So for the rest of the week, I’m going to grade the 2018-19 Maple Leafs in this blog, starting at the top: General manager Kyle Dubas.
(Tuesday: Mike Babcock)
Before I get to that, I want to tell you a little tale about the last time the Maple Leafs hired a rookie general manager, when things didn’t end well.
That rookie GM was John Ferguson Jr., who came with a reputation of being a great talent spotter and of course came from a famous hockey family. It was a rocky ride for the young GM, just 36 when he started in 2003. He was certainly a better GM by the end of his tenure than the beginning.
MLSE was a different monster then, more concerned about profit and a few (actually budgeted) playoff dates rather than winning and long playoff runs. The hockey world was different then. With no salary cap, the Leafs could simply buy a winner.
Along the way, Ferguson made mistakes (Should I mention Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft?). He inherited a pretty good team when he came aboard in 2003. But seemed pretty keen on putting his stamp on his team by getting rid of the coach he’d inherited (Pat Quinn) and putting in his guy (Paul Maurice) from the Marlies. Quinn had coached the team to back-to-back 100 point seasons. Maurice came in and the first of the Leafs long run in the post-season desert began.
Which brings us back to Dubas, another rookie general manager, albeit with a few differences. Dubas had been a GM before, with the Soo Greyhounds. Dubas was also promoted from within, whereas Ferguson had come from the St. Louis organization. It took Ferguson a while to figure out the politics of MLSE, whereas Dubas has had some time to get those right, and presumably has mastered them given he was the last man standing after Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made his managerial decisions a year ago.
But lets sum it up: Dubas is a young GM (33) from a hockey family, who apparently is deciding the fate of Mike Babcock, the veteran coach he inherited with back-to-back 100-point seasons while figuring out what to do with his guy (Sheldon Keefe) running the Marlies.
Yes, follow the Toronto Maple Leafs long enough, and you will have seen it all before.
Dubas, I’ll grant you, has more of a vision than Ferguson, or most other GMs. Whether the word “tunnel” will ever be used in front of his vision remains to be seen, a product of whether he can learn from his own mistakes, and the mistakes of others.
Kyle Dubas: C
I don’t like Cs. They’re wishy-washy. When I got them in high school, it was accompanied by: Could apply himself better. That’s not what I mean by this C. Dubas works really hard. He’s incredibly involved. The results, however, are mixed. Averaging out some really good marks, with some really poor ones.
What did Dubas do:
John Tavares. It was a team signing, each of Shanahan and Babcock played a role. As did Dubas, who applied the lessons learned from Steve Stamkos debaucle. Excellent move all around.
Garret Sparks over Curtis McElhinney. It comes from a good spot, rewarding his Calder Cup champion and showing loyalty to a long-time Leaf product while also keeping an eye to the future given his 10-year difference in age. A costly mistake for a team that wanted to win now. Could have been the difference on home ice.
Tyler Ennis. Worth a shot. Low risk. Decent reward. Find more of these guys.
Jake Muzzin. Great trade. Carl Grundstrom should play a long while, but Muzzin is under contract for next year, a hedge against losing Jake Gardiner.
William Nylander deal. Took too long, cost a hair too much. Nylander is now vilified in the marketplace. Really vilified. Could make life difficult for the GM who supposedly promised not to trade the Swede.
Mitch Marner no deal. Taking too long. Could have signed him cheaper last summer.
Auston Matthews. The right number. Put to rest any talk of an offer sheet from Arizona.
Trade deadline: No deals. Bad idea. He stuck to his guns about not giving up a draft pick for a rental. Given the injuries that came right after the deadline, it was like the hockey gods were sticking it to the rookie GM reminding him that he can’t have enough depth on the blue line. He has whatever pick he didn’t want to trade and three extra rounds to figure out how to use it.
Got a question? Email me at [email protected] and I’ll answer it in Friday’s Mailbag.
Here’s an edited transcript of what Kyle Dubas said in the post-season interviews last week.
On where Leafs go from here
It’s disappointing that the summer is going to be this long. Just as our family, we were talking yesterday and its’ the first time in seven years where the team I was most primarily involved with that we’ve been doen in the first round. That part was certainly disappointing, it’s not a feeling you want to get used to. I think everyone in the room knows the business we have to attend to over the summer and how imperative it is for the growth and development of our program, so we’ll get to that right away. We’ve obviously got to make some more strides in terms of adding to our prospect pool again, the development of our existing prospects and how that will be tied up here in the Marlies’ playoff run and get ready to roll from there, get ready for the draft. I’ve often said to our scouts this year that the drafting part when we were picking at 1, 4, 8, in those are the picks, those are the picks you have to, there’s no room for error there, but the way we can sustain this and keep this moving forward is by when we don’t have a first and we’re picking in the second or picking late in the first, is to make hay. So that’ll be our focus in the next couple months for sure, in addition to the contracts.
On William Nylander and how those negotiations will affect Marner
I think frankly speaking, and we’ve talked about the Nylander situation here at length, I think the blame for the situation going that far has to go to me, and I don’t think it set William up to have a good season and I accept that. Looking back on it and how we handled our business and go about it, I think in the end, if you’re looking to assign the blame to someone, it has to be to me because we didn’t get it done for training camp, we didn’t get it done to start the season, we didn’t get it done until there were three minutes left or whatever it was. It’s not acceptable, it didn’t set William up to have success, and as I said, the other contracts are going to be priority one. I can’t use the excuse that I didn’t start until May, I had a full runway with the rest of them. We have to do good contracts for the organization and for the marketplace and we’ll get right to that. If you’re looking to assign blame, it should go to me and me alone.
On whether the team can trust Kadri going forward
I think when we talked to him, his temperance is a major point. He’s an excellent player for us, and brings an element that we don’t have in abundance. Yes, he likes to defend his teammates and he plays hard and everything of that nature, but we need him to be available. As you see, the suspension goes from three games last year to five games, and if he continues with that sort of behaviour, the suspensions aren’t going to decrease. He needs to find that balance between playing extremely hard and defending his teammates and being available to the group. I don’t think anyone feels worse about it than he does. I just saw his comments before I came in here. It’s a major challenge for him character-wise, and talking to him, I think with all that he brings and how important he is to our group, we need to help him as well. It’s not just on him, we need to do everything we can to make sure he keeps himself available and we’ll do that.
On Marner looking for Auston Matthews money
I don’t know how they’re going to go for sure. We were talking to Darren Ferris at the beginning of the season and I’ll call him in the coming day or so and begin to see where he’s at and how he’d like to proceed and how Mitch and his family would like to proceed. Listen, Mitch has had an excellent season; he’s a massive, massive part of everything we’re doing here, both in terms of his talent and ability which has shown to be among the best in the league, and in terms of the joy and the leadership that he brings to the club each day. It’s priority one for us, and we’ll get right to it.
On whether he was satisfied with the coaching in Game 7
In Game 7, I think in anything when you’re evaluation a micro event, you start to get in trouble when you’re running a franchise. I know everyone would like me to give a condemnation or a massive vote of support for one single game, but I think when you have an 89-game season and a years-long track record, it’s best making the decision of the organization to focus on that and I think our coaching staff did a good job with our group this year. In Game 7 of the series, I thought we started fine, we allowed the goals and then we played really well for the middle of the game. The third period, we couldn’t gain any traction, and that falls on everybody, starting with me, not the coaching staff and not the players.
On whether Mike’s job is secure and if Dubas is comfortable with his style of coaching
Mike and I talk every day, sometimes longer than either of us wish, I imagine. But we have an ongoing discussion every day whenever anything happens. We didn’t reach our expectations. There’s a lot of teams in the league that didn’t, but we can only focus on us and our situation here. We didn’t reach the expectation I think we set out at the beginning of the season. We had 100 points, and we went to Game 7 against the brunis in the first round, so it’s tough to say it was tangible progress, I think anyone watching the series would say we played a lot better in this series than the team did the year before. But we have to continue to improve everything that we do. It starts with me, improving the job that I do – contracts, signing players, drafting players, development system, every single thing in our organization, and it’s up to me to work with Mike to continue to have him improve and have his staff improve, and I think that’s one of the best things about working here. There’s not anybody staunch in their stance that what we’re doing is great, and we can’t change it. We know we have to improve and get better and that’s the exciting part of it.
Can Dubas be sure Mike and Naz will both be here next year?
I think the way I look at that is Shanny has to decide on me first, to do an evaluation of me, which I think any organization would be best to do. And then once that’s done, we evaluate everybody. We could win the Stanley Cup, and it would be the same discussion of evaluating where we’re at and are we content and are we moving in the right direction. So, I think with how fluid the situation is, I wouldn’t give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization, starting with me. We’ll do what we think is best, and we’ll let you know when we know. That’s my expectation.
What could have gone differently with Nylander?
I think when I look back on it, and I evaluate it, starting the discussion earlier with Lewis. We talked first at the draft, which was 40 days or so after I got here, call it a month, before we had the discussion about the situation. And then not being more adamant they get back to us in the summer quicker, and just saying ‘it’ll all sort itself out’ and resigning ourselves to that. It’s a lesson learned from my end of it. That’s what I would do differently, meet with them sooner and then stay on them more rather than just wait for them to get back to us and hope it was going to bridge the difference. And then it ends up going to Dec. 1, just before 5 o’clock unfortunately.
How important to get Mitch’s deal done by July 1
“I think it’s imperative for all the other facets of our team. So Mitch, as I said, is Priority 1. Without an answer on Mitch, we’re going to be in a stalemate. It is a top priority because we’re not going to jump around and chew up our cap space we are going to need for Mitch by or with fringe signings either. It’s important. We just have to get right on it and get it done.”
“With Jake … Jake, to me, I remember, as I told him this morning, when I first came here, I knew his relationship with, well I don’t want to say with the media, but I think the view of him was so polarizing. Some people thought he was great, other people thought we shouldn’t sign him. When I first came here, when Dave Nonis was here, there was talk of a one-year deal. I was in the Soo, I didn’t watch the Tpronto Maple Leafs all the time. But I thought Jake had potential. I think one of the things that is sad for me, particularly about Jake, is that Jake has been a driving force from 2014, walking in here the first day, to where it is now, it’s night and day to where it is now. I know everyone is disappointed today but from where the team was then to where it is now, it’s a night and day difference. There are three players from then who are still here now, and Jake is one of them. I think his contributions have been, and his legacy to the Toronto Maple Leafs, people try to tie them in with small things like a play in Game 7 and what does this mean or that mean … Jake has been such a huge part of turning this franchise around, and I don’t think one game or a series of games should change that. I think in time the way that people view Jake will be so positive. People will be so appreciative of what he’s done with the group. When it comes to his status, it goes back to Chris’s question of how much room are we going to have once we get through the situation with Mitch, and then we’ll get in touch with his people.
Re World Championship requests
We’ve had some requests from Canada, we’ve had some requests from Russia, Slovakia, I assume there will be more. For whatever reason teams are going directly to the players these days. I know from my experiences with Lou that would have been frowned upon …so the players are informing us as opposed to us coming to them. Canada and Slovakia have come to us.
As confident in your skills-first vision
What I saw in the playoffs, if you asked me that in Game 2, they obviously had a certain way they wanted to play that game. They handled us in that game pretty easily. And then as the series went on, after Game 5, I thought we played so well in Game 5 in their building. If there is any game if there is any way that I would like to see our team consistently play it’s Game 5. They then took out a couple of their heavier guys and inserted more speed and skill. So my conviction about speed and skill has not been shaken at all. I do think like any team, as our guys get older they’re going to naturally get heavier and grittier. As they accrue these scars and scar tissues from experiences like this, mentally they’ll deal with it. I thought even in this series when things weren’t going their way our guys did a great job of being able to dig in and push back. In Game 6 here we didn’t play well and then in the third period we were able to push back again. Game 7, we were down two goals, then we started driving back to try to tie the game. I wish there was a switch we could flip naturally to get there but it comes only with experience.
Special team woes
I think from a management point of view I can do a better job of arming our roster and arming our coaching staff with assets that can help in each of those facets. The power play, our power play has been very good in each of the regular seasons I’ve been here and has produced in the playoffs. We want to see it continue to improve and adapt. With the talent we have and the job Jim does, I have a lot of faith in it. The penalty kill, I think the blame should go to me on the penalty kill. We could have done a better job — I could have done a better job — in finding guys for depth to help the coaches in that regard. I think if there’s blame to go around for that, it should go to me.
Any positions you want to address in quest to take the next step
It’s interesting. It’s something I thought about a lot since we’ve been eliminated on Tuesday night. You look at teams that suddenly break through. Washington a year ago, people calming said that other teams were more talented. Then you look at Chicago … I wish there was a formula of what position it may be. The best thing from my perspective is that I have to do a better job, continue to improve and help our players and our position as a group. I’ll take some time rather than be rash so I can analyze everything. Look at how we can improve our team even that 1 or 2 percent we can improve upon and hopefully be in a different set of circumstances 13 months from now or more.
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