The 31-year-old takes on a team that is close to contending, but not quite there. Can he hone the lineup into something coach Mike Babcock can drive all the way?
The youth movement has gone pretty well for Toronto on the ice, so when it came to naming a new GM, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has kept on course. Kyle Dubas, 31, takes over the reins of a franchise with many crucial roster pieces already in place, with some work still to be done if the team wants to be a legit Stanley Cup contender.
Dubas first came on the radar as the ultra-young GM of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2011. He was an early believer in advanced statistical analysis, making him a darling of that movement. Dubas also wasn’t afraid to take chances, once making a blockbuster deal for goalie Jack Campbell, only to see his Hounds falter and miss the playoffs altogether.
But Sault Ste. Marie is also where Dubas found a new coaching prospect in Sheldon Keefe, who had tremendous previous success with the Jr. A Pembroke Lumber Kings. Keefe and Dubas could never get Sault Ste. Marie to a title series, even with talents such as Matt Murray, Darnell Nurse and Jared McCann in the lineup, but the team was always very good.
Keefe and Dubas would then make the move to Toronto, where the coach would take over the AHL’s Marlies and Dubas would serve as assistant GM - with the Marlies as a big part of his duties. Once again, the pair oversaw a very successful program and the Marlies have been a contender in the AHL recently. Toronto is currently cooling its heels, waiting for the conference final after sweeping Syracuse in the second round. As in the Soo, Dubas and Keefe have yet to claim a title together, but this could be the year for the Marlies.
This backstory is all important because in choosing Dubas, Shanahan effectively did not choose Lou Lamoriello’s other top lieutenant, Mark Hunter. Toronto’s other assistant GM is a scouting ace who won three OHL titles and a Memorial Cup as GM of the London Knights, while also tabbing Mitch Marner for the Leafs in the 2015 draft over Noah Hanifin.
It practically seems inevitable that Hunter will leave the Maple Leafs for another organization now that Dubas has won the coveted GM spot and based on his work in Toronto, it certainly wouldn’t be out of line to see Hunter as the best GM candidate on the market.
So what does this all mean for the Maple Leafs themselves? I would predict change, but not for change’s sake.
Toronto has an enviable young core led up front by Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Marner, with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner on the back end and Frederik Andersen in net. Other youngsters such as Travis Dermott, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen also hold promise.
What I can see is a reckoning for the team’s veteran free agents. James van Riemsdyk probably priced himself out of Toronto with his 36-goal season, but others will simply be allowed to walk based on efficiencies: that means no more Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov or Roman Polak. What will truly be interesting to see is the developing relationship between Dubas and veteran coach Mike Babcock, who played many of those veterans to a fault this year. As steely as Lamoriello is, he never took away Babcock’s old toys. But it’s hard to square away Dubas’ advanced stats background with players like Komarov and Polak.
Toronto’s needs right now are obvious: a better defense corps and more growth from the kids. The latter will happen naturally, but Dubas’ top job this summer will be re-tooling the back end. Internally, more Dermott and perhaps Justin Holl will help, but finding someone from outside the organization (John Carlson, Dougie Hamilton? Might as well think big) is also necessary.
The Maple Leafs have a small window to make a splash before big contracts are due to Matthews and Marner, so Dubas must hit the ground running. Given the work ethic he has already shown in his young managerial career, I’m sure he has some plans already. Now it’s just a matter of executing them.