It doesn’t take much these days for questions to arise about the Maple Leafs’ lineup and Kyle Dubas’ future in Toronto.
Saturday night’s collapse to Columbus Blue Jackets confirmed that yet again. And Wednesday’s win over Chicago will quiet the noise until their next questionable loss.
When those losses come, it’s usually a “too much focus on skill and speed, not enough on grit and determination” conversation. You’d think a stretch where a team earns points in 35 of their last 45 games would buy a GM the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for Dubas, that’s not the case.
And so it goes. With six consecutive eliminations in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs — four of those years under Dubas’s tutelage — Leafs Nation has lost patience. And coach Sheldon Keefe did Dubas’s assembled roster no favours by calling out its lack of effort and competitiveness last Saturday night.
As if Dubas’s search for a top-four defenceman and multiple depth forwards wasn’t enough to deal with, his current contract expires on June 30. He’s now racing against the clock.
After the media revealed that Dubas was entering his final year of a five-year contract last September, it became a sound bite, no matter how much he tried to publicly downplay it.
“I’m more than happy to go through the year and be evaluated on the year and then have the decision made, because I believe in our group,” Dubas said before training camp. “For me, in the end, it’s best. I don’t obviously decide what the organization wants to do. I can only control what I can do each day.”
Not so long ago it was standard practice to offer GMs and coaches an added year to an expiring contract, even if there was a seed of doubt. It was seen as a way of eliminating the distraction and pressure that comes with job insecurity that could interfere with team building. It was also a courtesy offered so that in the event the GM does get fired, there’s comfort knowing they will still have a pay cheque to bring home to their families the following season while looking for a new opportunity.
An added year to Dubas’ contract would in all likelihood have flown under the radar, too. For the most part, teams rarely draw attention to executive extensions. A one-year deal could have easily gone unnoticed.
Even if his job cannot be saved unless the Leafs get past the first round, I firmly believe the Leafs GM should have been granted a one-year extension last summer to take some pressure off.
So, why didn’t the Leafs feel the same way?
Despite the Game 7 loss to Tampa Bay last spring, Dubas didn’t deserve a year as a lame duck general manager. This really is no different than watching what Bruce Boudreau just went through with the Vancouver Canucks. Outside of the circus atmosphere that has thankfully been avoided in Toronto, the underlying message is exactly the same: We have lost faith in your ability to do your job and salvage this team beyond this season, unless you prove otherwise.
So who made the decision to not extend his contract for another year? Did that fall solely on Leafs president Brendan Shanahan? Or perhaps it was the board of directors at MLSE who didn’t like the internal optics of extending a contract for a playoff underachiever.
I find it hard to believe Shanahan, who stuck his neck out to first hire Dubas as assistant GM way back in 2014, would care about the perception of adding a simple industry-standard year to Dubas’s contract. If I was a betting man, I believe the board may have felt differently. This could be the new wave of hardcore NHL ownership tactics moving forward.
A one-year severance cheque would not hurt one of the wealthiest franchises in pro sports history, especially if doing so eliminated the elephant in the room — both for Dubas and his players, who no doubt will be worried about who might replace him if things go awry.
If we look at the bigger picture, outside of playoff disappointment, Dubas has done an admirable job in Toronto, especially for a guy who came to the Leafs with zero pro experience.
His rosters over the last four years have always held their own among the top-five teams in the league — at least in the regular season. He has gained a very strong reputation for finding undervalued assets and turning them into gems like Michael Bunting, Ilya Mikheyev, David Kämpf, Ilya Lyubushkin and Conor Timmins, just to name a few.
Under the MLSE roof you couldn’t find one person who doesn’t have a good word to say about Dubas. He’s hard-working, respectful, honest and a compassionate executive. Some may read this and say that doesn’t matter. But it does. It should have earned him a one-year add-on, especially if this season winds up being the best window for the Leafs to finally get over the hump. I’m not blind that Dubas has left himself vulnerable with no salary cap space, some suspect trades and depleted assets. He’s currently one of 10 contending GMs we can say the same for.
Dubas is on the clock. Two weeks out from the trade deadline, it’s strange that the Leafs are sitting top-five in the overall standings and yet the GM is justifiably scrambling towards the deadline to save his job. The decisions he makes will most likely seal his fate one way or another.
With the Boston Bruins running away in the Atlantic Division and the Lightning in a position to take home-ice advantage away from the Leafs, it sure feels like the deck is stacked against him. Yet something tells me not to write Dubas’s Leafs story off just yet.
With Bo Horvat now on Long Island, all eyes on are San Jose Sharks stud Timo Meier. New Jersey and Carolina (a long shot) are teams making noise but one NHL executive told me to keep an eye out for the Winnipeg Jets … With Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele on expiring contracts in 2024 and Pierre-Luc Dubois wanting out, Winnipeg would have the necessary funds to get Meier on a long-term deal. The problem is he could also cost them top prospect Cole Perfetti … Doesn’t appear to be many teams beating down Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson’s door for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews right now. Multiple concerns from prospective buyers in no particular order include: salaries, health, performance and their motivation. My money is still on Kane shutting it down for health reasons and focusing on the 2023-24 season … Plenty of interest for Brock Boeser in Vancouver, just not enough to take his full $6.65 million (U.S.) annual salary through next season. Minnesota, Boston, Toronto and New Jersey have all have shown interest, providing the Canucks eat roughly 20-25 per cent of it … It’s hard to believe the Jonathan Huberdeau that had 115 points in Florida last season is the same one on pace for just 55 points in Calgary. His ice time has been cut as much as 25 per cent from a year ago. Huberdeau has just over $60 million in signing bonus alone coming to him as his eight-year, $84 million contract extension kicks in next season.
Change my mind
On Jonathan Drouin still being effective: His three assists Monday night against Chicago showed there might he something left in the tank. Perhaps the Avalanche might want to look into a Halifax Mooseheads reunion with Nathan MacKinnon’s former junior teammate.
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