The Toronto Maple Leafs young general manager Kyle Dubas was promoted to his position just two years ago this week – May 11, 2018, to be exact. How has he done in his job? In this post, I want to review Dubas’ body of work over his two years as the general manager by specifically focusing on four key tasks.
Task #1: Is His Team Fighting for the Stanley Cup?
On May 11, 2018, when Kyle Dubas was promoted to the general manager of the Maple Leafs, he was clear about his first order of business as a general manager. At the team’s news conference to announce his promotion, he noted: “We enter into another part of our journey, which is to reach our ultimate goal of contending perennially to be fighting at this time for the Stanley Cup. Instead of sitting here.”
How well did he do? In the short time since Dubas hiring, the Leafs really haven’t had much of a chance to show what they could do in the Stanley Cup playoffs. True, they had one chance in 2019, but they lost once again in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to the Boston Bruins. On the face of it, that might seem like a failure, but they almost won that series and the Bruins had to play a strong last game at home to pull it out. Then the Bruins eventually lost to the St. Louis Blues in the finals – so, really, how good were they?
This season, once again, they played their way into third place in the Atlantic Division. In fact, when head coach Mike Babcock was fired, the team hadn’t won half their games. After new head coach Sheldon Keefe arrived, they had one of the best records in the NHL – even though the team was beset by injuries. The defense was devastated.
In short, the team was in a position for a Stanley Cup run. So, he’s done what he said – no success yet in the playoffs, but they are into the playoffs once again.
Task #2: Has Dubas Youth Been an Issue?
Dubas is only 34 years old. However, his initial run as an NHL general manager seems steady enough. Obviously, he’s made mistakes along the way and one he admits was the negotiations with William Nylander. Dubas admitted publically they didn’t go well.
Still, after a nothing of a 2018-19 season after he signed, the also young Nylander came out with a vengeance this season and has played so well that his $6.9 million salary almost seems team-friendly this season and he’s signed through until the end of 2023-24. Imagine what it’ll seem like in four seasons.
In all this, Dubas has kept his vision about the kind of team he wants. He wants to assemble a quick, puck-hungry, possession-oriented team. And, he has. I’m sure Dubas would want some mulligans; but, then, what NHL general manager gets it right every time?
Task #3: Has Dubas Assembled a Solid Team Core?
It only took Dubas 16 months to sign his “core of four.” His signings (in chronological order) were John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner. And, he has them inked to long-term contracts. As I noted, the Nylander negotiations weren’t smooth as Dubas admitted. But, as I noted, Nylander has become a prolific scorer this season after being an absolute non-factor in 2018-19.
Although Nylander’s been great, no one’s been as prolific as young Matthews, who seems able to score 50 goals each season at will for the length of his contract. He too is signed through 2023-24. By the way, Matthews was mentioned by Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan as a candidate for both the Rocket Richard and the Selke Trophy. He’s good.
Mitch Marner’s playmaking skills make him at better-than-a-point-a-game player, and that’s his MO for the last two seasons. He’s one of the best two-way players in the NHL; and, on many NHL teams, he would be THE player. Here he’s just one of a few.
Captain John Tavares is a quiet leader and carries the team. He was injured this season, but who’d bet he won’t be a 40-goal scorer for the foreseeable future. He’s also a great representative of the organization in this city – which is also his hometown.
The fact is that Dubas has assembled a solid quartet of skilled players. Notice that, until now, I resisted the chance to talk about how much these core costs in terms of salary cap; however, solving salary-cap problems is also something Dubas and his team seem able to do like magic. He did it last season and will be called upon to do again. He’s smart that way.
Still, of course, the question is to what extent the commitment of more than $40-million US to four players will impact the roster going forward. That was part of the conversation well before the coronavirus pandemic threw future schedules into question and augured a downward salary-cap impact because of the loss of revenue the suspension of games has caused.
Task #4: Has Dubas Made Toronto a Destination Players Want to Play?
Jason Spezza’s a case in point. He signed with the Maple Leafs prior to the 2019-20 season on an NHL league-minimum contract for two reasons. First, Toronto is his home and he liked the idea of playing there. Second, he desperately wanted to win a Stanley Cup and deemed the Maple Leafs to be a team that had a great chance of being the train he rode to get to that station.
Although Spezza could have been treated better by his first Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, Babcock is gone and Keefe is the head coach. Now the word is that the team wants more Jason Spezzas on its roster. Spezza’s thinking bodes well for the Maple Leafs attracting the kinds of players who will help the team get over the hump and win a Stanley Cup.
I also admire Dubas’ loyalty to and concern for his players. As I noted earlier, he stuck with Nylander after a horrible end to the 2018-19 season, and the young Swede’s play this season makes his contract seem almost team-friendly heading into the future.
Dubas also spent time in a New Jersey hospital with young Russian Ilya Mikheyev after his horrible laceration and operation. Why? Because his wife Shannon believed that, if he were a parent of a young player in the same spot, it would be important for the player’s parents to know their son was cared for. That’s human!
Mikheyev’s agent let that kindness be known throughout Russia. Such actions have already helped the organization in the long run. Players know when there’s a good thing going on.
What’s the Final Verdict?
Not everyone likes Dubas. He’s a polarizing figure who has a really difficult job, and it’ll be interesting to see where his leadership takes the team over the next two seasons. Even if fans simply don’t agree with his vision, he’s made it happen.
He’s now partnered with Keefe, his long-time friend, and personal choice as head coach. If he fails, it will be on his own terms.
I for one like how he’s shaping the team. As I’ve noted in my other hockey writing, to me the Maple Leafs have the look of the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the mid-1980s. How did they do? That team won the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988.
Just one Stanley Cup victory in Toronto would be something no general manager in recent history has done. So, after his first two seasons, the question remains unanswered. Can Keefe and Dubas take the team there? I’m thinking he can.