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Kyle Dubas should return as Maple Leafs GM (if he wants to stay). But not without changing

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Let’s dive right into this: Kyle Dubas should return as Maple Leafs general manager.

He’s the best GM the Leafs have had in the last 20 years and it’s not really all that close. (Who’s No. 2?)

One serious caveat: Will the Leafs make a commitment that entices him to stay? That seems like an important part of this whole conversation. A short-term deal may not do it for Dubas, not when there are other jobs available now and jobs to be had down the line. More autonomy is sure to be a requirement for him as well.

If he does end up sticking around, Dubas is going to have to adjust what he’s doing in ways big and small to guide the Leafs far beyond where they’ve gone to this point. Which is one playoff round in the last five seasons.

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Dubas’ five-year anniversary was on Thursday.

He’s been creative as GM, with help from No. 2 in command Brandon Pridham. What he’s not been, not enough to this point anyway, is cutthroat in his approach. And the road ahead, the road just this summer, is going to require a Leafs GM who is willing to make a series of cold, hard decisions, the queasy but necessary variety required in pro sports.

Dubas hasn’t always been that guy. He’ll need to summon his inner Steve Yzerman and give no f—s after all this.

Example No. 1: Replacing, potentially, the only coach he’s hired as GM at any level. Dubas was willing to fire Mike Babcock 23 games into the 2019-20 season. He didn’t hire Babcock. There was no connection there, no bond, no shared view of things. Sheldon Keefe is different that way, much different.

He’s Dubas’ guy.

Dubas hired Keefe to coach the Soo Greyhounds.

Dubas hired Keefe to coach the Toronto Marlies.

Dubas hired Keefe to replace Babcock, even with zero NHL coaching experience.

Is Dubas now willing to part with someone he’s that close to, if the organization deems it necessary (which seems likely)? Is he willing to be objective about the job that Keefe did, which includes all kinds of regular season success but also four disappointing playoff results which mostly saw the team and their stars contained?

Example No. 2: Is he willing to make hard decisions with his star players, starting with John Tavares?

Will he, for example, at least broach the possibility of Tavares waiving his no-movement clause?

Is he willing to be more like his Lightning counterpart, Julien BriseBois, that is? After three consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and two Cups, BriseBois asked Ryan McDonagh to waive his no-trade clause amid a Lightning cap crunch and roster shuffle. He did this three days after the Lightning lost to the Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.

There was even talk (never confirmed) of the Lightning considering asking captain Steven Stamkos to waive his no-movement clause at one point earlier in Tampa’s run.

Is Dubas willing to have an uncomfortable conversation like that, potentially?

Kyle Dubas with John Tavares and his family on Jan. 29, 2023, the day he played in his 1000th NHL game (Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

Let’s be clear: It’s hard to imagine there being much interest for a soon-to-be 33-year-old pulling down $11 million on the cap for the next two seasons. But the possibility should, at the very least, be explored given Tavares’ age and production. Will Dubas insist that Tavares move to the wing next season? Might he go a step further and consider a change with the captaincy in the way that other similarly disappointing playoff teams did — i.e. the San Jose Sharks?

If a) there’s no interest in Tavares league-wide (likely) and/or b) no willingness on Tavares’ part to move (likely), then what about Mitch Marner and William Nylander, two players he’s stood firmly behind in the past?

Will he consider moving one of them?

The Leafs can’t possibly bring back everyone at the top, not after their fifth straight playoff failure with Tavares (who missed most of the 2021 playoffs), Marner, Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Morgan Rielly all on board.

Is Dubas finally willing to take, maybe not a hammer, but a scalpel to the core and make serious alterations by trading one big star?

He would have been well within his rights to make a change like that after the Leafs unraveled against the Habs in 2021, or even the Blue Jackets a year earlier. He didn’t. Instead, he backed the core players even more forcefully.

It’s hard to see any way around that possibility this time. A move of that magnitude needs to be executed well for the Leafs to go on contending, which isn’t always easy in a league that tends to (in my opinion) undervalue stars in trades.

Though it’s admirable in many ways, Dubas has mostly acquiesced to the stars. He went all the way to the brink on Nylander’s second contract — and ended up with value (Nylander’s $6.9 million contract ranked 86th in the NHL this season). But he wasn’t willing or able to extract concessions from either Matthews or Marner on their second deals.

Matthews’ pact was only for five years, but still came with an $11.6 million cap hit which trailed only Connor McDavid when it was signed. Marner’s deal lasted only six years and was also no discount at $10.9 million. And while both Matthews and Marner have outperformed those contracts (in the regular season anyway) to this point, the Leafs were unable to pull even more value from those deals in the way that other clubs did with their talented young players.

Even McDavid, while netting the highest cap hit in the league ($12.5 million) on his second deal, was willing to sign for the full eight years in Edmonton.

The Leafs, under Dubas and Shanahan, also didn’t jump on those deals as aggressively as they should have.

Can Dubas extract more from Matthews on his next contract, if not in term than in dollars, or vice-versa? He won’t have the leverage of restricted free agency. He won’t have the leverage of anything, really. Can he convince Matthews to stay?

Nylander has no reason to accept less on his next deal either, not after the last one. He too can sign an extension this summer.

Marner will be up for an extension in the summer of 2024.

Kyle Dubas on Dec. 1, 2018, the day that William Nylander agreed to his second contract (David Berding / USA Today)

Dubas will need to somehow execute those deals more adeptly than he did the last ones.

If the Leafs aren’t willing to commit big bucks to Nylander ASAP, it feels likeliest that he’s the guy to go, even after his 40-goal regular season.

Dubas is probably misunderstood somewhat as this trust-the-numbers-and-only-the-numbers guy. He’s much more than that. It’s often forgotten that he started scouting as a teenager in the OHL. He’s also prioritized the people he believes in and knows, overly so at times.

There’s no better example of that than Matt Murray.

Health had been an issue for Murray throughout his entire NHL career, including in Ottawa last season. Dubas traded for him anyway last summer, an enormous risk even back then, and allowed the Senators to get away with paying only 25 percent of Murray’s contract. (What were they going to do with Murray if the Leafs didn’t bite?)

That was $4.7 million in cap space allocated on a goalie who played in 26 games, none in the playoffs, and who is under contract for next season.

Dubas had Murray in Sault Ste. Marie. So did his goalie guru Jon Elkin. The Leafs bet on the person, more than what was so clear-cut in the available evidence at the time. Dubas, if he stays, will presumably have to pay a price to rid the Leafs of Murray’s contract (or keep him and bet that he stays healthy all over again).

It feels icky to mention the Jake Muzzin situation. But in the end, the Leafs stood by an aging, increasingly injury-prone defenceman after the 2021-22 season and then had to pay assets to replace him at the trade deadline.

Instead of using those assets on a premium upgrade (Dmitry Orlov, say), they went with a lesser version (Jake McCabe) who had term on his contract and came at the reduced rate of $2 million.

That hurt the Leafs in the playoffs, when McCabe, predictably, struggled in the kind of primetime playoff role he literally had never had before.

Dubas was trying to address the present and future at a time when all that mattered was the present.

All of this may sound like reason to move in a direction with the GM of the Leafs. But it’s not. Because, for the most part, Dubas has been highly effective. He’s built the Leafs into a very modern organization, ensuring that players have everything they need in just about every way possible. (Talk to many people outside the organization and they all say the same thing.) There was no skill development program with the Leafs before Dubas replaced Lou Lamoriello as GM. There wasn’t the same emphasis on mental health or sport science. Dubas pumped the Leafs up on every front.

And while it’s easy to shrug at that stuff now, what it’s done is provide players with everything they could possibly need to reach their potential. (Ultimately, those players have to do their part and perform.)

Dubas has shown a knack for unearthing overlooked talent. Think Michael Bunting, David Kämpf, Jack Campbell, Trevor Moore, Justin Holl, and even Muzzin, among others. (The Leafs wisely signed Bunting and Kämpf to two-year contracts two summers ago, which netted them real value under the cap for two seasons, not one.)

He’ll need to do even more of that gem-sifting this summer (again, if he sticks around), what with so many pending UFAs, and in the years ahead, with all that draft capital gone in all that trade deadline activity. (The Leafs need some of the prospects they have drafted already to hit. Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll look promising at the very least.)

Dubas has swallowed mistakes quickly (i.e. Nick Ritchie, Petr Mrazek etc.) and crucially, showed a willingness to evolve. In the beginning, he seemed to believe that skill would solve every problem. In time, he began to prioritize the more intangible qualities required for success in the postseason (which, again, hasn’t come yet) and scored with additions like that at this past deadline — notably, Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, and Luke Schenn.

Also of note: When they signed their stars, Dubas’ Leafs anticipated a rising cap. They didn’t get it, but still managed to build very good (regular season) teams, top-five teams in the league. Regular season success may not mean squat to anyone right now, but it should matter in the broader evaluation of the GM. The Leafs own the fifth-best points percentage in the league (.651) during Dubas’ tenure. His squads weren’t trying to squeeze into the playoffs like those of his predecessors. No, they were dominant teams in the league.

You don’t need long to gaze around the league and see how poorly other teams are run. How poorly, in other words, the Leafs might be run with a lesser GM. Heck, have a look back on those teams that preceded Dubas, even the ones run by Lamoriello, when some mind-boggling decisions were made that caused huge problems for the organization (i.e. Nikita Zaitsev’s contract, which still has one more year left on it…!).

Dubas hasn’t been perfect. No GM is. He can still improve. He has already. He’s still only five years into his career as an NHL GM. He needs to continue evolving. But he should keep this job if he wants it.

(Top photo: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

 

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Maple Leafs move forward with Treliving as Dubas lands with Penguins – NHL.com

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TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs had a plan in place. With their fan base in panic mode after Kyle Dubas was not brought back as GM last month, the Maple Leafs introduced Brad Treliving on Thursday as the GM who would lead the franchise forward. 

This press conference was going to be about the future, about what the experienced Treliving, 53, could do for Toronto, not about Dubas, who 13 days earlier had been told his services would no longer be required after a five-year stint as a Maple Leafs GM.

And for an hour or so on Thursday, it was. Until it wasn’t.

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At 11:31 ET, some 29 minutes before Treliving and team president Brendan Shanahan were scheduled to address the media at Scotiabank Arena, the Pittsburgh Penguins issued a release announcing Dubas as president of hockey operations. Yep. That same Dubas. The release noted that Dubas and members of the Fenway Sports Group would hold their own press conference in Pittsburgh at 1 p.m., one hour after Treliving’s meeting with the media.

Was it just a coincidence that all this took place on the same day? Was this a chance for Dubas and the Penguins to upstage his former team?

Shanahan quickly rejected that notion, trying to calm the conspiracy theorists who thought something fishy was going on regarding the scheduling.

“I don’t think it was intentional timing,” he said. “They need to get to work as well.

“I fully endorse Kyle.”

Maybe Shanahan doesn’t believe the timing was intentional. But it certainly was intriguing. And it was almost as if the day progressed as dictated from the pages of a movie script.

Indeed, the Maple Leafs and Penguins will be connected by the common thread that is Dubas.

It certainly makes for a fascinating tale of two franchises.

Dubas, 37, is one of the sharpest young hockey minds in the game. The Maple Leafs, under his watch, went 221-109-42 in the regular season but won one Stanley Cup Playoff series in that span despite featuring uber-talented players like forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares, and defenseman Morgan Rielly. 

Video: Penguins name Dubas president of hockey operations

Dubas was in the final season of his contract in 2022-23. It was the Maple Leafs’ decision not to give him a new contract last offseason. 

According to Shanahan, the decision had been made to bring back Dubas, even after the Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Second Round on May 12. A contract offer had been presented to Dubas prior to the Maple Leafs locker cleanout day three days later, he said. But when Dubas addressed the media that day, he lamented how difficult the season had been on his family and how he had to discuss with his loved ones whether he needed time to recalibrate.

Dubas said that regardless of what decision he’d make regarding a return to the Maple Leafs, “You won’t see me next week pop up elsewhere. I can’t put [my family] through that after this year.” 

He was right. He didn’t pop up the next week; it was actually closer to two weeks that he surfaced in Pittsburgh.

To be fair, he said it was his wife, Shannon, who prodded him to explore the Penguins situation. It was, in the end, a partial family decision.

At the same time, in his new role he gets the power he coveted in Toronto. With Shanahan in place, that was never going to happen with the Maple Leafs. And when Shanahan received a counteroffer from Dubas’ agent with a revised financial package, which is a synonym for “more money,” Shanahan cut the cord.

You can’t make this up. It truly is the stuff of soap operas.

And where it goes from here is can’t-miss TV.

Both teams are star-studded. That’s where the similarities end.

Treliving didn’t come out and say it, but he seemed to hint that the so-called “Core Four” of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares could stay intact. Though skill has a lot to do with that, so does age. Matthews is 25, Marner 26, Nylander 27. You could say their best years could be ahead of them.

The same can’t be said for the core Dubas inherits. Forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang will each be at least 36 when next season starts. At the same time, the championship pedigree of the three future Hall of Famers who have helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cup championships can’t be questioned.

Treliving is somewhat shackled under the NHL salary cap because the Core Four gobble up more than $40 million of the space under it. Dubas has far more flexibility; indeed, he mentioned the Penguins will have around $20 million of cap space to play with.

Then there are the coaching situations. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan was the coach of the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Cup title teams and can coach “forever,” according to Dubas. There is more uncertainty for Treliving, who said he’ll meet with Maple Leafs incumbent Sheldon Keefe and try to learn more about him before determining his future. Keefe, by the way, also coached under Dubas in two other leagues: the Ontario Hockey League with Sault St. Marie and the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies.

So many plots. So many storylines.

All that remains to set the stage for this juicy narrative is for the 2023-24 schedule to be released in the next couple of months. Because any games between Treliving’s Maple Leafs and Dubas’ Penguins need to be circled on the calendar for obvious reasons, no matter how both men might try to downplay them.

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