NHL

Leafs GM Dubas not worried about offer sheets for Matthews, Marner

The general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs knows full well an offer sheet from another team could potentially be thrown the way of Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner if either player remains unsigned on July 1.

21-year-old forwards expected to ink long-term deals well before July 1

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews (34) and Mitch Marner are both in line for a big raise when their entry-level contracts expire at the end of the season. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Kyle Dubas isn't losing sleep these days — at least when it comes to his pending restricted free agents.

The general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs knows full well an offer sheet from another team could potentially be thrown the way of Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner if either player remains unsigned on July 1.

Dubas expects the star 21-year-old forwards will ink long-term deals well before then, but if that's not the case and another franchise takes a run at prying either player out of Toronto, he's confident the organization is well-positioned to respond.

"Our salary cap situation is set up that we could defend any of those threats with no worry at all," Dubas said after Monday's practice. "I spend zero per cent of my time having any worry about that."

With a heavy price of up to four first-round draft picks going to a club that loses a restricted free agent — not to mention the possibility of future retaliation — GMs have been hesitant to use offer sheets in recent years.

'Both stated they want to be here'

No team has signed one since Calgary inked Ryan O'Reilly in 2013, which was matched by Colorado. The last accepted offer sheet came in 2007 when Edmonton signed Dustin Penner, with Anaheim getting a first-, second- and third-round pick as compensation.

Dubas, who could have nearly $27-million US in salary cap space to play with this summer, doubts it would ever come to that with Matthews and Marner.

"If a team wants to go down that path with us, that's the way it goes," he said. "The players have both stated they want to be here."

Apart from the Leafs' two stars, the long list of potential offer-sheet targets this summer includes Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, Colorado's Mikko Rantanen, Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk, Tampa Bay's Brayden Point, Vancouver's Brock Boeser and Boston's Charlie McAvoy.

As Dubas rightly pointed out Monday, it's not just a Toronto problem.

"I look around the league right now and for whatever reason it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that's going to be the target of an offer sheet," he said. "But there's about a third of the teams in the league that have a very highly-talented [pending] restricted free agent.

"Some of them have more than one, as we do."

Coming off gruelling Nylander negotiation

It's thought Matthews could be looking for a contract in the neighbourhood of Connor McDavid's annual $12.5-million salary on his new deal, while Marner might command $10 million per year.

Toronto already has John Tavares on the books with a cap hit of $11 million for the next six seasons, while Dubas, who was promoted from assistant GM to the top job in May, just went through a gruelling negotiation with restricted free agent William Nylander.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) could be looking for a contract similar to the $12.5 million US Edmonton's Connor McDavid makes annually. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Leafs and the talented winger eventually agreed on a six-year, $45-million pact earlier this month, but talks went right down to the wire for Nylander to be eligible to play in the NHL this season.

Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander will likely end up costing roughly $40 million in cap space, with the ceiling currently projected at around $83 million in 2019-20.

The Leafs also have restricted free agent wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson poised to hit the market in July, while defenceman Jake Gardiner could be squeezed out as he heads towards unrestricted free agency.

Whatever the final numbers turn out to be, a repeat of the Nylander saga is something Dubas, who has 11 pending free agents up and down his lineup, wants to avoid with Matthews and Marner.

"I can't say, 'Well I wasn't doing this job a year ago,"' he said. "It (will) be our intention well before July 1 that we have an agreement and both players are here long-term.

"One way or another, we'll get to that point."

Looking to bolster defence

Toronto is currently sixth in the NHL at 21-10-2, but has hit a recent bump in the road with just one victory over its last five (1-2-2). The Leafs visit New Jersey on Tuesday before a three-game homestand leading into the Christmas break.

Dubas said one area he's looking to bolster — internally at first and then possibly via trade — is the team's ability to quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

"It is an area we can make great gains," he said. "If that isn't something that's happening as we get closer to [February's trade deadline], I think we'll certainly look to improve."

Dubas also bristled at a question regarding Toronto's perceived lack of toughness — a narrative he's previously dealt with in junior and the minors when building a roster centred primarily around speed and skill.

"For whatever reason that takes on a life of its own: the whole 'toughness' question," Dubas said. "I don't buy it, myself. There are a lot of pundits that say you have to have it, but I look at the teams that have had success and I don't think bringing in one big person is going to change our culture.

"We've got a way that we want to play and we're just going to carry on with that. In the end, people will judge whether it was effective."

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