered a seizure. The Jets played very well under assistant coach Scott Arniel, which reminded me a little of the year Harry Neale got suspended for an altercation with some fans and Roger Neilson took over the Vancouver Canucks and coached them to the Stanley Cup final.

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SCENE AND HEARD

Are you heartbroken that the Raptors have been eliminated from the in-season NBA tournament? Did you even know?… The way Pascal Siakam played Friday night — part-scorer, part-distributor — makes him a dangerous NBA player. When he does that kind of thing, with Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby playing at the top of their games, the Raptors can be a fun team to watch. They have enough talent to be a .500 or so team this season, which is either encouraging or discouraging, depending on your vantage point … Did Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster miss by passing on Jordan Hawkins in the first round of the NBA draft, to select Gradey Dick? Hawkins is scoring 12.7 points a game and shooting 35.9% from three in New Orleans. Dick played Saturday for the Raptors 905 … I know Gregg Popovich thinks he runs the world, but taking the microphone and asking fans to stopping booing Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio? Please … Mike O’Shea should have won four Grey Cups in a row. Really, it was right there for him. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been good enough to do that. O’Shea has to figure out how his team lost for the second year in a row to a lesser one late in the championship game … The Bombers need to sign GM Kyle Walters, partially to save O’Shea from himself. The great CFL coach is a touch too sentimental when it comes to roster-building. He loves his veteran players. He probably sticks with them too long. He needs a GM to force some roster changes on him and prevent him from messing up his roster the way he did by wasting an import spot on the injured Adam Bighill in the biggest game of the year … Did you see the size of the crowd for the Grey Cup celebration in Montreal? It was beyond enormous. Haven’t seen anything like that in an Eastern city in years. Grey Cup MVP Cody Fajardo was the college backup of Colin Kaepernick. The two used to stay in touch.

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AND ANOTHER THING

Jim Montgomery was the coach of the year in the NHL last season. The way this year has started for the Boston Bruins, without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, he may be the coach of the year this season, as well. The only NHL coach to ever win the award two years in a row was Jacques Demers with Detroit in 1987 and ’88 … Who used their backside to protect the puck better? Jaromir Jagr? Phil Esposito? Mario Lemieux? … Did you hear where Alex Ovechkin said that he and Sidney Crosby saved the NHL when they came into the league together after the lockout of 2005? Well, they have certainly played fabulous hockey — Crosby being the best player, Ovechkin the best scorer. But saving the NHL? Nope. Crosby probably saved the Penguins and Ovechkin did much for the Capitals franchise in Washington. But did they do anything for the Leafs, the Canadiens or the Rangers? Other than push them down the standings? Nope … Reasons to worry about Ovechkin ever passing Wayne Gretzky on the career goal-scoring list. He has just five goals this season in 17 games, two of them empty-netters, only one on the power play and and his longtime centre, Nicklas Backstrom, has probably played his last NHL game … My bet: John Klingberg now on the long-term injury list, has played his last game for the Leafs … Patrick Mahomes may not have the strongest arm, be the best passer in football or be the biggest or strongest quarterback, but I don’t know of anyone who has ever had his pocket awareness. He seems to know where everyone on the field is and he moves accordingly. If not for dropped passes by wide receivers, Kansas City would be 9-1 after 10 games instead of 7-3 … The four major leagues have come together on a gambling program called “responsible gaming.” And isn’t that the oxymoron of all oxymorons? … Good for Marc-Andre Fleury, wearing his goalie mask for the warmup Friday night with Pride and Indigenous messages on it, even after the NHL had already ruled it illegal. The entire league should chip in, player by player, to help pay for the fine likely to come Fleury’s way … Happy birthday to Donovan McNabb (47), Bernie Kosar (60), Bob Murray (69), Chris Osgood (54), Bucky Dent (72), Cris Carter (58), Art Shell (77), Jon Ryan (42), Harold Reynolds (63), Shawn Kemp (54), Gina Kingsbury (42) and Joffrey Reynolds (44) … And, hey, whatever became of Roman Polak?

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A ‘CONCESSION’ THE ARGOS NEED TO MAKE

The Toronto Argonauts actually have something to sell this off-season. Great football. Great stadium. Great ticket prices. Supposedly, a great QB.

Whether Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will bother to market the Boatmen, or invest in them at all off the field, is another matter.

The first thing I would do is trying to sell Argos tickets is reduce concession prices. You shouldn’t be charging Leafs prices for Argos food. They should consider what Arthur Blank did years ago in Atlanta as owner of the NFL Falcons. He cut concession prices significantly.

He wanted to sell tickets to families.

He brought down the prices of hot dogs and drinks and other snacks to Costco-level counter prices. It brought people to games who otherwise wouldn’t go or couldn’t afford it.

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What do people say they want from their sporting teams?

They want prices that families can afford. The Leafs and Raptors don’t have that any longer.

Families want teams that entertain. They want a venue that’s enjoyable to attend. The Argos have all of that. The ticket prices are reasonable. BMO Field is a fine facility, except for the way it is set up for entrance and exits.

Now they have to discover an audience that isn’t old and white. They need an audience that looks like the city.

That will take some work.

But it’s worth working on. If you saw the record-sized crowd that attended the Eastern final.

This will take work, originality and selling. The ticket-selling season has already begun.

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X: @simmonssteve

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