Kyle Dubas facing ultimate referendum as Leafs begin pivotal season
It wasn’t long ago that Kyle Dubas was billed as the wunderkind who would propel the Toronto Maple Leafs to a prosperous new future by shedding the archaic thinking of previous regimes.
Dubas became the second-youngest general manager in Ontario Hockey League history when he took over the Soo Greyhounds at 25, a development that quickly turned into lore. The prodigy with the wire-rimmed glasses was a devout proponent of analytics, a born and bred Maple Leafs fan and after being hired as assistant general manager in July 2014, he instantly emerged as the apparent heir to the controls. It felt like a coronation in the making when Dubas was appointed Toronto’s GM in May 2018, three weeks after the Maple Leafs were ousted by the Boston Bruins in a seven-game first-round loss, a result that didn’t appear to be a sneering precursor of the stagnation that was to follow.
The perils that are attached to the fascination with precociousness are rarely discussed. Yesterday’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s standard. Dubas was initially viewed as an analytics-driven mastermind who was well-equipped to thrive in an increasingly player-friendly league, while his counterparts blanched at the idea of using math-driven solutions as a method of operation.
Toronto now begins the seventh year of the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era and the 2022-23 season will now act as a referendum on Dubas, who is entering the final year of his five-year deal. In his fifth year as GM, the Maple Leafs are now built entirely in his visage. There are no other cards to play, having correctly fired Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe during the infancy of the 2019-20 season. Maple Leafs fans can rattle off the six consecutive losses like an acronym and each defeat grew to be exponentially more painful — although if you want to argue that the 2020 dismissal at the hands of the sworn rival Canadiens is the nadir, few would fault you.
The rest of the league has caught up and analytics are no longer a concept expertly wielded by younger executives looking to carve out a lane. Every NHL team has an analytics staff, and while the majority of the league’s general managers are former players — a 21-11 difference, for those counting at home — Dubas has been outsmarted by his non-traditional peers. Julien BriseBois, the University of Montreal MBA graduate who runs the Tampa Bay Lightning, has excelled at salary cap management — and clever, legal circumvention — throughout his tenure en route to two Cups. Colorado’s Chris MacFarland inherits the best situation in the league and won a Cup as consigliere to Joe Sakic. Florida’s Bill Zito built a roster that won the Presidents' Trophy and is a leading contender again. The institutional advantage Dubas once held has eroded.
Is the profound concern over the upcoming Maple Leafs season unwarranted? Toronto is projected by most models to be one of the primary contenders for the Stanley Cup, a notion that is also considered darkly hilarious given the team’s track record. And with the territory comes an inquiry into Dubas’s approach to roster-building. The core of Matthews, Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin has been cemented and unaugmented. The real criticism stems from whether Dubas has done enough to supplement his core, given that he paid Matthews, Marner and Tavares top-of-the-market level contracts, bleeding the budget for the rest of the staff. No one is going to bat an eye about the Matthews deal, but it could be argued that Dubas, player-friendly as he is, may be a bit too generous in the boardroom especially if the team hasn’t internally developed prospects at the rate it ought to have.
Extracting value from the second and third days of the draft is paramount, especially if you top-load the roster as the Maple Leafs have done. If you go back to 2014 — the first draft when Dubas was in the room — Travis Dermott and Pierre Engvall are the only non-first round picks selected during his tenure who are on pace to have played more than 200 games with the Maple Leafs, while Carl Grundstrom (2016 draft, 57th overall) broke into the NHL as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Toronto has also never drafted an NHL-caliber goaltender in the eight years with Dubas in the office, and if this team falters again, we can strongly question if the formula ever worked to begin with.
There are undue criticisms of Dubas as well, which may come with the territory of managing a team with a rabid fan base in a premium market. Tavares’ contract will likely age poorly. And while the Nazem Kadri trade aged badly, it was the near-consensus opinion of those in the hockey world that the Maple Leafs needed a shake-up.
Toronto’s core forwards are in the prime of their careers, Mark Giordano’s two-year contract worth $800K per year is the most player-friendly contract in the league and the defence corps is a strength, no longer the Achilles heel that it was from 2017-2020, aided by the graduation of first-rounders Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. Matthews could go for 70 goals this season, Marner only continues to improve, and this is a Maple Leafs team that could, at least on paper, lift the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967. And if that’s the case, the narrative shifts entirely, and Dubas being billed as the chosen one will ring prophetic from Bay Street and beyond.
Dubas has undertaken one more gamble, a risk that his entire tenure with the Maple Leafs may be judged upon. Toronto’s goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov is wildly underwhelming and may undo the potent offensive corps and steady blue line that Dubas has assembled. Murray is a long-time favourite of Dubas, dating back to their shared tenure with the Greyhounds and though he’s won two Stanley Cups, there are questions that still remain. The 28-year-old posted sub-.900 save percentages in 2019-20 and 2020-21, only to return to a paltry .906 mark during the 2022 campaign, in 20 games. The consistency nor the volume is there for Murray, while Samsonov was given every chance to emerge as Washington’s starter and failed miserably. It is a risk that the entire Dubas regime now rests upon.
Toronto desperately needs a Stanley Cup but first, it needs to start with a round. Patience has gone out the window, as it is a virtue that can only be afforded to the young and the promising. Promises have an expiry date, however, and with his imprints all over a star-studded roster in the primes of their career, the 2022-23 season will act as a referendum on Dubas.
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