Let’s jump right into it: Kyle Dubas should return as the Maple Leafs general manager.
He’s the best GM the Leafs have had in the last 20 years and it’s really not that close. (Who is number 2?)
One serious caveat: Will the leaf make a compelling promise to stay? That seems to be an important part of this whole discussion. A short-term deal might not do it for Dubas, not now when there are other jobs and a job on the line. More autonomy is sure to be a requirement for him as well.
If he ends up struggling, Dubas will need to adjust what he’s doing, big and small, to lead the Leafs beyond where they’ve gotten to this point. It’s one playoff appearance in the past five seasons.
Dubas’ five-year anniversary was Thursday.
He innovated as GM with help from No. 2 in command Brandon Pridham. What he didn’t have, he’s not good enough for this level anyway, he’s very serious in his approach. And the road ahead, like this summer, will require GMs to make a series of cold, hard decisions, the simple but important variety of leaves required in pro sports.
Dubas wasn’t always that guy. After all this he needs to summon his inner Steve Yzerman and give him no fs.
Example #1: He can replace the only coach hired as a GM at any level. Dubas was willing to fire Mike Babcock 23 games into the 2019-20 season. I didn’t hire Babcock. There was no connection, no connection, no common view of things. Sheldon Keefe is different in that way, very different.
He is a Dubas man.
Dubas Sue hired Keefe to train the Greyhounds.
Dubas hired Keefe to coach the Toronto Marlies.
Dubas hired Keefe to replace Babcock, even though he had zero NHL coaching experience.
Dubas is willing to part ways with who he is now. That’s what he said. Closer, if the organization finds it necessary (seemingly)? Is Keefe willing to be objective about the work he’s done, which includes all kinds of regular-season success but four disappointing playoff results for his team and its stars?
Example #2: Is he willing to make tough decisions with his star players, starting with John Tavares?
Will he, for example, at least address the possibility of Tavares waiving his inactive clause?
Is he willing to be more like his Lightning counterpart Julien Brisbois, ie? After three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals and two titles, the Brisbane Boys have asked Ryan McDonagh to waive his no-trade clause in the Lightning’s Cup crunch and roster spot. He did this Three days In the year After the Lightning lost to the Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals.
A point earlier in the Tampa run, there was talk (never confirmed) of the Lightning waiving his inactive clause for captain Steven Stamkos.
Is Dubas willing to have such an uncomfortable conversation?
Let’s be clear: It’s hard to imagine the soon-to-be 33-year-old having much interest in dropping $11 million in cap space over the next two seasons. But the odds should be considered, at the very least, given Tavares’ age and production. Will Dubas insist that Tavares move to the wing next season? Could he go a step further and consider a captaincy change the way other similarly dismal playoff teams have done — namely, the San Jose Sharks?
If a) Tavares is league-wide (probably) and/or b) Tavares is unwilling to move (probably), then what about Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the two players who have stood firmly behind him in the past?
Thinking of moving one of them?
The Leafs can’t bring in all of the above with Tavares (who missed most of the 2021 playoffs), Marner, Nylander, Auston Matthews and Morgan Riley all on the board, not after their fifth straight playoff loss.
Is Dubas finally willing to take it, maybe not a hammer, but trade a scalp to the majors and a big star to make drastic changes?
In the year After the Leafs were released on the Habs in 2021, or even the Blue Jackets a year ago, the right to make that kind of change would be fine. does not. Instead, he strongly supported his main players.
It’s hard to see any way around this possibility at this point. A move of that magnitude has to be executed well in order for the Leafs to stay in contention, which isn’t always easy in a league that (in my opinion) tends to undervalue trade stars.
Dubas has largely embraced the stars, though he’s admired in many ways. It went all the way with Nylander’s second contract — and it ended up being expensive (Nylander’s $6.9 million contract ranks 86th in the NHL this season). But he was unwilling or unable to extract offers from either Matthews or Marner on their second deal.
Matthews’ deal was only for five years, but still came with a cap hit of $11.6 million, which was only Connor McDavid’s when he was signed. Marner’s deal is only for six years and is not discounted at $10.9 million. And while both Matthews and Marner outgrew those contracts (in the regular season anyway) to this point, the Leafs couldn’t squeeze more value out of the deal the way other clubs did for their talented young players.
Even McDavid was willing to sign the full eight years in Edmonton when he was worth the league’s highest cap hit ($12.5 million) in his second contract.
The Leafs under Dubas and Shanahan also didn’t jump on those deals as aggressively as they should have.
Can Dubas spend more, if not more dollars, on his next contract, or vice versa, than Matthews? He won’t be able to enter restricted free agency. It won’t do any good, really. Can he convince Matthew to stay?
Nylander has no reason to accept less on his next contract, not after his last one. He also could sign an extension this summer.
Marner will be available for an extension in the summer of 2024.
Dubas will have to execute those deals more effectively than he did the last ones.
If the Leafs aren’t willing to pay Nylander big ASAP, he feels like he’s the one to go after a 40-goal regular season.
Dubas probably misunderstood this faith-in-numbers-and-only-numbers guy. He is more than that. It is often forgotten that he started scouting in the OHL as a teenager. He also prioritized those he trusted and knew, rarely.
There is no better example than Matt Murray.
Health has been an issue for Murray throughout his NHL career, including last season in Ottawa. Dubas traded him last summer, a huge risk at the time, and allowed the Senators to get away with paying only 25 percent of Murray’s contract. (What would they have done with Murray if the Leafs hadn’t bitten?)
That’s $4.7 million for a goaltender who played in 26 games, was in the playoffs and is under contract for next season.
Dubas had Murray in Sault Ste. Marie. So did goaltender June Elkin. The Leafs bet on the man, more than was clear on the evidence at the time. Dubas, if he stays, will presumably have to pay the price to get rid of Murray’s contract (or keep him healthy again).
It feels bad to mention the Jake Muzzin situation. But ultimately, the Leafs settled on an aging, injury-prone defenseman after the 2021-22 season and then having to pay assets to replace him at the trade deadline.
Instead of using those assets with a premium upgrade (Dmitry Orlov, say), they went with a smaller version (Jake McCabe) who had a clause on his contract and came in at a $2 million discount.
That hurt the Leafs in the game, as McCabe, predictably, struggled in a premium play role he had literally never had before.
Dubas was trying to speak to the present and the future when the whole thing was in the present.
All of this may seem like reason to move in the same direction with GM of the Leafs. But no. Because, for the most part, Dubas was very effective. He built the Leafs into a state-of-the-art organization, making sure the players had everything they needed in every possible way. (Talk to most people outside the organization and they’ll all say the same thing.) Before Dubas replaced Lou Lamoriello as GM, there was no talent development program with the Leafs. There was not the same focus on mental health or sports science. Dubas spread the leaf upwards on each forehead.
And while it’s easy to lose track of that stuff now, what it’s done is provide players with everything they need to reach their potential. (Ultimately those players must do their part and perform.)
Dubas has shown a knack for finding overlooked talents. Consider Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Jack Campbell, Trevor Moore, Justin Hall and Muzzin, among others. (The Leafs signed Bunting and Kampf to two-year contracts two years ago.)
He’ll need to refine that gem more this summer (again, if he sticks around). too many Pending UFAs, and years to come, all that draft capital went through that trade deadline movement. (The Leafs need some hope if they’re already planning on hitting. Matthew Kinnis and Joseph Wall look promising, at the very least.)
Dubas quickly absorbed mistakes (ie Nick Ritchie, Petr Mrazek, etc.) and showed a willingness to improve crucially. At first it seems that skill will solve every problem. Over time, he began prioritizing the intangibles needed for success in the postseason (again, he’s yet to come) and he scored at the deadline with such additions — especially Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Achiri and Luke Schenn.
Also note: When they signed their stars, they kept the tip of the Dubas leaves coming out. They didn’t get it, but they still managed to build very good (regular season) teams, top-five teams in the league. Regular season success may not mean pinching for anyone right now, but it matters in the GM’s broader evaluation. The Leafs have the fifth-best hitting percentage in the league (.651) during Dubas’ tenure. His team didn’t try to squeeze like in previous finals. No, they were the top teams in the league.
You don’t need long to look around the league and see how poorly other teams are leading. In other words, how weak is the leaf in GMM? Oh, they caused major problems for the organization (ie Nikita Zaysev had a year left on his contract when mind-numbing decisions were made, even look back at the team led by Lamoriello before Dubas. …!).
Dubas was not perfect. There is no GM. He can still improve. He already has. He’s still only five years into his career as an NHL GM. It should continue to grow. But if he wants this job, he has to keep it.
(Top photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)