MES­SAGE DE­LIV­ERED

GMs around the NHL breath­ing a sigh of re­lief as Leafs’ Dubas gets his man with­out break­ing the bank

Sunday Sports - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS [email protected]­media.com @Michael_Traikos

What’s that they say about how to sur­vive your first day in prison?

Ac­cord­ing to the movies, you’re sup­posed to pick a fight with the big­gest, mean­est dude around. It’s not so much about whether you’ll win the fight, you just have to show the rest of the in­mates that you won’t be pushed around.

That’s sort of what Kyle Dubas did with William Ny­lan­der, who af­ter a twom­onth stand­off even­tu­ally caved in and signed a six-year con­tract ex­ten­sion lit­er­ally min­utes be­fore the Dec. 1 dead­line on re­stricted free agents.

From here, it’s not quite clear whether the Maple Leafs or Ny­lan­der won this fight.

In the end, the Leafs got their guy. And they got him at a rea­son­able cap hit of $6.9 mil­lion US. That’s David Pas­tr­nak-type money. And though it’s a bit more than the Leafs wanted to spend, it is also far less than the re­ported $8.5 mil­lion Ny­lan­der had been de­mand­ing.

Bar­ring a trade — and his con­tract makes that op­tion a likely pos­si­bil­ity mov­ing for­ward — Ny­lan­der is go­ing to be mem­ber of the Leafs un­til 2024. And be­cause the Leafs were able to keep the cap hit a shade un­der $7 mil­lion, re-sign­ing Mitch Marner and Aus­ton Matthews be­comes that much eas­ier.

That should make Leafs fans happy. But it should also put a smile on the face of Win­nipeg Jets GM Kevin Chevel­day­off, who next sea­son will be in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion when Pa­trik Laine and Kyle Con­nor come off the books, as well as other gen­eral man­agers around the league.

That’s why the en­tire hockey world was pay­ing such close at­ten­tion to these ne­go­ti­a­tions. Ny­lan­der was set­ting the bar — if not the tone — for the next group of re­stricted free agents.

Af­ter all, this fight wasn’t so much about Ny­lan­der, it was about Marner and Matthews, whose dol­lar fig­ure was the­o­ret­i­cally ris­ing with each point they pro­duced this sea­son. And it was about set­ting a prece­dent for the rest of the league.

Had Dubas given a player who had never scored more than 22 goals or 61 points $7.5 mil­lion per year, then a player such as Win­nipeg’s Con­nor, who scored 31 goals last sea­son and is on a point­per-game pace this year, would have been jus­ti­fied in ask­ing for $8 mil­lion.

In other words, there was a rea­son beyond Toronto’s cap im­pli­ca­tions why Dubas had to hold firm in these ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Seven months af­ter he was pro­moted to gen­eral man­ager, all eyes were on the rookie GM as he went to work on try­ing to re-sign Toronto’s Big 3.

Ny­lan­der was his first test, the first free agent who tried to take ad­van­tage of a 33-year-old who in his first move as GM had writ­ten a $77-mil­lion cheque to John Tavares. No ques­tion, Ny­lan­der’s camp saw that and must have thought they could bully Dubas into pay­ing more than what the Leafs could af­ford.

Ex­cept, Dubas punched back.

And be­cause of that a mes­sage was sent not only to Matthews and Marner, but also to the rest of the league. Dubas might not be Lou Lamor­iello, but the next agent or player who tries to pick a fight with him might now think twice.

At the same time, these past two months could not have been fun for Dubas. Say what you will about how the Leafs have played with­out Ny­lan­der — they headed into Sat­ur­day’s game tied for the most wins in the NHL — the team is even bet­ter with him.

He makes Matthews bet­ter. He makes the power play bet­ter. He makes the Leafs a Stan­ley Cup favourite — not a con­tender.

Ny­lan­der, who is only 22, had 61 points in each of the past two sea­sons. The feel­ing is that like Marner, who is en­joy­ing a break­out year on a line with Tavares, Ny­lan­der hasn’t even come close to un­lock­ing his po­ten­tial. That’s why he was ask­ing for so much. Ny­lan­der wanted to get paid for what he be­lieves he is go­ing to do — not nec­es­sar­ily what he has done in less than 200 games.

Dubas knew all that. He knows that Ny­lan­der is the type of tal­ent that you typ­i­cally only get through the draft. But he re­sisted the urge to sign him to a salary the team couldn’t af­ford. And he re­sisted an even stronger urge to pack­age him off to Carolina or Ana­heim or Philadel­phia for a run-of-the-mill de­fence­man.

In­stead, he was pre­pared to let Ny­lan­der sit, as im­pos­si­ble an op­tion as that might have seemed, even if it meant cost­ing Toronto a po­ten­tial cham­pi­onship this sea­son. Af­ter all, it’s more than just about one year with the Leafs. This was about keep­ing the core in­tact for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

In the process, Dubas re­minded ev­ery­one who is hold­ing the ham­mer in these ne­go­ti­a­tions. And it’s not the player, even one as tal­ented as Ny­lan­der.

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