Over the past three seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have overhauled their organization: they brought in a completely new management team led by President Brendan Shanahan, General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello, and head coach Mike Babcock, and instilled a new team culture by trading away key players Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf and drafting young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
The past few months have shown that this trend of revitalization is not yet complete. On April 30, Lou Lamoriello stepped down from his role as Leafs GM, eventually leaving the organization altogether to join the New York Islanders. The newly vacated GM position was filled less than two weeks later by then Assistant GM Kyle Dubas, leaving him with the proverbial keys to the city.
Not only does Dubas’ promotion mark a figurative changing of the guard — for the Leafs and the hockey world at large — it also signifies a shift in how the organization will function on a practical level.
Dubas in the Soo
Dubas first cut his teeth in the hockey world working for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). At the ripe age of 11, he became a stick boy for the Greyhounds, and was eventually promoted to Assistant of Hockey Operations at only 14. While completing his undergraduate degree in sports management at Brock University, Dubas also worked as a scout for the Greyhounds.
Fast forward to 2011: the Greyhounds were in search of a new general manager after missing the playoffs in four of the last eight seasons. The Board of Directors was looking for someone with a new vision for the franchise and unanimously decided that 25-year-old Dubas was the man for the job, making him the second-youngest GM in OHL history.
Following his appointment as GM of the Greyhounds, Dubas rapidly became a maverick in the hockey world. In November 2011, only a couple months into his first season as GM, Dubas made a blockbuster trade with the Windsor Spitfires that saw two players and six draft picks exchanged for 19-year-old goaltender Jack Campbell, a first round pick by the Dallas Stars in the 2010 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft. The move was just the beginning of Dubas’ bold, forward-thinking approach to managing a hockey club.
One of Dubas’ most controversial moves came just a year later, in December 2012, when he hired Sheldon Keefe to coach the Greyhounds. Dubas’ decision was met with great apprehension, as the former OHL player was known for his belligerent behaviour (most notably refusing to shake the commissioner’s hand during his team’s trophy presentation). Keefe, however, led the Greyhounds to two playoff berths in three seasons, including a West Division championship in 2014.
Over his three-year tenure, Dubas transformed the Greyhounds from a struggling franchise to a perennial contender. Even after Dubas’ departure in 2014, the foundations that he built helped the Greyhounds win the West Division title in 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as the Hamilton Spectator Trophy for the most points in the OHL in 2015 and 2018.
Dubas joins the Leafs
When Brendan Shanahan became President and Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs in April 2014, it was clear that he intended to rebuild and revitalize the organization. That July, Shanahan fired Assistant GM Claude Loiselle and VP of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin and hired Dubas as Assistant GM. Shanahan was clearly counting on Dubas to revive the Leafs in the same way he had done for the Greyhounds three years prior.
Dubas was quickly given a variety of roles. His first task was to build an analytics department for the Leafs who, at the time, were severely lacking in the area. Among Dubas’ hires were Yahoo data journalist Cam Charron, trained statistician Rob Pettapiece, and creator of popular hockey stats site Extra Skater Darryl Metcalf.
Dubas’ second key role was as GM for the Toronto Marlies, the minor league affiliate of the Maple Leafs. This is the role that truly placed Dubas in the public eye.
In 2015, Dubas once again hired Keefe to coach the Marlies. Just as he had done with the Greyhounds, Keefe led the Marlies to the top of the regular season standings twice in three years. Just this week, the Marlies won the Calder Cup Finals against the Texas Stars to claim their first championship in franchise history, and another feather for Dubas’ cap.
The success of the Marlies is reflected in its development of prospective NHL players: William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Travis Dermott all played for the Marlies and graduated to the Leafs during Dubas’ tenure. Timothy Liljegren, Garrett Sparks, and several other Marlies are also looking at NHL roles in the near future, demonstrating the young GM’s aptitude for developing talent and building long term success.
Perhaps the most intriguing — and telling — of Dubas’ work as assistant GM was during the NHL Entry Draft in April 2015. Just two months prior to the draft, Shanahan fired GM Dave Nonis, head coach Peter Horachek, and other key members of the Leafs staff, leaving Assistant GMs Dubas and Mark Hunter in charge of the draft.
Although there were signs of a cultural shift during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft when the Leafs selected slick Swedish playmaker William Nylander at eighth overall instead of big-bodied Canadian Nick Ritchie, the 2015 Draft marked the real breakaway to a Leafs based on speed and skill — a far cry from former President and GM Brian Burke’s pursuit of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
The Leafs would go on to select diminutive winger Mitch Marner at fourth overall over potentially safer players. Once again, Dubas seemed to be making a high risk, high reward pick, with questions surrounding Marner’s ability to translate his game to the NHL level. But Marner’s production over the past two seasons has clearly paid off Dubas’ gamble.
The Leafs continued drafting for skill, selecting smooth skating defenceman Travis Dermott 34th overall, crafty winger Jeremy Bracco 61st overall, and playmaker Dmytro Timashov at 125th overall, amongst several other intriguing picks.
The 2015 draft may be considered the Leafs’ most successful pick from top to bottom in recent history as they bolstered their organization with skill and depth, almost instantly moving them from one of the worst prospect pools in the league to one of the most promising. Dermott has become a professional NHL defenceman, while later picks Bracco, Timashov, Lindgren, and Dzierkals are closely watched prospects. Regardless of whether these players reach the NHL or not, Dubas’ approach was a refreshing step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the 2016 and 2017 drafts returned to the old as Lamoriello opted for players with size, physicality, and grit, the complete opposite of Dubas’ focus. Outside of first overall pick Auston Matthews in 2016 and 17th overall Timothy Liljegren in 2017, the Leafs accumulated very few high prospect players in these two draft classes.
What Dubas’ promotion means moving forward
Following his promotion to GM, Dubas now holds more power and freedom than ever before. He has already begun to build his own management group, promoting salary cap and contract mastermind Brandon Pridham to Assistant GM while recruiting scout and player development specialist Laurence Gilman as his second assistant GM.
Moving forward, we will likely see a much stronger reliance on analytics and statistics from the Leafs as well as a more modern approach to the draft, free agency, and roster composition. Expect more drafts like that of 2015, where Dubas swings for the fences on skilled players. Do not be surprised if slow, gritty veterans like Roman Polak and Matt Martin are replaced by younger, faster, and often cheaper options as soon as the next season, either through free agency or internal promotion.
When Shanahan hired Dubas, he knew exactly what he was doing and where the game was heading. Just as we’ve seen a shift on the ice towards speed and skill and away from truculence and pugnacity, we will soon see a widespread changing of the guard in hockey management too.
While older executives like Brian Burke and Lou Lamoriello offer crucial knowledge and experience, they often cling to outdated ideas of how hockey is played and how teams should be built. Now it’s time for the next generation to take over, and whiz kids like Dubas will lead the way.