June 23, 2024

Brighton Journal

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With Kyle Dubas out as general manager, the Maple Leafs plunged into chaos and uncertainty

With Kyle Dubas out as general manager, the Maple Leafs plunged into chaos and uncertainty

TORONTO – Game 5 was hours away.

The Maple Leafs were down by elimination in Game 4 and were slated to host the Panthers in hopes of keeping their season alive again. Their head coach, Kyle Dupas, had just watched an optional morning skate at Scotiabank Arena and was back in the Leafs’ home locker room.

The feelings weren’t great.

“Even my guy Jimmy turned negative,” Dubas said as he passed by, referring to one of the happy security guards.

Even Jimmy, apparently, didn’t think Dubas would return as Leafs GM. “I hope to see you again one day,” he said to Dupas.

Exactly one week later, Brendan Shanahan kicked Dupas out of his office at the team’s training facility in Etobicoke.

In a largely unfamiliar way, Shanahan offered his account of the events leading up to this shocking but not so shocking decision. His explanations didn’t exactly count and I left a lot of unanswered questions. (Shanahan answered the questions for less than 15 minutes.)

He left the impression of an organization that willingly plunged itself into chaos and enormous uncertainty at a time when both Auston Matthews and William Nylander were due for extensions, the organization had an earth-shattering star trade to make, major roster question marks to address, and a new coach to be appointed (or no).

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Even more baffling, and at the root of the whole fiasco, is the Leafs’ decision (was it ownership, Shanahan’s, or both?) not to extend Dubas’ contract in the first place outside of last season.

As Shanahan himself said of any lame duck situation, “It’s definitely not perfect. “

In short: Would the Leafs have fired Dubas on Friday if he was already under contract? The answer is almost certainly no. This leads you to wonder why the Leafs decided to fire Dubas at all, especially when they committed to bringing him back just a few days earlier.

Shanahan said he approached Dubas last summer and told him he wouldn’t get an extension.

“I tried to reassure him that it wasn’t a reflection on his future with the club,” Shanahan said.

But what exactly He was is a reflection of? The Leafs were off to, quite literally, the best regular season in franchise history, and had held the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink in seven games.

What exactly did the Leafs need to see from GM at that point? Was it just a matter of parting success? Shanahan didn’t elaborate on the matter, which he refused to take up last fall, on Friday.

The Leafs president, who celebrated his ninth anniversary with the team in April, said Dubas had an “amazing” vacation in the summer of 2022.

“We had some tough choices to make,” he said, no doubt referring, among other things, to the decision to move on from Jack Campbell. “I think Kyle did an excellent job.”

Shanahan went on to praise Dupas’ performance throughout an “excellent regular season”, particularly his work at the trade deadline, when he took on, among others, Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Shane, and Noel Accciari.

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“Actually, I thought again, Kyle did an excellent job,” Shanahan said.

(Nathan Dennett/The Canadian Press via AP)

So excellent that the Leafs were interested in renewing his contract. Again, Shanahan approached Dubas in his office, according to Shanahan’s account of events, and told him that he had “seen enough on my mind that I want him to be our general manager moving forward.”

That was in the middle of March, according to Shanahan.

But what exactly did he see at that point that he didn’t actually see? What was truly All sheets changed? The assumption has always been that Dubas’ extension was tied to postseason success. But then, apparently, that was not the case after all.

Once again, the Dubas Leafs were a very good team in the regular season. Just like it was in the previous season and the season before that. Why was the Leafs willing to extend Dubas’ contract in March if not in July, August or September? Was ownership suddenly on board when it wasn’t there before, and if so, why?

Does not make sense.

Shanahan said he asked Dubas to look into the possibility. Shanahan made it clear that if he was in fact interested in an extension, he would take ownership. Dubas didn’t want to worry about his contract when the playoffs began. (But was he OK with Dubas having that idea in the back of his mind when he was juggling the team during the regular season?)

A week later, Shanahan said Dupas had thought about it and wanted to go ahead with the extension. Shanahan pointed in his agent’s direction.

By the end of the regular season, after what he said were good talks with Dubas’ agent, Shanahan felt they had “a done deal that pretty much reflects what he wants financially and what he wants as a general manager, what’s important to him.”

On that Friday night, when the Leafs’ season ended in the fifth game against the Panthers, Shanahan again told Dupas that he “did a good job.”

They texted again on Sunday and according to Shanahan, they seem to be getting along after another in-person meeting. Shanahan provided what he said was a contract modeled after the one he and Dubas’ agent had discussed.

“We talked about how, quite frankly, it’s been hard on all of our families,” Shanahan said.

Dubas then solemnly and emotionally acknowledged these facts when he addressed the media on Monday afternoon. Dubas said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to return to the GM position after a particularly “taxing” year for him and his family. Shanahan said his view of bringing Dubas back was when GM began to change.

He came home that night and started wondering. But not to the point where he was ready to move on right away. No, Shanahan was still hell-bent on bringing Dubas back. The two met on Wednesday, according to Shanahan, and discussions continued.

“I probably had more questions than answers, and I just didn’t have the clarity,” Shanahan said. “It made me feel like there was a strong possibility…he might not want to be the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Despite starting the season without an extension to his GM contract, Shanahan said he was beginning to imagine what the Leafs would like with a different GM. In other words, the Leafs didn’t have a clear backup plan to this point.

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Shanahan said he heard from Dubas’ agent on Thursday and was offered what he said was a new “financial package.”

More money in other words.

Just before dinner, Shanahan said, Dupas emailed to say he’d like to come back. After some soul-searching, in the wake of a disappointing season, he committed to becoming a GM again.

“At this point, if I’m being honest, I’ve come to a different place about how I feel about the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs and what’s best,” Shanahan said. “The email I got from Kyle, I felt differently. And I felt that the long-term future of the Maple Leafs might have to change.”

Dubas in his early days with The Leafs. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This means that it wasn’t Dubas’ job performance that worried him and ultimately cost him his job. Quite the opposite. Shanahan has repeatedly stressed how happy he is with the job Dupas has done. This is why the Leafs are willing to stick with it before the playoffs.

No. What apparently irritated them was Dupas’ brief reluctance to return for days. Although the Leafs had left him hanging out without a contract all season, a moment of indecision on his part caused them to dramatically change course and plunge into the depths of the unknown.

Which honestly seems like an unusual way to do business, especially with all this urgent work ahead.

Section 1 was Dubas. known commodity. Someone who built relationships with players and especially the stars, but also someone who seemed ready, finally, to change course and maybe move on from one of those stars. Someone built the Leaf in a high-performance process.

Door 2 was a huge question mark.

The Leafs picked Door 2 and the giant question mark, all because Dupas apparently hesitated.

This giant Question Mark will now be tasked with convincing Matthews to stay by July 1, trade one of those superstars, and presumably find a new coach to replace Sheldon Keefe, the Dupas man. All in a matter of weeks. And since these decisions are so huge, franchise-changing, the Leafs will obviously be looking for someone with experience – greatly narrowing the pool of candidates to those who’ve been GMs before.

He may not necessarily be the best person for the job.

Does this mean that said person will do a better job than Dubas? maybe. Maybe not. This person will walk into an organization they are completely unfamiliar with and will nonetheless have to perform a series of massive in a matter of weeks.

Not great!

The Leafs could have simply brought Dubas back to do the work he started.

“For me, there’s an urgent need to do that,” Shanahan said of finding a new GM. “I don’t think it needs to be rushed. I really want to say, I’m not going to do it in a (rushed) way. I want to be very thoughtful and thorough, but I think it’s a priority and it needs to happen soon.”

which sounds a lot like “needs to hurry”.

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It will have to be expedited because of the timing of all this. The timing could have been avoided had the Leafs simply extended Dubas last summer.

The whole process Dupas built might be done in the process (Jason Spezza actually quit), all because he hesitated.

And what now with Matthews? Would he want to stick with the Leafs without knowing much about the next GM? Would he prefer to wait and see how things go? and what? The Leafs can’t possibly trade Matthews, but what if he doesn’t sign that extension?

Is the next general manager, someone who doesn’t know Nylander or Mitch Marner as well as Dupas did, someone who might assume the worst, will this person properly execute a deal involving one or both of them? Will they sign ridiculous contracts in free agency as some of Dubas’ predecessors have done, including the one Dubas replaced in 2018? Will they hire the right coach if Keefe is not reinstated?

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This decision should shed a brighter light on Shanahan.

He will appoint its third general manager in less than 10 years. He moved to Dubas from Lou Lamoriello after three seasons and has now decided to replace Dubas after five seasons. He wears the ultimate foliage failures more than anyone else.

It was Shanahan who decided to hire a coach – Mike Babcock – before he even had a general manager. It was Shanahan who brought in Mark Hunter to run the Leafs project (which backfired). It was Shanahan who had Hunter and Dupas run the Leafs together when the Leafs hadn’t yet hired that general manager (Lamoriello).

It was Shanahan who cleared the entire front office after the 2014-15 season.

It was Shanahan who uprooted Dubas from Sault Ste. Marie. Shanahan was overseeing the Leafs when he and Dupas sat down together one summer day in 2018 to announce the signing of John Tavares. Shanahan was in charge when the Leafs lost in the first round the two seasons before Dupas took over and the four since.

It was Shanahan who changed the Leafs’ direction when he promoted Dubas to GM. It’s Shanahan now leading the Leafs into the unknown.

“We had a good relationship all year,” Shanahan said of Dubas last season.

But something clearly changed that day when Shanahan told Dupas that he wouldn’t be extended. In previous seasons, the two watched the Leafs play side by side in a special box. This season has changed. Dubas looked out of the press box for the first time alongside Spezza, Brandon Pridham, and several members of the front office.

But not Shanahan.

“Kyle was instrumental in defining where this organization is today,” Shanahan said. “I have to think, how do we get to where we want to go in the future and what are the best ways to be better and what are the new ideas and new ideas.”

And who will be the person who will lead this process?

Outside of Shanahan, that’s the big unknown now, the unknown Shanahan chose when Dubas hesitated.

(Top photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)