Although the Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff round for the first time in 19 years this season, a 4-1 series loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers means the team has ended yet another campaign on a dour note.
During an offseason full of introspection, there will be calls for change to every level of the organization, but one of the most obvious positions to address is in the general manager's chair.
Kyle Dubas is not signed beyond this season, and the Maple Leafs have a decision on their hands about whether he should continue as the primary architect of this roster.
According to Dubas, Toronto is the only place he's interested in working.
Kyle Dubas says he'll only work in Toronto if he works anywhere next season. It's been a really difficult season on his family and he needs to be sure that they're still onboard.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 15, 2023
While that sounds definitive on Dubas's end in a sense, it still leaves the situation up in the air as he may decide to step away and take some time off next season, or the Maple Leafs could opt to move on.
Given the current tenor of the conversation surrounding the team, there is very little appetite for any approach that could be considered business as usual. That said, the Maple Leafs would be unwise to become prisoners of the moment and fail to assess the situation rationally.
It's worth asking whether Dubas has, in fact, done a good job with this group — and whether offering him another contract is a viable way forward for this team.
The case for retaining Dubas
Regular-season success is not impressive to most Maple Leafs fans by now, but a general manager is rarely shown the door when his team produces a 221-109-42 record under his watch over a five-year span.
Toronto has the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL since Dubas took over as GM prior to the 2018-19 season. As easily as that record has been dismissed in light of the playoff disappointments, that's hard to do. Dubas has built teams that perform well over large sample sizes.
If we divide Dubas' team-building into three sections — trades, free agency, and the draft — it's the first two areas where he's recorded the most wins.
His trade deadline moves this year, for instance, clearly improved the roster as Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn have both been top-four defenceman for the team during the playoffs, while Ryan O'Reilly has produced at nearly a point-per-game clip. Dubas also snagged Boston's first-round draft pick (via Washington) by shipping out Rasmus Sandin to help mitigate the loss of the draft capital in the other deals.
Moves to grab Mark Giordano prior to the 2021-22 playoffs and Jake Muzzin before 2019-20 also look like hits — although Muzzin's subsequent injury problems have put a damper on his Maple Leafs tenure, and 2020 contract extension. Jack Campbell's Maple Leafs career didn't end on the best note, but he had a .915 save percentage over two-and-a-half years in Toronto. He was also nothing short of outstanding in the 2020-21 playoffs, despite the team's failure to advance. Even Ilya Lybuskin was a sneaky-good add heading into last year's playoffs.
In free agency, Dubas can hang his hat on acquiring valuable contributors on bargain contracts with a slew of signings with salaries under $2.5 million that include Ilya Mikheyev, Calle Järnkrok, Ilya Samsonov, David Kämpf, Ondrej Kase, Giordano, and Jason Spezza.
Dubas was constantly working with serious salary cap constraints, and within that context he showed himself to be an adept bargain shopper. Of course, those limitations came as a result of his investment in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner — and to a lesser extent, William Nylander.
At the time those contracts were signed, Dubas had reason to believe that the salary cap would go up the way it had in the past. Five years before he took over as the Leafs GM, the cap sat at $64.3 million, but it was $79.5 million when he assumed the role. In the five years since, the growth has slowed to a crawl, as the number currently sits at $82.5 million.
When Dubas started building his Core Four, you could argue that he was making a prudent move locking in players at a price that projected to get better and better over the years. Circumstances beyond his control — most prominently the Covid-19 pandemic — prevented that from happening.
There's an argument to be made that Dubas did a good job of mitigating the damage that unforeseeable events did to a fundamentally sound plan.
The case for letting Dubas go
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Maple Leafs fans who's keen to keep Dubas in the driver's seat, and the argument that his tenure has run its course has some solid evidence behind it.
If you take the 30,000-foot view, the fact of the matter is that the executive built everything around Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander, and those players proved unable to drive playoff success on numerous occasions. He believed in his guys and tweaked the team around them, but the results never came.
He also hand-picked a coach in Sheldon Keefe who couldn't get his team over the hump, and stood by him through thick and thin. That's admirable on a human level, but Dubas' insistence on staying the course could be seen as his undoing in Toronto.
Going through the general manager's transaction logs, there are also plenty of notable misses. Signing Petr Mrázek was a disastrous move that looked questionable at the time. Staying in the crease, Dubas once traded a third-round pick to get four games out of David Rittich, and took on most of Matt Murray's contract in a deal that looks rough with the veteran unable to stay healthy.
Trading a first-round pick for Nick Foligno at the 2021 trade deadline in a bid to add a gritty veteran presence was an indefensible move that seemed to run counter to the executive's preference for skill over sandpaper. Foligno had 16 points in 42 games at the time of the deal.
Moving off Nazem Kadri in a deal that netted the team milquetoast utility forward Alex Kerfoot and defenceman Tyson Barrie — who gave the team one middling season — was a disaster. Kadri's history as a postseason loose cannon was well-documented, but he went on to produce 34 points in 33 playoff games with the Colorado Avalanche, playing a major role in their 2021-22 Stanley Cup victory.
Those are a couple of cherry-picked transactions, but while Dubas often won on the margins with his roster building, his losses tended to prove more consequential.
His inability to hit in the draft has also been a significant issue. The Maple Leafs have drafted 35 players since Dubas took the reigns, and only nine of them have appeared in the NHL. Two have played more than 37 games, and neither remain with the organization at the moment.
Matthew Knies looks like a keeper, and there may still be hope for Nick Robertson, but the pipeline is unimpressive. The Athletic placed the Toronto Maple Leafs 18th in their prospect pool rankings in January, which might even be on the generous side. There are players that Dubas drafted that the jury's still out on, but the early returns are unambiguously unimpressive.
Part of that is due to the fact the team hasn't had many high picks, and even one mid-round hit would've done the cap-strapped Maple Leafs a world of good.
If you consider using Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander as a foundation to build a team on as a fundamental error, then the case against Dubas is extremely simple. He picked the wrong guys. There is more nuance in the situation than that, though.
Extending Matthews was a no-brainer. Nylander has provided excellent value on his contract and his playoff production (0.79 points per game) closely aligns with his regular season work (0.83). Marner is an elite offence producer with a Selke Trophy nomination in his pocket.
When Dubas extended all of those guys, he figured he was locking in players who would steadily improve while a growing cap made them cheaper and cheaper each year. That's a tough strategy to knock.
If you have beef with this Core Four, you're either coming down against the Tavares signing, which is fair given his decline in recent years, or you think they've been given too much rope and should've been broken up earlier.
That point of view is reasonable. But you don't need to believe it to think that Dubas isn't the right guy to lead the Maple Leafs into their new chapter. His choice of coach, poor draft record, and notable trade whiffs could be enough.
Any debate over Dubas doesn't have to devolve into a repetitive referendum on whether Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander have the gumption, will, or toughness to be winners. You can fit in any adjective you want to describe something that can never truly be known or explained.
We'll know what that group can do in the playoffs when their careers are over. Even if these were players capable of attaining playoff glory, it's possible that Dubas made enough mistakes around them to ensure they couldn't do it in Toronto.